The offseason has definitely been a time of change for the Panthers as they said goodbye to no less than six starters. Carolina coaches and staff don’t seem too unhappy with the defections of CB Reggie Howard, S Deon Grant, CB Terry Cousin, OG Kevin Donnalley, OT Todd Steussie, OG Jeno James. The Panthers feel the replacements for each player will more than hold their own and even improve the team in certain areas.
Offense: Delhomme was the saving grace of the Panthers several times in 2003. He single-handedly made plays to win games against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville and almost worked enough magic to make Carolina Super Bowl champions. For the season Delhomme passed for 3,219 yards, while completing 59.2% of his passes. He had 19 TD’s with 16 INT’s. He is a streaky passer who can lead a team to a win. He needs to make better decisions with the ball, as evidenced by his high number of interceptions, but his leadership skills are unquestioned.
Delhomme has two solid wideouts to throw to when he drops back to pass. WR Steve Smith, who just signed a long-term extension, was the go-to receiver this team so desperately needed. Smith had 88 receptions, 1,110 yards, and 7 TD’s, but it was his big catch against St. Louis in the playoffs that went in for the winning TD that helped Smith stake his claim as an elite WR. Smith is complemented on the opposite side by Muhsin Muhammad who is much bigger (6’2”, 220 lbs) and stronger. Muhammad had 54 receptions for 837 yards and 3 TD’s. His 15.5 yard average led the team. Look for rookie WR’s Keary Colbert (second round) and Drew Carter (fifth round) to push 2003 third receiver Ricky Proehl for playing time. Carter has blazing speed and could see time on the outside eventually.
The Panther running game was outstanding in 2003 with bruiser Stephen Davis and speedster DeShaun Foster. Davis is at his best taking quick handoffs and breaking tackles downfield. Davis rushed for 1,444 yards and 8 TD’s. He is not utilized as a receiver out of the backfield, so teams usually load the front when he is in the game. Foster was amazing at different times in 2003, running for 429 yards on 113 carries, while spelling Davis, and catching 26 passes for 207 yards and 2 TD’s. His speed to the outside is a definite plus for this team and they will need him as a change of pace to Davis’ style.
The line lost three starters in the offseason, but with 2003 first-round pick LT Jordon Gross in the fold, all seems to be well. Gross is expected to anchor the line for the next decade as he stymied DE’s all season with his huge wing-span and quick feet. He, along with LG Travis Claridge, C Jeff Mitchell, RG Bruce Nelson, and RT Adam Meadows combine to form an underrated line that will open holes for the RB’s as well as allow Delhomme time to pass.
Defense: The defense is led by one of the best front sevens in all of football. DE Mike Rucker led the Panthers in sacks with 12 while DE Julius Peppers added 7 from the other side. DT Kris Jenkins provided pressure from the inside, registering 5 sacks, and super-quick DT Brentson Buckner played stout against the run. Peppers and Rucker are devastating from the outside and each plays the run almost as well as they rush the passer.
The LB’s were led by Will Witherspoon from his WLB spot. Witherspoon led the Panthers in tackles with 97. He was all over the field in 2003. MLB Dan Morgan missed six games due to injury but still managed to register 66 tackles. He plays the run better than the pass but his quickness and speed are assets in both phases of the game. The other LB spot most likely will be occupied by veteran Mark Fields. Fields was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease prior to the 2003 season and treatments have been successful. His projected date to start working out with the team in June 2nd and he still has the speed and experience necessary to fit into the defensive scheme. If Fields is unable to come all the way back, fifth-year veteran Brandon Short was acquired to fill the spot.
Safety Mike Minter was second on the team in tackles with 89 while also hauling in 3 INT’s. Minter is better against the run than covering players in the slot but his range and ability to read and diagnose plays is what sets him apart. CB Ricky Manning was the nickel back in 2003, but he will most likely be a starter when 2004 kicks off. He had an outstanding last half of 2003 (coming up huge in the playoffs), but his size could be a detriment against outside WR’s. Free agent Artrell Hawkins, signed away from Cincinnati, will start on the other side but look for rookie first-round selection CB Chris Gamble, to get time in the nickel and push for time in the starting lineup.
Overall the defense finished eighth in the NFL giving up 295 yards per game (107 rushing, 187 passing).
Special Teams: Kicker John Kasay had a solid season, netting 125 points and, while he lost some consistency, the team did re-sign him during the offseason. Punter Todd Sauerbrun averaged 44.6 yards per punt and remains one of the best in the league. He also landed 22 punts inside the 20.
2004 Projection: This team was a surprise in 2003, but the days of sneaking up on opponents is gone. The questions for the 2004 Panthers are: Can Delhomme continue his growth and lead this team deep into the playoffs again? Will rookies Chris Gamble, Keary Colbert, and Drew Carter be able to help out as much as is needed? Will this team be able to replace the starters it lost on the offensive line and in the secondary?
The Panthers are solid up
and down their lineup and they have a great coach and motivator in John Fox.
This team may be better than they were last year but their record may not show
it. Seeing as they are located in the tough NFC South, look for them to fight
for a wild-card spot with a 9-7 or 10-6 record.
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.