Battle for Depth: Offense

Its like something out of a bad Keanu Reeves movie. If you were to look at the Carolina Panthers depth chart one year ago today, below the starters you would see rookies, journeymen, late round draft picks, and cast offs from other teams. However, after an injury-riddled 2004 campaign which saw 14 players on injured reserve, that same rag tag group of backups stepped up and become starters.

While most teams have gone into camp with their roster pretty much set, the Panthers set foot on the fields of Wofford College knowing that they had some tough decisions to make. While the starters for many of the positions are easy to figure out, Coach John Fox makes no secret that each and every job is up for grabs, and this year, he means it more than ever.

A lot of talk has centered around which three quarterbacks the Panthers will keep on the roster, and what the depth chart will consist of. Currently, Jake Delhomme, Chris Weinke, Stefan LeFors, and Rod Rutherford make up the quarterback roster for Carolina, but chances are that one of them will be relegated to the practice squad.

Jake Delhomme

Delhomme will certainly remain the starter when Week 1 rolls around, barring any kind of injury. Most project Weinke to be Delhomme's backup, a step up from his third string status last year. After being behind Rodney Peete for two years, Weinke finally has a chance to prove he is capable of handling the backup role, and if his preseason game against the Redskins is any indicator (6/9, 79 yds, 1 TD), he is ready to accept the position. Weinke looked cooler in the pocket than he has in years, and showed he has experience in the system that LeFors and Rutherford lack.

So, who gets the third string nod, and who goes to the practice squad? Rutherford, who has one year of experience under his belt, worked the third quarter against Washington, completing his only pass for 12 yards. However, he was sacked twice for 11 yards, once for holding onto the ball too long, and the other on his second snap as he fumbled the ball between the center/quarterback exchange. LeFors, on the other hand, looked a little more collected after getting his rookie jitters out, going 5 for 8 with two touchdowns. While Rutherford knows the system, and is physically more gifted than LeFors, look for Stefan to get the third string spot.

DeShaun Foster

Running Backs
Perhaps the most talked about position in camp is running back. While most other teams have two backs they like to alternate, the Panthers could practically throw anybody back there for them to produce. Carolina's top four running backs went down last year, giving even the back up fullbacks chances to carry the ball. Any number of these guys could step up, depending on how the complex running situation plays out.

Stephen Davis, the marquee back who helped carry the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003, played in just two games last year before undergoing microfracture surgery, a risky procedure that doesn't allow many backs to return. If his rehab picks up, he could get the chance to start a few times this season, but with the depth currently available, look for Carolina to give him the time he needs to come back healthy.

That will put the starting position squarely on the shoulders of DeShaun Foster, who has had two season ending injuries in his career thus far. He certainly has the talent, and a much better offensive line to run behind. Look for number 26 to line up behind the line in the opener against New Orleans.

So where does that leave Nick Goings, the man who gained nearly 1000 yards rushing last year, including 4 straight 100+ yard games, and Eric Shelton, the second round pick from Louisville? Look for Goings to resume his role as backup fullback and special teams gunner. It's a position that suits him naturally, and chances are he will only spell the backs in situational type plays. His determination and the fact that he lays his body out on the line every play will certainly cement his spot. Shelton looks to still be learning the system, despite having impressive physical attributes. Many teammates think that once he learns to lower his shoulders more, along with getting some more game experience, he will be something special. Look for him in a few third and short plays this year, but not for much else while he adjusts to the pace of the NFL.

The remaining guys on the roster will need to prove something during preseason. Rod Smart, Nick Maddox, Casey Cramer and Jamal Robertson all see the depth at the RB position, and know that not only will they have to show up hungry at each practice for their position, but also excel at special teams play. Robertson is poised to give Smart a run for his money, but "He Hate Me" certainly has the experience edge. Cramer plays hungrier than many players in recent memory, but is hunger enough in such a talented backfield? Maddox has talent, but again, with guys that have seen so much playing time, he will have to either be lucky or extremely lucky to make the final cut. Robertson could be an interesting story, as his running style has intrigued the fans, and his ability to return kicks could net him a strong look from the coaches. If Davis doesn't return from the PUP list, Robertson could find himself with a job.

Rod Gardner

Wide Receiver
Possibly the hardest decision to make for the front office will be which of these players to cut. Throughout training camp, the guys have made some superb catches and played their hearts out, but chances are that only six will make the final roster. Currently, Steve Smith, Rod Gardner, Keary Colbert, and Ricky Proehl occupy the top spots (not necessarily in that order). The rest of the receivers are fighting for one, possibly two open spots, and they know that no mistakes can be made if they want a job.

Karl Hankton, while not necessarily a great receiver, has been the special teams leader for several years on the team. Look for him to hang onto one of the open spots, unless his shoulder injury is worse than Fox is letting on. Drew Carter is a player who was a gamble, taken in last year's draft despite a history of injuries. He sat out last year, but so far, Carter's speed and height have had Marty Hurney impressed. Efrem Hill has made some spectacular catches in camp, and has been subbed in to return punts (one for 40 yards against Washington on Saturday) and allow star wideout Steve Smith to concentrate solely on being the teams number one receiver. Tolver and Boone are the other two receivers vying for a spot on the team, and while many teams would be happy to have one of them as their sixth receiver option, don't look for either of them to make the final roster due to Carter's speed and Hill's athleticism. If Carter can work on catching just a little more, look for him to take the sixth spot; if not, Hill's punt returning skills might be enough of an asset to garner him the final place.

Tight End and Offensive Line
When camp started, the tight end position was certainly up for grabs, especially with the arrival of Freddie Jones, and pass- catching TE who didn't seem to fit OC Dan Henning's play style. However, when Jones abruptly retired, it became evident where the lineup was heading. Look for Kris Mangum to remain the starter, with Mike Seidman to lineup on the opposite side during short yardage situations. Michael Gaines will most likely remain the third option, as his pass catching skill have improved slightly, but he doesn't have the blocking skills the other two possess.

Mike Wahle

The offensive line chart made itself quite evident with perhaps the biggest pickup in free agency, as the Carolina Panthers signed Make Wahle from the Green Bay Packers. John Fox has already stated his intention to move Jordan Gross back over to the right side tackle spot, where he is more dominant, and put Wahle in as the left guard. Jeff Mitchell will remain center, and the staff has put much faith in Travelle Wharton, a second year man taking the most important role at LT to protect the quarterback's blind side. Reyes is expected to start at right guard, but Evan Mathis could see time there if he does as well as he did Saturday night.

In fact, when the offensive second team took the field, three of the five linemen were drafted rookies (Mathis and Berger at guard, and Hangartner at center), and allowed Weinke plenty of time to find open receivers. Look for all three rookies to make the final roster.

While the starting 11 for the offense has been all but named, the battle for depth continues during the week at Spartanburg, and could culminate for a few this Saturday in New York. Some excellent players will most likely be cut before the season starts while the roster is trimmed, but that can only mean that even better players remain on the chart.

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