The defensive line:
How will the signing of this monstrous DT impact the Panthers' off-season plans? Many draft analysts predicted that the Panthers would select a DT in the first round of the NFL draft next month; if not in the first round, then definitely on the first day. Kris Jenkins has basically missed the last two seasons. How effective will he be upon his return? Buckner is gone. What about Ellison? The Panthers spent a third round pick on the DT out of Missouri, but he bounced between the active roster and the practice squad last season. Despite these question marks, there is still Jordan Carstens who emerged as a decent starter beside Buckner. At the least, he should be a very solid backup in the future. Kindal Moorehead an RFA that should be re-signed, is more of a pass rusher than a run stuffer. However, he has been an effective reserve. Assuming Jenkins' rehab is progressing as expected, it is safe to assume that the Panthers will go into the season with Jenkins and Kemoeatu as the starters, with Carstens being the primary backup and Moorehead and Ellison the reserves. This means no DT in the first round, no DT on the first day, and quite possibly no DT in the '06 draft at all. Peppers and Rucker are entrenched as the defensive end starters and Al Wallace is a very good backup. However, Rucker and Wallace are both over 30, but both should be fine for the near future.
The LB corps:
How about Witherspoon? He has said that he will bring any offers he may receive back to Charlotte, but the Rams paid him big money that he couldn't have gotten with the Panthers. Many believe that Thomas Davis was drafted to play the weakside OLB position and that the Panthers let Witherspoon walk and move Davis into that spot. However, the team showed an almost bullheaded desire to play Davis at the strong safety position despite his struggles in coverage. When they finally did give him a look at LB, it was at the strongside position which was filled by Brandon Short. Short has been released. It is believed by almost all that Thomas Davis will be a starting LB for the Panthers next season, but will it be at the weak or strong LB position? Adam Seward has also impressed the staff and could threaten at whichever outside LB spot that Thomas Davis does not occupy. Chris Draft looked very good when filling in for Morgan this past season and could also compete for a starting position at an OLB spot. It is not out of the question that the Panthers could use their first round pick, or a first day pick on a LB.
Minter has restructured and the staff seems to love him. It's safe to say he will be the starter at one safety spot for at least another season. Marlon McCree was a great free agency acquisition last season, but got a sweet deal from the Chargers. RFA Colin Branch is coming back from a knee injury after starting at free safety in '04. The Panthers need to add depth at the safety position, and it likely will come through the draft. Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas are entrenched as the starting cornerbacks. Ricky Manning is a good nickelback who can also start in case of an injury to either Gamble or Lucas. However, he is a restricted free agent and it is reported that he would like an opportunity to start. The Panthers have offered him at a third round tender and if he is acquired by another team through free agency, the Panthers will receive that team's third round draft pick. If he is retained, the Panthers have three solid corners. If he leaves, the Panthers will get an additional third round pick. The team has promising youngster Garnell Wilds under contract, and may re-sign UFA Dante Wesley for depth.
The offensive line:
The offensive line was solid in pass protection this season, but lacked the ability to dominate in the running game. Gross is entrenched at right tackle and Mike Wahle is entrenched at left guard. Travelle Wharton had some rough games, but he played well enough as a second year player and first year as a starter at left tackle to deserve the chance to continue to develop at that position. That leaves the center and right guard positions. Center Jeff Mitchell had always been solid until his level of play started to slip in 2005. Mitchell was involved in an offseason steroid controversy last season. He is an unrestricted free agent and reportedly the Panthers haven't been overly aggressive in retaining him. Instead, the Panthers paid the price it required to sign a top-shelf center, former Titan Justin Hartwig. Hartwig will provide the stability up the middle that Mitchell had lost in recent years. Right guard Tutan Reyes is a career backup who will not be starting again this season, if the Panthers re-sign him. 2005 draft pick Geoff Hangartner has impressed the staff and should make the roster. 2005 third-round pick Evan Mathis was considered by some to be the best guard available in the draft, but he and the offensive line coach Mike Maser had some disagreeable moments. Has he gotten out of the doghouse? If so, he definitely has the talent to get a look at right guard. But, will the staff be comfortable starting two second year players who have never started before?
Some may not like him, but Delhomme is the starter and will be for several more years. In his three years starting, he has taken the Panthers to the NFC championship game twice and to the Super Bowl once. That's not bad. Chris Weinke has been re-signed and is a solid backup. Stephan LeFors is an interesting developmental prospect.
DeShaun Foster is back! He has been plagued by injuries, but has shown promise. Can he stay healthy? That's the multi-million dollar question that the Panthers have gambled on with this signing. How has Eric Shelton progressed? He was placed on injured reserve last season with an injury that could've been recovered from during the season. Has he picked up the offensive scheme? If so, he should be a good short yardage and goal line RB who can assume Steven Davis' role. Brad Hoover will be the starting fullback. Nick Goings is a solid all purpose backup. It isn't out of the question that the Panthers could add to this position through the draft, especially if they are still unimpressed with Shelton.
This is another area that many have assumed the Panthers would address through free agency or on the first day of the draft. However, news recently came to light that Colbert was playing virtually the entire season on a bad ankle. Drew Carter emerged as a dangerous deep threat. Ricky Proehl could return again as a sure-handed clutch target for Delhomme. Does the staff believe that Colbert can bounce back from a poor season and build on the promise he showed as a rookie? The fact that there have been no reports that the Panthers have made serious inquiries into free agent wide receivers leads one to believe that the staff has faith in Colbert. If another WR were to be added, the staff would have targeted a veteran who could step in and contribute immediately. With Colbert and Carter on the roster, adding another talented, but unproven player to compete for the starting position opposite Steve Smith would make little sense. Another WR could be added through the draft as depth and to eventually take Proehl's spot.
This has been a popular Panthers mock draft first round pick for a couple years now. Henning has never used the tight end much in the passing game, but would he if he had a big time target at the position? The Panthers brought in a receiving TE last season in Freddie Jones, but he retired before the season started. Could that be a sign of things to come? Kris Mangum is aging, but is still a good blocker and can be an effective short yardage receiver. Michael Gaines is young and has shown talent. Mike Seidman is looking like a busted third round draft pick. No TE on the roster has shown an ability to emerge as a truly dangerous target in the passing game. Could this be the season that the Panthers take a TE on the first day of the draft? Marty Hurney has been quoted talking about the depth of TE in this draft. Several attractive options could be available in the second round including Anthony Fasano, Marcedes Lewis, and Byrd.
Kasay has another year in him and either Baker will be retained or the Panthers will acquire a replacement from the free agent market. They have already signed journeyman kicker Micah Knorr to complete for the spot, but that isn't unusual. Last season, the Panthers had 3 kickers competing for the job that Baker ended up with.
Matt's draft predictions:
I believe that on the first day of the draft the Panthers will take the best prospects available at the LB, TE and safety positions – probably in that order, unless a surprise player is available. The second day of the draft will be used to fill the depth chart. John Fox has shown a tendency to take the best player available, so don't be surprised by any pick. If a major defensive prospect is available at #27, John Fox will take him. You can take that to the bank. As long as John Fox is the head coach and Hurney is the GM and allows Fox to heavily influence personnel decisions, the Panthers will continue to build a team based on a stingy defense.
Offseason Update: 3-12
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