Rucker not ready to retire

Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker is determined a knee injury won't end his career. "That is what fueling me -- to not let an injury beat me," Rucker said. "And not (finishing my career) by being carted off the field."

Last December, the nine-year veteran torn the ACL and MCL in his left knee. However, even with Rucker being ahead of the game in rehab, it will be less than nine months between the injury and Carolina's 2007 season opener.

That's not much time.

Some NFL players, like Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, have returned from late-season knee injuries in time to start the following season. But despite advances in rehab procedure in recent years there's generally considered to be a 10- to 12-month recovery period for such an injury, especially for defensive linemen who rely heavily on leg strength to effectively maneuver at the line of scrimmage.

Still, the 32-year-old Rucker thinks he can make it back and start.

"That's our goal -- to get back on the field sometime in training camp," Rucker said.

It's Rucker's first major injury since coming into the league as a second-round draft pick in 1999, and the first time he's been forced to spend the majority of his off-season at the stadium rehabbing an injury. When healthy, he and Julius Peppers represent one of the league's more dynamic pass rushing defensive end tandems in the league.

Coach John Fox said the Panthers plan to be careful and bring Rucker along slowly in training camp.

"I think the fact that he's pretty comfortable in our system defensively and we've not changed that much (helps)," Fox said. "You always tweak a couple of things in every off-season. But the fact that he's got those years of experience in our system, sure, it doesn't freak you out too bad."

There was some speculation the Panthers might part ways with Rucker, who is in the final year of his contract. However, the team brought him back after he agreed to take a significant pay cut.

Although it's been speculated that this could be his final season with the Panthers, Rucker isn't looking that far ahead.

"I haven't really thought about (my future) hard because that doesn't really matter if I don't do this process right," Rucker said. "I have been focused on this process and getting this leg strong and ready to roll."

Right now, Stanley McClover is working as the first-team right end as Rucker works toward recovery. The Panthers also have high hopes for Charles Johnson, a third-round 2007 draft pick from Georgia.

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