Looking ahead to 06

The Carolina Panthers entered the season with some lofty expectations and nearly met them before bowing out to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. Picked by Sports Illustrated to win the Super Bowl this season after a 7-9 campaign the year before, it seemed the Panthers' season was doomed to fail almost before it began. There was no more flying under the radar, as they did in 2003 when they reached the Super Bowl and lost to New England.

But the team overcame a season-ending injury to two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins in the season opener and a 1-2 start to the season by winning six straight to take over first place in the NFC South at 7-2.

However, the Panthers closed the regular season just 4-3 with crucial home losses to Tampa Bay and Dallas which not only cost them a shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye, but also the division title. The Bucs won the division by virtue of a better division record.

The Panthers fought their way into the playoffs as a wild card with a 44-11 rout of the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in the regular season finale, and then went on to post impressive playoff wins on the road against the New York Giants (23-0) and Chicago Bears (29-21).

However, clearly the team had run out of gas by that point and got squashed 34-14 in the NFC title game at Seattle.

That loss served as a painful reminder just how important it is to get a first-round bye and just how costly the home losses to Tampa Bay and Dallas really were.

Still, 13-6 is a terrific season, especially considering Carolina's only offensive weapon outside quarterback Jake Delhomme was Steve Smith, who led the NFL in receiving yards and finished tied for first in receptions and touchdown catches.

Still, the Panthers need another receiver and a pass-catching tight end to complement Smith. Speedy Drew Carter could fill that No. 2 spot if he improves his hands, but the team will need to look outside the organization to find a quality tight end who can take pressure off Smith.

But clearly the first order of business this off-season will be to broach the running back position.

Simply put, the Panthers need a go-to guy in the backfield who can run the ball 25 times a game and isn't susceptible to injuries. That, more than anything, will take the double teams away from Smith.

The problem with soon-to-be free agent DeShaun Foster is injuries -- he has finished three of the last four seasons on injured reserve.

With Stephen Davis no longer having the burst he once did, the Panthers will likely cut the long-time veteran and either have to re-sign Foster, add a free agent or turn to last year's second-round draft pick Eric Shelton, who spent the 2005 season on injured reserve. Hopefully Shelton has learned to recognize defensive fronts by now because he was slow to catch on as a rookie and that's the real reason he ended up on IR.

It's unlikely the Seahawks would let Shaun Alexander get away, but it goes without saying the Panthers would be interested in signing him if he hits the free agent market because he would be a perfect fit in this offense (Of course, wouldn't he be a perfect fit just about anywhere?).

Michael Bennett is another free agent back who might interest the Panthers, although he is another injury-plagued runner.

Carolina needs to bolster its offensive line as well, adding more strength up the middle.

Defensively, the Panthers improved against the run (third overall) and applied good pressure on the quarterback, but they still had some problems getting off the field on third down. The Panthers are hoping safety/linebacker Thomas Davis will continue to improve in the system during the offseason and be better prepared in 2006.

Dan Morgan needs to stay healthy in 2006.

Carolina's defensive backfield showed the most improvement in '05 following the addition of top-flight corner Ken Lucas and safety Marlon McCree gave the team a boost. Raw, but talented cornerback Chris Gamble should continue to improve as he gets more playing time.

This is a team that needs to add a few players at certain spots -- running back, wide receiver, tight end, guard, and depth at linebacker -- in the off-season. But clearly this is a club that will be around the top of the NFC standings awhile and should compete for the Super Bowl again next season.

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