Jake Delhomme made the transition this season from wonder boy to gunslinger. He also cemented himself as a legitimate NFL quarterback and the team's unquestioned leader.
Rodney Peete made one throw this season - but he made it, for three yards. That's what your million dollars buys these days. Peete will go one last year in Carolina and will make a lot of money even if he has to make another three yard throw. Chris Weinke, on the other hand, is wasting away at the end of the bench and he's steamed about it. Perhaps this summer Weinke will find a way to overcome his endless mental mistakes and rise to where he should be - #2 on the depth chart.
The reserves at quarterback elicit a collective shrug, until, that is, you get to Rod Rutherford. Rutherford, undrafted out of Pittsburgh, is an intriguing athletic lefty who just might have enough magic to make it in this league. He's raw, but he can throw and he can run. And he doubles for Michael Vick in practices. That has to count for something. A tour in NFLE might do Rutherford some good.
An interesting note: Rutherford signed with Carolina as an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh even though the Panthers' quarterback situation was pretty much set and other teams were offering a better opportunity. He was released in the final cuts before breaking camp and was resigned to the practice squad after clearing waivers. So Rutherford clearly felt something good about the Panthers – and the Panthers certainly felt something good about Rutherford as they elevated him to the regular roster prior to the season finale against the Saints. He was declared inactive for the game, but the move allowed the Panthers to retain right of first refusal on Rutherford. The elevation was more than a mere reward for a season of hard work on the practice squad. It was a message to Rutherford that he figures in the Panthers future plans.
The same cannot be said for Peete and Weinke, and that's perhaps why Rutherford signed with Carolina in the first place. It's just the kind of smart analysis NFL quarterbacks need.
Steven Davis had microfracture surgery on a knee recently and that's always an iffy situation. Give Davis credit, he's in the pool and making headway, but the best prognosis for the aging tailback is a Thanksgiving return and limited action throughout the season. Recovery just takes time, and most players never regain their former abilities. Davis, however, was the perfect hire last year and he will be a part of the team next season despite his injury and age. Carolina rewards dedication and heart, but the Panthers would be wise to go get some depth.
DeShaun Foster is another injury story, though this one involved a bone not a ligament or cartilage. Kids recover easily from bone breaks. Foster will, too. DeShaun will enter training camp absent Davis and the clear #1 running back. He will be out to prove that he can stay healthy, and that he can hold on to the football. Carolina coaches will be watching closely.
Nick Goings can do everything in the backfield and that's a valuable asset. He's a beast on special teams, too. Goings' second half rushing prowess nearly saved the Panthers' season. He'll be a big contributor in '05-'06.
Brad Hoover. Irreplaceable right now. But Carolina should look anyway because Big Brad can't take anti-inflammatories and is slow to heal. Shear guts has kept Hoover on the field. Goings is an able backup, but he doesn't open holes like Hoover does.
Rod Smart's injury may open a door for a younger player, while youngsters Joey Harris, Nick Maddox and Casey Cramer go into training camp with visions of yardage dancing in their heads.
Running back has become a situational position with Delhomme's emergence at quarterback and Henning's propensity to go airborn when things get tough. Having a franchise back is just not the dire need it once was. But it's nice to have one just in case, so I believe the Panthers will draft a running back on day one – and this one will have special teams potential.
My personal favorite is Kansas State back Darren Sproles, the shortest player in the draft. Sproles was named MVP of the Senior Bowl and the Panthers might have to spend a second round pick to get him, though a third rounder would be better. Carolina has enough big backs and the Stump Mitchell comparisons just wont go away.
The big question still looms…will he stay or will he go? Muhsin Muhammad and the Panthers have until February 28 to decide. On March 1, a roster bonus in the amount of $10M kicks in and the Panthers won't pay it. Muhammad wants big bucks, and, my guess is, the Panthers are willing to go far – but not far enough. And that's okay with me.
Carolina has shown a willingness over the years to pay its top players; the team doesn't need to resign Muhammad to prove that they're not skittish with the checkbook. It would be a mistake to award a Top 5 salary to an aging receiver who, though quite the professional, cannot stretch a field, fumbles too much and has periodic and disturbing bouts with the dropsy's.
