The RB Debacle

With Stephen Davis coming off of microfracture surgery and DeShaun Foster coming off his second IR stint in 3 years, the RB situation in Carolina has taken a turn from what was an area of strength to an area of great concern. Carolina has very little reliable depth at such a vital position in the Panthers' offensive mantra.

2005 will be a make or break season for Stephen Davis, who had microfracture surgery last November.

Davis is progressing well, and isn't limping when walking. It's thought that Davis could return stronger than he was before the injury that ended his 2004 season. Doctors understand more about microfracture surgery since Patrick Jeffers went through the process in the summer of 2000, and players now have a greater chance of returning to the field than they did 5 years ago thanks to that greater understanding.

Davis' running mate, DeShaun Foster, underwent a similar procedure in October of 2002 and returned to participate in Training Camp the following year. Foster didn't get much playing time early on, but was integral in the Panthers' Super Bowl run that season. Foster showed great burst and strength in the playoffs, most notably on a play where he out-muscled 4 Eagles defenders on memorable 1 yard touchdown run in the NFC Championship Game.

Like Foster, Davis could back strong in 2005, but the Panthers may play it safe for at least the first quarter of the season, having Foster and Nick Goings take the majority of the carries until the team feels confident that the former Pro Bowl Running Back is completely healthy. "When you have an injury like this, it can be career ending or you can come through it and play several more years," Davis said. "You have to be smart about it. The thing about my knee injury is that it wasn't as bad as some of the others who have done this."

But the fact remains that Davis has only played one full 16 game season in his 8-year career, and has had a history of injury problems. Just last season he had arthroscopic surgery to clear out torn cartilage in September, before his microfractue surgery. Davis is a hard-running, bruising back whose knees take a tough beating during the season. If Foster emerges as the Starting running back the Panthers thought he'd be when they drafted him in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft, they may part ways with Davis and save themselves some money – money they could then turn around and reward Foster with in a long-term deal. In fact, the Panthers have admitted in the past that had Foster not suffered that season ending and career-threatening injury in the 2002 preseason, they would have never even pursued signing Stephen Davis in 2003.

Davis intends on coming back and proving all the nay-sayers wrong.

"It's pride, but it's more wanting to show the people who want to just throw you away that they are wrong," said Davis. "I hear a lot of people saying that this is career ending for me. It's not career ending for me if I'm smart about it. The way the trainers we have here have been approaching it -- not rushing it or anything -- we have been smart about it. I feel good about that."

Davis will get his chance, but he has to be patient or else he could jeopardize his future. If he feels pressured and tries to do too much too early, it could be disastrous for his career.

However, it is early in the offseason. There still is the draft and free agency, as well as June 1st – the date where teams can cut players and spread their cap hits over the next two seasons.

For now, there are a few Free Agency options that the Panthers could (although unlikely) explore.

A) Trade for Shaun Alexander. Alexander is technically an Unrestricted Free Agent, but the Seahawks have placed the Franchise Tag on him. The Panthers absolutely will not surrender 2 first round picks for signing Alexander outright, (as the rules of signing another teams' Franchise Player dictate), but there could be a trade negotiated between the Seahawks and Panthers that could bring Alexander to Carolina. Seattle has stated that they are willing to take less than a first round pick for Alexander, who is one of the elite running backs in the NFL. Since he did not sign his $6.32 million tender from the Seahawks before the NFL's March 16 deadline, the Seahawks can't sign him to a long term deal until July 15 or else they would give up their franchise tag for the length of the contract they'd sign (which is unlikely). Therefore, a trade could happen – although if it were with the Panthers, they'd have to clear the salary cap space to sign him, which would mean cutting several high-priced veterans just to sign Alexander. It's unlikely that the Panthers would thin out several positions to fortify one.

B) Trade for Travis Henry. The Buffalo Bills are trying to move Henry, who is 2nd on the depth chart behind Willis McGahee and unhappy. The Bills are searching for a 1st day pick in return for Henry, and the Panthers could bite – but again, some salary cap space would have to be cleared in order to make this possible.

C) Sign a mid-level free agent Running back, such as Anthony Thomas, Ron Dayne, Johnathan Wells or the possible free-agent-to-be William Green. The Browns may release Green, who has been a disappointment in Cleveland. Dayne, Thomas and Wells all have been disappointments in their first stops in the NFL as well. The Panthers could hope that one of them would take a minimal contract in hopes of them trying to resurrect what looked early on as promising careers. If they don't get nibbles elsewhere, one on this list could be a real possibility.

The 2005 Running Back draft class is stronger than usual. The Panthers would be wise to use a first day pick on a running back. Although the top 3 backs, (Benson, Brown, Williams) figure to be gone by the time the Panthers pick at 14, there are a few intriguing prospects that could be available to them in the second round.

A) Marion Barber III, Minnesota – at nearly 6' tall and weighing about 200 lbs, Barber has got good size and speed (4.50 40 time) for the Panthers' scheme. He has good vision and balance running, but needs more power – however, he has good burst and is a big-play threat.

B) Ciatrick Fason, Florida – Fason's size (6', 210 lbs.) and speed (4.57 40 time) are attractive to the Panthers, and he has all the physical tools to be successful in the NFL. He doesn't have much experience being an every-down back, but went 3 years without a major injury at Florida. Fason is considered an excellent receiver out of the backfield. His one negative is that he wasn't asked to pass-block much in college, which would be a must with the Panthers.

C) Eric Shelton, Louisville – A big back, (6' 1", 245 lbs.) Shelton is more of a Jamal Lewis kind of back that the Panthers could use to pound defenses into submission. He's a straight ahead runner that thrives between the tackles, and has a good eye for lanes and holes. He has decent speed (4.53 40 time) but is not elusive. He's not considered much of a blocker or receiver, but is a battering-ram runner that the Panthers could use to convert 3rd and short situations.

D) Vernand Morency, Oklahoma State - Morency, standing 5' 9" and weighing in at 212 lbs. is an Ahman Green type runner who has good burst and explosiveness, but lacks strength. Mainly thought of as an outside runner that can turn the corner and can out-run many defenders. Played some minor league baseball and is older than most teams would prefer.

Drafting a back in the second or third round would ensure that they would have a back-up plan in the event Davis doesn't come back as expected and Foster either leaves via free agency after the upcoming season or is injured in the 3rd out of 4 seasons with the team.

The Panthers must address the running back position in the offseason to give them a chance at the post-season. None of the backs they have on the current roster – Goings, Smart, Robertson – are able of being the running threat that the Panthers need to be effective. If the Panthers have to rely on a lower-echelon runner as their feature back, their passing game will also suffer, causing the offense to sputter and the defense to be on the field too long, losing it's effectiveness. They've upgraded the offensive line already, Smith is back healthy and Colbert has a year of experience under his belt. They need to now fortify the one position vital to their offensive success… Running Back.

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