CHARLOTTE, N.C.- Julius Peppers (Rd 1, pick 2)- There is no doubt as to Peppers' potential as a defensive playmaker. As a sophomore at North Carolina, he broke Lawrence Taylor's school record for most sacks in a season, and although his production fell off as a junior, no defensive player in the country wreaked as much havoc. His ability continued to shine through in the preseason, especially with an impressive seven-tackle performance against New England.
It remains to be seen, however, if Peppers will have the sort of effect that, say, Jevon Kearse did with Tennessee his rookie year. He certainly has the size, quick feet, and freakish athleticism as Kearse, along with a solid RDE in Mike Rucker. The problem, though, is that Carolina is still a disaster in the secondary, and Peppers may not have the tenacity as of yet to play base end. In college, his major problem was that he was too much of a straight-line rusher, playing upright and disguising a rather raw technique with athletic ability. Playing that way against a tight end-right tackle double team will get him locked up and forced outside on running plays, which may frustrate the rookie and slow his development.
Fortunately, Peppers has shown to be a quick student of the game, working on becoming more ‘violent', to quote line coach Mike Trgovac, and on developing better use of his hands. He will also be helped immensely by the presence of veteran SAM linebacker Mark Fields and developing MLB Dan Morgan. Their help in run support, along with his overall quickness on third downs, should make for a 9+ sack year, but expect a more complete DE in 2003.
DeShaun Foster (Rd 2, pick 34) It is impossible to overstate how much the Panthers are disappointed their second-round pick will miss the first month of the season. Though Peppers may be the #2 draft pick and highest-paid player in team history, DeShaun Foster may very well end up being the crown jewel of this draft. His combination of speed and power is akin to Edgerrin James, and was evidenced when he ran over 4 would-be tacklers on a 61-yard romp to the end zone- on his first NFL carry.
Fumbling problems (which were tiredly overstated) aside, his biggest problem at UCLA was avoiding ticky-tack injuries which would sideline him for a game or two at a time. The Panthers staff is crossing their collective fingers that this latest episode is an exception rather than the rule, because Foster is likely the only offensive player with franchise potential right now. Not only does he run with authority and possess terrific size (6'1" 222), but has terrific receiving skills. Anyone who watched Senior Bowl practices knows that the former UCLA back was putting several wide receivers to shame with his route-running ability and moves after the catch.
The bottom line is that the Panthers badly need him on the field in order to set up their offensive gameplan and help… well, whoever plays quarterback… to have a reliable running threat and safety valve. Lamar Smith is a tough, bruising runner, but Coach Fox knows he will not have much credibility on offense with Smith starting 16 games, even with an improving offensive line.
Will Witherspoon (Round 3, pick 73) Witherspoon may have been a reach for the first day, but right now it looks as though he will start over injury-plagued Hannibal Navies in a faster, more effective linebacker corps, which is all one could ask for. The former Georgia linebacker had one of the fastest 40 times among linebackers, reported at a blazing 4.5. He certainly will offer blitzing ability and make more than a few explosive hits, but do not expect a Tommy Polley-like year out of Witherspoon. He lacks enough bulk to stack and shed, and behind the Panthers defensive line, that will make him a liability more often than not. Nevertheless, expect improvement as the year goes on and more speed on a defense ranked dead last in the NFL.
Dante Wesley (Round 4, pick 100) The Panthers have not had much luck recently with injuries- Patrick Jeffers, DeShaun Foster, Dan Morgan, Wesley Walls- and their rookie cornerback is only the most recent. Wesley, a good size/speed player, would have solidified the nickel package or even played safety over last year's disaster in Deon Grant. However, having suffered a sports hernia, it is unlikely he will be a major contributor anytime before midseason.
Randy Fasani (Round 5, pick 137) What is the plan of the future at quarterback? After Chris Weinke's recent benching for NFL nomad Rodney Peete, it is anyone's guess what Coach Fox's master plan is. Weinke is 30 years old and does not have much time to season, especially on a rebuilding team. Could Fasani be the long-term plan? It remains to be seen.
He certainly was the most impressive Panthers QB this preseason, leading 6 touchdown drives. Fasani was a reasonably productive, though frequently injured, player at Stanford, showing nice upside and an ability to make plays. He still seems to be very raw, with poor accuracy, especially on deep routes. Probably as lucky as he has been good, he came close to throwing several interceptions that instead turned into long touchdown drives this preseason. It will take some time to see what the team has here.
Keith Heinrich (Round 6, pick 174) Heinrich is a big, tough tight end with nice hands and a good work ethic. He hasn't excelled in any one area, but looks to get some playing time in packages. The odds are stacked against 36-year old Wesley Walls coming back from another ACL surgery and being more than a shadow of his former self, so look for Heinrich to get a few looks as a potential heir apparent.
Brad Franklin (Round 7, pick 258) Given the Panthers' dire need for secondary help, it's no surprise Franklin made the team. It's a long shot for him to be an impact player, but he is a big, fast CB who showed a penchant for the big play in college. A hamstring injury has sidelined him for now, but don't expect much more than special teams play this year, if he is even activated for a game this year.