Yes, Jake Delhomme is still the man in Carolina. Some questioned whether the Panthers had soured on Delhomme when they signed Carr this off-season, but coach John Fox is committed to Delhomme as his starter. Delhomme had gotten the Panthers to the NFC title game (and one Super Bowl) twice in the last four years. Both previous appearances were in odd-numbered years (2003 and 2005). However, Carr gives Carolina a significant upgrade over Chris Weinke if Delhomme were to struggle early in the season or get injured. Carr seems content being a backup for now while regaining his confidence after getting sacked 249 times in five years with the Houston Texans. Delhomme is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,805 yards with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. However, he had a pair of late fourth quarter interceptions against Cincinnati and Philadelphia that cost the Panthers two crucial games. The Panthers like Basanez who, like Delhomme, was an undrafted player. However, they kept just two quarterbacks on the roster last season and there's a chance they could do the same again in 2007.
Foster led the Panthers in rushing last season, but he still hasn't posted a 1,000-yard season since joining the club as a second round draft pick in 2002. Foster, who stayed healthy for the most part last year after missing just two games, will share carries with Williams, a first-round pick in 2006 who played well as a rookie even though he seemed out of place in the Panthers' power running attack. Now that the Panthers have gone to a zone-blocking scheme up front, Williams could really blossom. He also figures to play an important role in the passing offense as new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson plans to utilize more screen passes than his predecessor, Dan Henning. Some believe Williams will be a better fit in this offense than Foster and could become the every down back. Either way, expect both to see significant playing time. Goings is reliable, although not the guy you want to build your running game around. Shelton, a second-round pick in 2005, really needs to prove himself to earn a roster spot. Hoover has been a reliable fullback the last seven years, but his body has to be wearing down. Don't be surprised if the Panthers keep Jackson around as an insurance policy.
The tight end was a huge weapon in Cleveland for Davidson, but he doesn't have a weapon like Kellen Winslow in Carolina. Kris Mangum retired, leaving Gaines, King and rookie Rosario to battle it out. Gaines is the most experienced of the bunch with 15 catches for 146 yards last season. However, he has yet to have a breakout season. King has looked solid in minicamp and has a chance to emerge as the starter.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Steve Smith, Drew Carter. Backups -- Dwayne Jarrett, Ryne Robinson, Keary Colbert, Taye Biddle, Chris Horn, Jason Gilmore, Julius McClellan, Justin McCullum, Kevin Youngblood, Josh Davis.
The Panthers tore up Smith's contract earlier this off-season and gave him a six-year contract worth $44 million. He's earned it. Smith has turned into one of the top five receivers in the league, recording 83 receptions for 1,166 yards with eight touchdowns grabs in 2006 despite missing the first two games of the season with a hamstring problem. With Keyshawn Johnson gone, Smith should have no problem reaching 100 receptions and returning to the Pro Bowl for a fourth time providing his hamstring problems don't resurface. Smith is now the veteran receiver of the bunch. Carter and Jarrett, a second-round pick from USC, will battle for the No. 2 receiver spot. So far Carter is working with the starters. Jarrett has shown a knack for the end zone with an amazing 41 touchdown catches in three seasons with Southern Cal. Robinson should also figure into the offense as a slot receiver. The Panthers are high on Biddle, but Colbert could be on his way out unless he steps up in the preseason.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Travelle Wharton, LG Mike Wahle, C Justin Hartwig, RG Jeremy Bridges, RT Jordan Gross. Backups -- T Rashad Butler, C Ryan Kalil, C/G Geoff Hangartner, T/G Evan Mathis, C Will Montgomery, G D'Anthony Batiste, G Nathan Bennett, T Eric Graham, T Bobby Harris, G Rueben Riley, T Theodric Watson.
The Panthers' offensive line was decimated by injuries last season as they lost Wharton and Hartwig in the season opener. That forced major changes, with Gross moving over to left tackle and Hangartner having to handle center duties. The Panthers signed Bridges off the street and he came in right away and started at right tackle. This year, those injuries may be a blessing in disguise as now they have some reserves with solid experience like Hangartner and Mathis, who started last year at right guard. This line is trying to grasp the zone-blocking scheme, but they've been eager for changes. You get a sense this is what the Carolina players wanted to use all along. This isn't an overly big group of guys, but they are athletic so the zone blocking may play to their strengths. The Panthers allowed 32 sacks last year, but Carolina averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and scored just seven rushing touchdowns.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Mike Rucker, LDT Kris Jenkins, RDT Ma'ake Kemoeatu. RDE Julius Peppers. Backups -- T Damione Lewis, T Jordan Carstens, E Stanley McClover, E Charles Johnson, E Dave Ball, E Rondell Biggs, E Otis Grigsby, E Jason Hall, DL Gary Gibson, Chad Lavalais, T Stephen Williams, T Brent Curvey, T Marques Thornton.
