John Crist: Jimmy Clausen looked like he was going to be a top-10 pick in April's draft, but he ended up sliding all the way to the middle of the second round before being mercifully taken off the board by Carolina. I know the Panthers needed a quarterback of the future, but did they actually show interest in Clausen before draft weekend, or was this a case of simply taking the best player available at the time?
Michael Lombardo: There is no definitive answer to this question, but it appears this was just the Panthers taking the best player available at a position of need. There was no talk of Carolina making a play for Clausen prior to the draft, but that is understandable given that Clausen was a potential top-10 pick and the Panthers didn't have a selection on the first day of the draft.
GM Marty Hurney started working the phones early on Day 2 to try to move up in the second round and secure Clausen, only to luck out and have Clausen slide to No. 48. This shows Carolina was high on the Notre Dame product, but, at the same time, Hurney never planned on chasing Clausen had his original projection held true. It's worth noting that the Panthers hedged their bet by drafted Cincinnati product Tony Pike later in the draft.
JC: The running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart hasn't really gotten it going yet, or at least not like it did the last two years. Williams has decent numbers thus far, but Stewart in particular looks like he's struggling to find holes. Because the Panthers are having so much trouble throwing the ball, are Williams and Stewart going to see nothing but eight-man fronts the rest of the way?
ML: The odds are stacked against Williams and Stewart repeating their statistical success of last season, when they became the first teammates to top 1,100 yards rushing in the same season. The Panthers' passing game could be historically inept with a rookie QB and a trio of rookie receivers, freeing defenses to completely key on the running game.
Also, because the Panthers are struggling on third down, the offense is not spending enough time on the field for these talented runners to wear down opposing defenses. Williams and Stewart are too good to shut down – as evidenced last week, when they scored TDs from 55 yards and 39 yards out, respectively – but their success will come in short bursts while the offense finds its footing.
JC: One of the most frustrating players to own in fantasy football, as he'll get you 20 points one week but just 2 the next, Steve Smith is going to miss the Bears game because of yet another nagging injury. Carolina has struggled to find Smith some help at receiver ever since Muhsin Muhammad reinvented himself in 2008, so is he the one player this team can't afford to lose?
ML: Smith's absence will hurt, no question. He is the only non-running back to score a TD for the team this season, doing so in Weeks 1 and 2, and leads the team with 13 catches for 174 yards. With him out, defenses will be free to keep eight men in the box and play man coverage against Carolina's inexperienced receivers.
One interesting note: Last week, the Panthers only engineered one offensive drive of more than seven plays. That came on their final offensive series while Smith was in the locker room. That success will be difficult to sustain sans Smith, but players like Dante Rosario, Mike Goodson and David Gettis will get some golden opportunities to pick up the proverbial slack.
JC: Week 5 will be a homecoming of sorts for two Bears, as both Julius Peppers and Chris Harris played their best football in a Panthers uniform. We all know you don't just replace a pass rusher like Peppers, but how has the rotation at defensive end done getting to the passer without him? Since Harris was apparently on his way out of Carolina's starting lineup, have the new Carolina safeties played well?
ML: Carolina's pass rush dominated during the preseason but went AWOL as soon as the games started counting. That notwithstanding, the team feels good about its defensive ends. Charles Johnson has responded well to his promotion into the starting lineup and emerged as an excellent two-way player. Also, the Panthers may have uncovered one of the draft's biggest steals when they plucked Greg Hardy out of Ole Miss in the sixth round.
The Panthers' safeties have run hot and cold this season, yielding too many big plays but making some of their own. Charles Godfrey is tied for the league lead with three interceptions, while sophomore Sherrod Martin made a huge play last week in New Orleans, forcing a Lance Moore fumble to stop a seemingly certain touchdown march on the Saints' opening drive.
JC: The Panthers are 0-4, and while they nearly pulled off the upset in Week 4 at New Orleans, their first three losses – two of them at home – were of the double-digit variety. The schedule doesn't seem to be overly daunting the rest of the way, so is this team capable of making a turnaround and being competitive again? Or is this a worst-case-scenario situation and a full-scale implosion is imminent?
ML: This team will not implode. The locker room is an excellent mix of solid veteran leaders and young players that want to get better. Also, the players respect John Fox and play hard for him.
The problem is the Panthers are simply not talented enough to contend this season. The team underwent a huge youth movement in the offseason and entered 2010 with the youngest roster in the league. There are some talented prospects here that will get better with experience and spearhead the rebuilding charge, but it's unrealistic to think this team can win more than five games this season.
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