The Panthers run too much to pay two #1 receivers. Now the Redskins or the Ravens, on the other hand…
Steve Smith's injury in the first regular season game against the Packers was as tragic for the Panthers as it was for Smith. Smith had set the tone of aggression in training camp and the entire roster responded with a stellar and undefeated preseason. Smith's broken leg in Green Bay robbed Carolina of its most dynamic and intense offensive leader, and it took the team half a season to find a new one in Jake Delhomme. All reports for Smith's return are positive and with Smith and Delhomme back together, the emotional reservoir will never be depleted.
Keary Colbert had a record-breaking rookie season for the Panthers. Colbert's maturity, athleticism and field awareness allowed the former Southern Cal standout to ably fill the #2 role in the offense, while Muhammad usurped Smith's #1 receiver spot. Colbert had too many drops during the meat of the season, but proved beyond a doubt that the Panthers were lucky to select him so late in the second round of the 2004 draft. Questions remain as to whether Colbert is really ready for the #2 receiver spot, but the coaching staff won't lose any sleep throwing him back into the fire.
Ricky Proehl has likely played his last game as a Panther. The 37 year-old hinted at retirement after Carolina's season-ending game against the Saints. A full NFL season, including training camp and the preseason, is a long grind for an older player. At this point, however, it would be the player's decision not the team's. If Proehl does, indeed, retire, the Panthers will go after a free agent receiver rather than spend a draft pick on one.
Karl Hankton, the Panthers' fourth receiver and special teams captain, is as valuable to the Fox's overall winning formula as some of the more skilled players in the league. Hankton does it all on special teams and provides adequate play in the offense when called for. He's an unrestricted free agent and it's a testament to his value to the team that the Panthers will work hard to retain him.
The same might be said for Micah Ross. Ross was signed this week to a two-year extension. Drew Carter cannot be evaluated as he is still injured. Fans, however, are hoping that Carter doesn't turn out to be another Jim Turner.
If Proehl and Muhammad do not return for the 2005-2006 season, there is ample talent in reserve. The Panthers would be wise, however, to add a #2-capable wide receiver in free agency or expend a draft pick on one with equal potential.
The 2004-2005 season was a forgettable one for the Panthers' offensive line. Much has been written about the line's bi-polar performance, waxing and waning between smash-mouth effectiveness and the struggle for sheer survival. We will not belabor the point here, only to say that changes are again the order of business in Marty Hurney's master plan for the offseason.
Jordan Gross at left tackle will return, as will guards Travelle Wharton and Tutan Reyes. The front office will work with center Jeff Mitchell's on a contract extension to reduce Mitchell's 2005 cap number and to lock the line leader up for a few more years.
And that's about it for the offensive line.
2002 second round draftee Bruce Nelson had surgery on both hips last summer and the latest word is that Nelson may be out permanently. That's not good news since the Panthers' only remaining depth is Doug Brzezinski, who may be released for salary cap reasons. Todd Fordham, a part time starter at left tackle, may be brought back at a minimum salary, mainly because Carolina will have to forward a sixth or seventh rounder to the Steelers to satisfy an early-season trade. Dave Kadela and Rich Tylski are another of those rotisserie linemen who may or may not warrant a camp invite, and may or may not give the Panthers the kind of veteran guard depth the team needs. Though he was a valuable reserve on Carolina's 2003-2004 Super Bowl squad, the Panthers will send starting right tackle Matt Willig best wishes for his retirement hopes of becoming an actor.
In effect, with the exception of Gross and Mitchell, the entire offensive line may either be gone, replaced or moved to a different position. This will be the second offseason in a row that the line deserves attention, and that's a disturbing trend. Sure, the Panthers got hosed by Adam Meadows' sudden retirement, but a failure to overcome injury or departure this summer could have disastrous effects.
The Panthers believe that guards can be grown, but tackles take a special player. Expect right tackle to be the front office's highest offensive line priority. Free agency is the most likely source, but a high draft pick may be added as well. Guards may be found at any place in the draft and are often abundant in free agency. The Panthers will be most concerned about adding experience and depth behind Wharton and Reyes.
Whatever happens, Hurney better get this one right. The Panthers can't afford to go into the season with questions on the offensive line.
To be continued later this week in part 4 of 5; The Defense.
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- Carolina Panthers Offseason Blueprint: Part 1 of 5
- Carolina Panthers Offseason Blueprint: Part 2 of 5