QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Jake Delhomme. Backups -- Chris Weinke, Stefan LeFors, Brett Basanez.
Delhomme returns for his fourth season as the starting quarterback, boasting a 28-19 record in the regular season and a 5-2 mark in the playoffs, with an NFL record-tying four road wins. Delhomme, who went to his first Pro Bowl last season after throwing for 3,421 yards and 24 touchdowns, should use a poor showing in the NFC Championship game last season as motivation to succeed this season. Expect more from Delhomme this season because he has more weapons at his disposal with the Panthers adding receiver Keyshawn Johnson to the mix. Drew Carter's development as a receiver should also help free up Smith and gives the team another deep threat. Weinke re-signed with Carolina after finding little interest in the free agent market. He gives the Panthers a reliable backup, proving last year against Detroit that he could come in and win a game in a clutch spot. Delhomme has never missed a start for Carolina due to injury. LeFors will compete with the rookie Basanez in the preseason for the No. 3 spot.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB DeShaun Foster and FB Brad Hoover. Backups -- RB DeAngelo Williams, RB Nick Goings, RB Eric Shelton, FB Casey Cramer, RB Jamal Robertson.
After four years, the Panthers have finally turned the rock over to Foster, who has finally escaped the shadow of Stephen Davis. Davis was released after the 2005 season because of knee problems. Now it's a matter of Foster staying healthy. The fact that he's finished three of the last four seasons on injured reserve is certainly a cause for concern for the Panthers, but they believe he showed the talent late last season to be a 1,600-yard back. He'll get help this year from Williams, the team's first-round draft pick out of Memphis who led all NCAA Division I tailbacks in rushing last year. Compared by some to Barry Sanders, Williams should give the team a nice change of pace when Foster needs a breather. But expect Foster to get about 20 carries per game. One concern for the Panthers is they don't have a proven power back, which is where the team hopes Shelton can contribute. However, the former second-round draft pick will need to correct his habit of running too upright to be successful in that role. There's a chance Shelton may not even make the team if he doesn't show improvement. The coaches love the work habits of Goings and Hoover and both are very versatile, so they'll stick around. Don't expect Robertson to make the club this year unless Shelton flounders.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Kris Mangum. Backups -- Michael Gaines, Jeff King, Mike Seidman.
Mangum returns for his ninth season and while he'll never be the threat Antonio Gates is, the Panthers like what he can do as a blocker and a receiver. He'll also occasionally line up at H-back. Mangum did drop some passes in the playoffs last year and that's something he needs to correct. Gaines is developing as a receiver and could be the most promising of the team's tight ends. Carolina spent a fifth-round draft pick on King, from Virginia Tech, and that could mean the team is ready to part ways with Mike Seidman, a third-round pick in 2003 who has only caught 16 passes over the past three seasons, including none last year. Carolina will keep three tight ends.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Steve Smith, Keyshawn Johnson. Backups -- Drew Carter, Keary Colbert, Karl Hankton, Efrem Hill, Justin McCullum.
Smith has emerged as one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL, coming off a season in which he won the "triple crown," finishing either first or tied for first in receptions (103), receiving yards (1,563) and touchdown catches (12). Smith can do it all, even scoring on two reverses last year. Even with the presence of Johnson, Smith will remain Delhomme's go-to guy. Johnson, however, should take some of the double and triple teams off Smith and give Delhomme another weapon, especially on third downs. Carter has emerged into a solid deep threat and should only get better. He'll compete for the No. 3 spot with Colbert, who is coming off a very disappointing sophomore season. Colbert was said to have an ankle injury last season (one that did require surgery to remove bone spurs earlier this offseason) and hopes to return to his promising form as a rookie. Hankton, the special teams captain, doesn't play much offense but is considered a receiver. Hill caught on with the team late last year. When asked in minicamp if there's any rookies who have caught his eye this year, Delhomme pointed to McCullum.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Travelle Wharton, LG Mike Wahle, C Justin Hartwig, RG Evan Mathis, RT Jordan Gross. Backups -- OT Todd Fordham, OT Rashad Butler, G-C Geoff Hangartner, G Will Montgomery, OT Dave Kadella.
The Panthers are hoping the addition of Hartwig and Kadella this year helps improve the running game. Both are believed to be better run blockers than their predecessors and John Fox hopes that will enable the team to get back to its power running game roots. Gross played well in the first half of last season, but surrendered a lot of sacks in the latter part of the season. Wharton isn't the best left tackle in the league, but he's fairly steady and is improving with each passing year. Wahle is the strength of the line and along with Hartwig and Mathis, the Panthers should be able to run between the tackles. The big question will be how long it takes for Hartwig and Mathis to develop some continuity working with the incumbents. The Panthers averaged better than 100 yards per game on the ground last season and allowed only 28 sacks under offensive line coach Mike Maser. With the exception of Fordham, the Panthers don't have much experience beyond their starting five.
