With the preseason drawing to a close and opening day right
around the corner, it's time to evaluate the team's performance and note any
improvements or lack thereof.
Defensive Line – The big boys up front have
lived up to their billing as one of the league's best with ferocious play all
preseason long. Mike Rucker and
Julius Peppers are in top form, flying off the edges and dominating most tackles
they face. Rucker looked
particularly impressive in his match-up against the Redskins' Chris Samuels,
one of the most respected tackles in the NFL.
All Rucker did was manhandle Samuels the entire game, exhibiting his
power and speed. One would be hard
pressed to find a better tandem of defensive ends in the conference.
Kris Jenkins looks to improve on his Pro Bowl season of a year ago, and
the rest of the line rotation looks very solid.
Unquestionably the deepest and strongest unit on the team, look for the
defensive line to set the tone in many games with their dominating play.
Chris Weinke – Surprisingly enough, Weinke
has been the most consistent producer among all the quarterbacks this preseason.
A seemingly forgotten man in the Panthers' offense, Weinke has been
cool and efficient when given playing time.
Considering Peete's age and Delhomme's struggles, it would seem
logical that Weinke might see his position on the depth chart rise.
However, the coaching staff insists Weinke will remain the 3rd
quarterback for now.
Receivers – Muhsin Muhammad looks
rejuvenated and could possibly be returning to his Pro Bowl form of years ago.
Ricky Proehl looks fantastic so far and has caught almost everything
thrown his direction. He should be
a great option on 3rd down. Walter
Young has also been a factor this preseason and the coaches will be looking for
ways to utilize his size (6'4) in short-yardage situations.
Kevin Dyson's injury is still a big blow, but it is encouraging to see
the rest of the receivers are ready to step up their level of play,
Nickel back – Rick Manning Jr., drafted
out of UCLA in the 3rd round, has displayed some playmaking ability
and shows promise as a slot defender. He
plays bigger than his size (5'9) and relies on his very solid technique.
Apparently the team had improved so much at this position it was allowed
to cut reliable corner Emmanuel McDaniel, who saw a lot of game action last year
in the nickel and dime packages. Look
for Manning to be a strong contributor this season and battle with Dante Wesley
for the nickel back position.
Victories – While preseason success
doesn't always translate into real success during the season, winning these
exhibition games can definitely be a confidence booster.
In fact, the Panthers won all their preseason contests and enter the
season looking to continue the hot streak they finished last year with.
Personal trauma – Mark Fields and Sam Mills
were both recently diagnosed with cancer, casting a cloud over an otherwise
fantastic preseason. Fields is
currently under treatment for Hodgskin's disease and will miss the entire
season. Fields was arguably the
best free agent pickup of last year, adding veteran leadership and a high level
of play. He has kept an optimistic
outlook and doesn't want the team to lose focus while he battles this disease.
Coach Mills, a former Panther himself, also was diagnosed with cancer and
will be very limited during the upcoming year.
It was obvious during the final preseason game that the players were
burdened (rightfully so) by the sudden news.
The best thing the team can do right now is going out and win games.
Hopefully there will be good news regarding both men's illnesses and
the organization can move on from this emotional setback.
Safety depth – Damien Richardson's knee
injury could develop into a troubling concern for Coach Fox.
Richardson was a quality backup who knew the system well.
With him out, the team will look to a number of players to fill his void
behind Deon Grant and Mike Minter. Colin
Branch, a fourth round picks, is very inexperienced and hasn't shown the
ability to step in for either starter at this point.
Jarrod Cooper is a big hitter and has made some strong plays against the
run. However, his coverage ability
is lacking and he can be caught out of position.
Deke Cooper was recently cut, making the depth that much thinner.
Injuries – While the Panthers haven't been hit with any major injury, the few they have had pose a concern. Mark Fields was their most active linebacker last year and his experience will be missed on the field. He was a fantastic blitzer and made a lot of the defensive calls. Terrance Wilkins showed some promise as a punt returner before being placed on injured reserve. The team would like to find a consistent player to man those special team duties in order to give Steve Smith a break.