Panthers Preseason Review

For the first time in two years, the Carolina Panthers did not go undefeated in the preseason. Instead, the Panthers went 2-2, after losses to the Giants and Steelers. Their record however, is not considered the real loss this preseason, that would have to be SS Colin Branch, who will miss the entire season with a knee injury. Still, the Panthers may have gained more than they've lost, despite a losing preseason record.

In the team's first game, at home against the Washington Redskins, the Panthers looked sharp, coming away with a 28-10 victory. The following week, the Panthers lost their first preseason game since 2002 against the Giants, turning the ball over six times. Against Cleveland, the winning resumed, as Chris Weinke lead a last-minute drive for the win. This past week against Pittsburgh, the starting units – both offense and defense looked dominant, despite a loss in the end. The successful return of Stephen Davis helped to offset the loss, and gives the Panthers more depth at running back than perhaps any other team in football. "I thought he looked good." John Fox said after the game, "I thought our first units on both sides of the ball played exceptional, and Stephen made it through without incident."

The loss of Colin Branch will no doubt be considered the biggest loss of the preseason for the Panthers, who moved rookie Thomas Davis back to safety after a one-week stint at linebacker to compensate. Branch however, was not guaranteed to start, and many believe that between Mike Minter, Davis, and free agent pick up's, Marlon McCree and Idrees Bashir, that he would not have been the starter had he stayed healthy. "You never know. Like I said, I might end up back at free safety." Noted Minter, "Unfortunately, Colin Branch, a guy who had worked hard all offseason to get into the position he was in, is lost for the season. That's tough." Still, any season-ending injury is a big loss, and this one will, if nothing else cost the Panthers valuable depth at safety. The good news for the Panthers is that despite the injury to Branch, they haven't lost much else – in fact, they may have gained much more than they've lost.

From the first snap of the preseason, the Panthers starting offensive line has looked sharp, allowing Jake Delhomme ample time to find open receivers, and opening up holes for Deshaun Foster, Davis, Nick Goings, and Brad Hoover against some formidable defensive fronts. The addition of Mike Wahle has clearly had a positive impact, and Travelle Wharton, who just made the move from left guard to left tackle, appears to have proven that he has what it takes to play tackle at the pro level. Jeff Mitchell has had a great preseason, along with Jordan Gross, and right guard Tutan Reyes appears to have won the position battle for the starting right guard spot over rookie Evan Mathis. "For our first test, I thought they operated well in a game setting." Says Fox of the lines performance against Washington, "We still have a lot of improvement to do throughout our football team, but for our first test I thought they did well." The offensive line, which was a big weakness for the Panthers in '04, looks to be back to it's 2003 Super Bowl form, and perhaps, even better.

On defense, the starting unit has performed well, despite a bad game against the Giants. Perhaps the most talked-about mistake on defense, Dennis Northcutt's long first down catch against Ken Lucas was an anomaly, in an otherwise solid preseason for the new Panther. In fact, it was the first pass thrown his way – a testament to Lucas's coverage skills. Julius Peppers played only two games, but made a memorable play against the Giants, stripping Eli Manning of the ball, recovering the fumble, and returning it for a touchdown. The defense looked best against Pittsburgh, allowing just 19 yards on two series, while forcing two punts.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the preseason, Jamal Robertson has quickly become a fan favorite among many. Robertson, a former NFL- Europe star, who found his way onto the Panthers last year, has looked good. Whether it be returning kickoff's, breaking tackles for a long gain, or making a touch catch for a first down, Robertson has impressed all preseason, and it appears likely that he'll make the team. Another solid performance came from rookie quarterback Stefan LeFors, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 193 yards and 4 touchdowns with 1 interception in what eventually amounted to 4 quarters of play during the preseason. "The guy was a playmaker at a high level," said Fox of LeFors. "There is something sparky about the guy. That is what we saw, and that's why we drafted him in the first place." LeFors' performance has lead many to question the decision to give Chris Weinke the nod as Delhomme's primary back-up. Two of his touchdown passes went to Drew Carter, who has also had a great preseason, despite a few dropped balls.

In the end, they say the preseason really means nothing unless you lose a star player. While not many around the league would consider Colin Branch a star, his injury does hurt, but the Panthers have the depth to fight through it, and likely will. The performance of Jamal Robertson adds yet another quality back to the roster, and a healthy Stephen Davis – and a very strong performance by a healthy Stephen Davis is encouraging. Stefan LeFors and Drew Carter may have provided a look into the future with their performances this preseason, but for now, they should provide great depth at their positions. At a time when many are predicting no less than a Lombardi trophy for the Panthers in `05, expectations are higher than ever, and despite a 2-2 preseason record, strong performances by the starting line-up's are encouraging enough to raise those expectations even higher.

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