QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Jake Delhomme. Backups -- Chris Weinke, Brett Basanez.
Delhomme's best bet for long-term employment is if the team elevates quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy to offensive coordinator. Delhomme will still be the starter in 2007 given his history with head coach John Fox. All in all, it was not a good season for Delhomme as he lost two games (at Cincinnati and at Philadelphia) by throwing interceptions in the opponent's end zone with less than two minutes remaining and missed three games late in the season with a sprained thumb. Delhomme should do better in 2007 if he gets better protection and some support from the running game. Weinke, who has two years left on a three-year deal, could be released at some point down the road after three fairly disappointing starts near the end of the season. The Panthers needed Weinke to get them to the playoffs and he failed, going 1-2. In what could be a good indication of Weinke's uncertain future, the Panthers named Basanez the No. 2 quarterback in the season finale against New Orleans and Weinke the emergency quarterback. J.T. O'Sullivan was signed to the practice squad late in the season.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB DeShaun Foster, FB Brad Hoover. Backups -- RB DeAngelo Williams, RB/FB Nick Goings, RB Eric Shelton.
Carolina's running game struggled for most of the season, finishing 24th in the league in rushing. Before the season Jake Delhomme predicted DeShaun Foster would be a 1,200- to 1,400-yard back, but Foster never came close. Despite playing in 14 games, Foster managed just 897 yards and three rushing touchdowns, which at least opens the door for Williams, a standout rookie, or possibly a bigger back yet to be added to the roster, to compete for the starting job next season. However, Foster still has two years left on a three-year, $15 million deal, so he will be given first chance to start. Williams has great talent, but he's not a bruiser and new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson needs to find more creative ways to use his finesse style. He ran for 501 yards as a rookie and had 33 catches for 313 yards. Goings was a favorite of recently fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning and just signed a three-year contract extension. Shelton, a former second-round draft pick in 2005, has wasted two seasons in Carolina, recording only eight carries and could be on his way out. Hoover remains a reliable fullback but you have to wonder how much he has left in the tank.
TIGHT END: Starter -- Kris Mangum. Reserves -- Michael Gaines, Jeff King. Injured reserve -- Mike Seidman.
The Panthers need to address this position in the off-season. Mangum, who turns 34 in August, appears to be on his last leg and Seidman, soon to be an unrestricted free agent, has just 16 catches in four injury-plagued seasons with the team. Look for Jeff Davidson to use the tight end more as a receiver. Gaines and King aren't going to help much in that area. That means someone will have to be added to the roster. It would make sense to add a tight end that can stretch the field and take pressure off Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Steve Smith, Keyshawn Johnson. Backups -- Drew Carter, Keary Colbert, Karl Hankton, Taye Biddle.
Smith suffered through hamstring injuries in the summer washing out the entire preseason and the first two games of the regular season. Still, he managed to bounce back and make the Pro Bowl for the second straight season, catching 83 passes for 1,165 yards with nine touchdowns. Johnson's future remains up in the air now that Dan Henning is gone, but it looks like he will be back for another season. If not, Carter could be ready to step into Johnson's role as the No. 2 receiver. However, the team would greatly miss Johnson's downfield blocking. Colbert, a former second-round pick, should be on his way out after catching just five passes in 2006 and getting benched the final month of the season. He's never made it back to his form as a rookie and a lack of desire seems to be an issue here. Hankton is a special teams guy and Biddle will have a struggle to make the roster next year. It's very possible the Panthers could draft a receiver who could double as a return man and add some veteran depth here.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Travelle Wharton (injured reserve), LG Mike Wahle (injured reserve), C Justin Hartwig (injured reserve), RG Evan Mathis, RT Jordan Gross. Backups -- C/G Geoff Hangartner, OT/G Jeremy Bridges, C/G Will Montgomery, OT Rashad Butler, OT Todd Fordham, OL D'Anthony Batiste, OT Dave Kadela.
The above listed starting lineup certainly isn't the way the Panthers finished the season, but more of how they likely view the lineup heading into next season. Carolina lost three starters here to season-ending injuries, including Wharton and the high-priced Hartwig in the season opener. Wahle missed the last month and will have surgery on his shoulder. Providing Wharton comes back from surgery on a torn ACL, Gross is likely to move back to right tackle. Bridges, who spent the year at right tackle after being dragged off the scrap heap early in the year, could move to right guard and compete for a spot with Mathis, Hangartner and Montgomery. Hartwig, assuming he ever recovers from a groin injury, should be considered the starter heading into next year given the investment the team made in him. Don't look for the Panthers to spend a lot of money here in the off-season to upgrade. Ideally, they'd love a stud left tackle, but those aren't easy to find. Hangartner played well at times at center filling in for Hartwig, but, like Mathis and Bridges, was not dominant by any means.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Julius Peppers, LDT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, RDT Kris Jenkins, RDE Mike Rucker (injured reserve). Backups -- DE Al Wallace, DE Stanley McClover, DT Damione Lewis, DE/DT Kindal Moorehead, DT Jordan Carstens (injured reserve).
