DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Julius Peppers, LDT Kris Jenkins, RDT Brentson Buckner, RDE Mike Rucker. Backups -- DE Al Wallace, DE Kemp Rasmussen, DT Shane Burton, DT Kindal Moorehead, DE Kavika Pittman (IR).
The starting front four is under contract through the 2007 season, so don't expect the Panthers to use a high draft pick to address this position. Although this group did not play well in the Super Bowl, they have are perhaps the best group in the NFL. Peppers should have a real breakout season in 2004. Rucker and Jenkins are Pro Bowl players. If there's one question here it's Buckner's health. He's getting older and had a series of nagging injuries during the year including a persistent knee problem. Once the knees start to go on a defensive lineman, retirement is normally right around the corner. Wallace is a free agent and a valuable reserve the Panthers want to keep. Burton is also a solid backup and provides good leadership. Moorehead has untapped potential and the Panthers will have to wait to see how Pittman recovers following a knee injury. But right now don't expect him to be back.
The Panthers are hoping Fields can return from Hodgkin's disease to be an effective player in 2004. He helps create a lot of turnovers and gives the Panthers another speed rusher off the end. He was dearly missed in 2003 and there was a big dropoff in talent from him to Favors, who started all year in his place. Obviously his situation is still unsettled as he continues to undergo chemo treatment. Morgan is one of the game's best middle linebackers when healthy. The problem is he hasn't been able to start a full 16 games in his three seasons in the league. The Panthers built this defense around Morgan and the unit plays 200 percent when he's in there. Witherspoon has been a great draft pick who brings speed and versatility to the lineup. Look for the Panthers to add an outside linebacker and some depth in either the draft or free agency. Allen and Towns probably won't be back next season. Caldwell was a wasted free agent pickup for Carolina and a non-factor in 2003.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Ricky Manning Jr., RCB Reggie Howard, SS Mike Minter, FS Deon Grant. Backups -- CB Terry Cousin, CB Dante Wesley, CB William Hampton, SS Deion Branch, FS Jarrod Cooper, FS Damien Richardson (IR).
Despite an awful Super Bowl appearance, Manning proved to be a worthy starter for the Panthers in the postseason and will maintain that position. Look for Wesley to vie for the starting job next season, especially if the team elects not to re-sign Howard, who is an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers may look to replace Cousin as their nickel back, too. Don't rule out the Panthers drafting a cornerback with the 31st pick in the draft if there's one still available. The Panthers will have to make a decision on whether or not to re-sign Grant, an unrestricted free agent. He has shown some improvement over last season, but is it enough to keep him? Minter is a valuable veteran player, but did get beat too much in the Super Bowl. However, he apparently played the latter stages of that game with a broken foot. Free safety is another option for the Panthers when it comes to the NFL draft, or they may look to fourth-round pick Branch to fill in for Grant. Cooper is a good special teams player, but expect this RFA to receive the minimum league tender given his off-the-field troubles.
Kasay is an unrestricted free agent and has said he wants to continue playing for the Panthers. He didn't earn a lot of respect from the fans when he booted a kickoff out of bounds with 1:08 left in the Super Bowl, setting the Patriots up with prime position to drive for the winning field goal. However, Kasay's season shouldn't be judged on one kickoff. He's a reliable field-goal kicker who booted four game-winners for the Panthers, including three in overtime. And he's long been a popular figure in Charlotte. Sauerbrun has led the league in punting the past three seasons and is under contract for the next four years. The Panthers may look for someone to ease the load for Smith so he can focus on being a receiver. Kyle is also an unrestricted free agent. The question is how much do the Panthers want to pay for a long snapper? Because that's all Kyle does.