DEFENSIVE LINE: LDE Julius Peppers, LDT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, RDT Kris Jenkins, RDE Mike Rucker. Backups -- DE Al Wallace, DE Jovan Haye, DT Jordan Carstens, DT Damione Lewis, DT Kindal Moorehead, DE Chester McClover.
Peppers and Rucker return as the team's formidable pass rushing defensive ends, while the team added wide body Kemoeatu in the off-season to work inside with Jenkins, a former two-time All-Pro. If Jenkins stays healthy, the Panthers would almost have a Dream Team defensive line, undoubtedly the most talented in the NFL. However, Jenkins has played in only five games the past two years and there remain some questions about his weight and ability to rebound from the torn ACL he suffered in his knee in last year's season opener. The team would love Jenkins to stay healthy, but they have Carstens, a two-year starter, and Lewis, a former first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Rams, ready to go if he can't make it back. Peppers and Rucker combined for 18 sacks and 64 quarterback hurries last season, and Wallace is solid coming off the bench. McClover, a seventh-round pick from Auburn, has a chance to be a diamond in the rough and will push his old high school teammate Haye for the No. 4 spot at defensive end.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Keith Adams, MLB Dam Morgan, SLB Thomas Davis. Backups -- WLB Na'il Diggs, WLB James Anderson, SLB Adam Seward, MLB Chris Draft, MLB Vinny Ciurciu, MLB Sean Tufts.
The Panthers are looking to replace both starting outside linebackers from last season. Davis, a former first-round draft pick who played sparingly last season, will get one of those spots. His speed is outstanding and he simply needs to fine-tune his game and learn where to be at all times. The other spot is completely up for grabs. So far Adams has been working with the first team, but anyone from Diggs to Anderson to Seward could come away with the starting job here. Clearly, this will be an area to watch this year. Nobody is praying DT Kris Jenkins can make it back from an injury more than Morgan. With Kemoeatu and Jenkins up front, it will allow Morgan to run and make plays. Head coach John Fox said he hopes to use Morgan the way the Baltimore Ravens have used Ray Lewis in the past. The Panthers have a host of backups and there's a chance they could keep as many as seven linebackers.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Ken Lucas, RCB Chris Gamble, FS Mike Minter, SS Shaun Williams. Backups -- CB Reggie Howard, CB Richard Marshall, FS Nate Salley, SS Colin Branch, SS Kevin McCadam, SS Jermaine Hardy, CB Jarrett Bush.
Lucas and Gamble return as the league's most underrated corners. Lucas, who had six interceptions in the regular season and two more in the postseason, had a Pro Bowl year in 2005 for the Panthers. Gamble had seven interceptions last season and Minter insists the third-year pro will emerge as the best cornerback in the NFL very soon. Both have exceptional field awareness, the ability to make up ground quickly and great hands. The Panthers lost their third and fourth corners Ricky Manning Jr. and Dante Wesley to the Chicago Bears this offseason, but hope cocky second-round pick Richard Marshall and veteran Reggie Howard can fill that void. Minter is back at free safety where he provides plenty of leadership, but the strong safety spot remains up for grabs. The injury-prone Williams was signed as a free agent from the New York Giants and the team added Salley in the fourth round of the draft in case Branch can't make it back from a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2005.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K John Kasay, P Jason Baker, LS Jason Kyle, PR Steve Smith, KR DeAngelo Williams, H Jason Baker. Backups -- KR Richard Marshall, PR Chris Gamble.
Kasay, entering his 16th NFL season, returns after going through a rough patch in the middle of last season. He made just 26 of 34 field goals, but performed well in the postseason converting all five field goal attempts. Baker was a Pro Bowl alternate and led the NFC net punting average, but needs to work on his consistency. It seemed too often last year he had one bad punt at a crucial period of the game. Still, he re-signed with the team after exploring other options as a free agent. Smith is one of the most dangerous returners in the league, as he showed when he returned a punt for a touchdown in last year's NFC Championship game. The Panthers are hoping Williams, their first-round draft pick, can handle kickoff returns this year. Kyle is a extremely reliable, and that's all you can ask of a long snapper. Carolina's coverage teams were dealt a blow when they lost fixtures Kemp Rasmussen and Dante Wesley this offseason.
Unit by Unit: Carolina Panthers
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