Peppers had 13 sacks for the Panthers last season and he and Jenkins will be headed to the Pro Bowl. Peppers remains one of the best defensive players in the league. Jenkins recovered from off-season knee surgery and it took him awhile to raise his level of play, but he began to show promise of his old All-Pro days toward the end of the season. Carolina paid Kemoeatu big money to be a two-down player and he was average at best last season. It now looks like a shaky investment. The change here could come at right defensive end where Mike Rucker tore his ACL late in the season, raising speculation on whether or not he'll be back next year. The Panthers have a sense of loyalty toward Rucker, an eight-year pro, but he is entering the final year of his contract and has a salary cap figure of more than $4 million. Look for Carolina to find a way to restructure his deal and bring him back. Moorehead is an unrestricted free agent and probably won't be retained. Wallace is still a guy who can make plays and remains a good role player. Lewis has some solid games for Carolina early on but disappeared late in the season. McClover has talent as a pass rusher, but needs to improve his run defense. An addition here through the NFL draft is entirely possible.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Thomas Davis, MLB Dan Morgan (injured reserve), WLB Na'il Diggs. Backups -- MLB Chris Draft, WLB James Anderson, SLB Brandon Jamison, MLB Adam Seward, MLB Vinny Ciurciu.
Expect nearly wholesale changes to this unit in the off-season with Davis and Anderson the only players who are guaranteed to return. Morgan has been cleared to play next season, but is coming off his fifth concussion and is due a $2 million signing bonus in April. Don't look for him to get that. Morgan is a great player when healthy, but can't stay on the field. The Panthers simply can't trust him to be out there since he's never made it through a full 16-game season. Draft started most of the year at middle linebacker and did a solid job filling in, but he's an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers would like to re-sign him but probably only to backup money, so Draft may look to move on and make more money elsewhere. In any event, adding a big-time middle linebacker has to be priority number one for the Panthers this off-season, especially since their defense is built around Morgan. Davis has outstanding skills and is one of the best athletes on the team, but is still learning to play linebacker. Diggs was a one-year player for Carolina and likely will not be re-signed. Anderson appears ready to step in there. Carolina could use an infusion of veteran depth at linebacker given this position seems injury-plagued almost every season.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chris Gamble, RCB Richard Marshall, FS Mike Minter, SS Shaun Williams. Backups -- CB Ken Lucas, S Colin Branch, S Kevin McCadam, CB Derrick Strait, CB Dion Byrum (injured reserve), CB Garnell Wilds (injured reserve), CB Christian Morton (injured reserve), S Nate Salley.
Several questions surround this unit during the off-season, not the least of which is what they do at cornerback. Lucas is a guy who was given a six-year, $36 million contract two years ago, but now finds himself as the third corner after rookie Richard Marshall stepped in to earn a starting job. Lucas was plagued by a number of nagging injuries last season. The Panthers could save cap room down the road by cutting him now, but that would leave them light at corner. Marshall proved to be an outstanding cover man, but Gamble struggled on the other side. Everyone keeps waiting for the talented Gamble to have a breakout season, but it just hasn't happened. At safety, the Panthers must decide if loyalty means keeping Minter around at more than $3 million next season or if the team should look for other avenues. Williams is an unrestricted free agent and probably won't be back, so the Panthers could look to add a high-profile safety either in free agency or the first or second round of the NFL draft. Depth is an issue as well as safety, so look for major changes here.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K John Kasay, P Jason Baker, LS Jason Kyle, KR DeAngelo Williams, PR Chris Gamble, PR Steve Smith.
Kasay, Baker and Kyle all had outstanding seasons for the Panthers, but Carolina's return game was horrendous. Chris Gamble averaged 5.1 yards per punt return last year, which ranked 30th in the league. Smith complained about returning punts, so it's obvious he doesn't want that role. Williams was 34th in the league in kickoff return average with a mark of 19.3. Better blocking on the returns is also essential. The Panthers also allowed two punt blocks and let Minnesota kicker Ryan Longwell throw a touchdown pass against them. Somehow Danny Crossman still has a job. Clearly, one of the biggest needs entering the off-season is to find a player who can return punts and kickoffs.