Once considered the strength of the team, the Panthers' defensive line is filled with question marks beginning with the uncertain future of Jenkins. The three-time Pro Bowl selection didn't show up at the team's OTAs and his agent made it clear Jenkins wants a new deal. However, since Jenkins has missed more games (27) than he's played (21) over the last three seasons and still has three years left on his current contract, don't expect the Panthers to be eager to restructure. Remember, they unsuccessfully tried to trade Jenkins earlier this off-season. If Jenkins is traded, then Lewis would step in to start alongside Kemoeatu, who was average in his first year with Carolina. Rucker is coming off a torn ACL in December, so there are questions about how effective he will be early in the season. Look for McClover to see plenty of playing time as the Panthers work Rucker in slowly. Peppers, who had 13 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures in 2006, is arguably the best defensive player in the NFC and you get the feeling a 20-sack season is very possible. Carolina doesn't have much depth on the line if Jenkins doesn't return but they are high on McClover and Johnson, a third-round pick from Georgia. Carstens is hoping to return despite being sidelined most of last season while battling an ongoing kidney disease.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Thomas Davis, MLB Dan Morgan, SLB Jon Beason. Backups -- SLB Na'il Diggs, WLB Jason Anderson, MLB Tim Shaw, LB Brandon Jamison, MLB Adam Seward, MLB Philippe Gardent, LB Terrence Melton, Mickey Pimentel.
There are more questions at linebacker, beginning with Morgan. He's outstanding when healthy, but has yet to play a full 16-game season since joining the Panthers as a first-round pick in 2001. A fifth career concussion in last year's season opener forced him out of the next 15 games. He's been cleared to play by concussion specialists, but there are no guarantees he will stay healthy. Morgan agreed to forfeit a $2 million signing bonus to remain with the Panthers this off-season. If he sustains another head injury look for Carolina to shift Beason inside. Beason, this year's first-round pick, will likely start on the weak side ahead of Diggs, who was relatively invisible last season. Davis has yet to emerge as the star the Panthers feel he'll become but he's loaded with physical talent and has a huge upside. Anderson played well as a rookie and could play a more prominent role in defense if the Panthers use some four linebacker sets. The depth beyond there is questionable because of the team's decision not to re-sign Chris Draft.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Ken Lucas, RCB Chris Gamble, SS Nate Salley, FS Mike Minter. Backups -- CB Richard Marshall, CB Dion Byrum, S Deke Cooper, S C.J. Wilson, CB Christian Morton, CB Garnell Wilds, CB Curtis Deloatch, CB Kevin Garrett, S Cam Newton, CB Derrick Strait. S Quinton Teal, S Jessie Daniels.
The Panthers are hoping Lucas returns to form after hamstring and shoulder injuries limited his playing time last season. He will be looking to prove people -- including his teammates -- wrong. Lucas said he was hurt and upset when some former teammates suggested he quit on the team by faking injuries last year. The bright side is Marshall, a second-round pick from Fresno State, played extremely well as a rookie in his place. Gamble has great talent, but gets burned far too much. Still, he's a ballhawk. If Lucas can stay healthy the Panthers have three solid corners heading into the season and that is what every team wants. Look for Morton or Wilds to grab the fourth spot. The same can't be said for safety, where the Panthers are extremely thin. Minter will return for one final season, but he's slowed down significantly. As of now, Salley is the other starter but he has limited experience. Cooper is a journeyman who returns to Carolina and could see playing time. Bet the Panthers are wishing they had re-signed Marlon McCree when they had a chance last off-season because they've yet to replace the intensity and fire he brought to the defense. The Panthers will likely add some veteran experience at safety if a player they like comes available. Carolina had just 14 interceptions last season and that number has to increase this year.
Few realize just what an amazing season Kasay had in 2006. Kasay was a perfect 20-for-20 on field goals inside 50 yards. He was 4-for-7 from beyond 50 with misses from 65, 50 and 53 yards. Baker was made the league's highest-paid punter after two solid seasons and Kyle almost never makes a mistake on a snap, so the Panthers are solid in the kicking game. The area they desperately need to improve on is the return game, where they finished last in the NFL in return average on punts (4.6 yards) and kickoffs (19.4 yards). The Panthers drafted Robinson with the hope that he can handle both roles. He was outstanding as a punt returner at Miami of Ohio but returned only eight kickoffs. But the returners might not have been the problem last year so much as it was the guys blocking for them. The Panthers have rid themselves of many of their core special teams guys so the nucleus will change this year. Injuries also had a trickle down affect on the lack on the special teams in '06, forcing many would-be special teams players to handle bigger roles on offense and defense.