STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
A trendy pick by many to contend for the NFC Championship last season, the Panthers failed to make the playoffs and entered the offseason in need of a roster makeover. Rather than replacing the carpet, painting the walls and changing the light fixtures, GM Marty Hurney took a sledgehammer to the pillars of the team's roster by releasing quarterback Jake Delhomme and letting All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers leave via free agency. Of the team's skill position players, receiver Steve Smith is the final
relic from the team's appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
The loss of Delhomme will hurt more in the locker room than on the field, as he was one of the league's worst quarterbacks in 2009 (59.4 QB rating, 8:18 TD:INT ratio) and his propensity for turnovers often ruined the team's chances to win. After Delhomme was replaced by Matt Moore for the Panthers' final five games last season, the team finished up with a 4-1 record on the strength of Moore's 8:1 TD:INT ratio. Moore was retained with a first-round tender as a restricted free agent, so he has a one-year window in Carolina to prove himself as a legitimate NFL starting quarterback. The Panthers didn't have a first-round pick in April's draft, but they were able to land Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen with their first selection at No. 48 overall. His presence suggests that Moore has a long way to go to solidify his place as the team's long-term answer at the position, and a slow start to the regular season could lead to Clausen's rise to the starting job.
Defensively, the Panthers are going to need their young defensive ends . Everette Brown and Charles Johnson . to step up following Peppers' departure after eight seasons in Carolina. Replacing a player who often commanded extra attention from opposing offensive lines and was one of the league's most effective pass rushers of the last decade will be difficult. Carolina still features a strong linebacker corps, led by Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, but it will be interesting to see if the team's defensive scheme is altered to blitz more from the linebacker spots to provide a new dimension in the pass rush.
With aging veterans being pared from the roster, head coach John Fox could be the next mainstay on the way out the door. Entering the final year of his contract, the organization's reluctance to give him a long-term extension suggests that he may have to bring the Panthers back to the playoffs in 2010 in order to secure a new deal. That task could prove to be very difficult with the youth movement in progress, but if the changes at quarterback lead to better production on the field with fewer turnovers, a return to the postseason isn't entirely out of the question.
3. (78) Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU- Fundamentally sound as a blocker and doesn’t have much competition in the Carolina receiving corps.
3. (89) Armanti Edwards, QB/WR, Appalachian State- Transitioning to receiver as a pro, but versatility and experience as a QB in college could also lead to niche role in Panthers’ offense.
4. (124) Eric Norwood, LB, South Carolina- An IDP sleeper, who could immediately boost Carolina’s pass rush.
6. (175) Greg Hardy, DE, Mississippi- First-round talent, but injuries in college hurt his stock.
6. (198) David Gettis, WR, Baylor- Battling for a roster spot in a receiving corps seeking depth.
6. (202) Jordan Pugh, S, Texas A&M- Projects as special teams player.
6. (204) Tony Pike, QB, Cincinnati- Long-term project will likely hold the clipboard for Panthers in 2010.
7. (223) R.J. Stanford, CB, Utah- Speedy defensive back will try to crack the roster this summer as a depth guy.
7. (249) Robert McClain, CB, Connecticut- Hoping to compete for a return spot.
Julius Peppers, DE (Bears)Panthers’ all-time sack leader heads to the Windy City.
Muhsin Muhammad, WR (FA) Nearing end of the line but could still be useful in limited role.
CAN Matt Moore SECURE THE QB SPOT?
Fortunately, the Panthers' offense is going to be built around the running game regardless of whether Moore or Jimmy Clausen is under center this season. In tandem, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart could be the best running back duo in the NFL, while the Panthers will return four of their five starting offensive linemen this season (guard Keydrick Vincent is a free agent at press time). Moore will be given the first chance to secure the starting job during training camp, but Clausen may be more polished than most rookie quarterbacks after playing in a pro-style offense under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. Turnovers destroyed the Panthers last season, so managing the game and limiting mistakes will be the primary responsibility of the team's quarterbacks, both of which appeared to be strengths for Moore down the stretch last season. Question marks in the receiving corps behind Steve Smith and the lack of experience at quarterback could keep the team's trio of tight ends busy.
WHO STEPS UP IN THE RECEIVING CORPS?
In what seems like a yearly offseason trend, the Panthers are forging ahead with some uncertainty on the depth chart at wide receiver. At press time, Dwayne Jarrett is considered the starter opposite Steve Smith, but he's in the final year of his rookie contract and his career to this point has been a disappointment. Since being selected in the second round of the 2007 draft, Jarrett has appeared in just 29 of the team's regular season games and started in only three. His lack of production can be partially attributed to the Panthers' rare use of multiplereceiver sets, but keep in mind that Jarrett failed to unseat a 36-year-old Muhsin Muhammad for a starting spot last season. With the addition of three receivers in the draft, Jarrett will need to seize his opportunity to take on an expanded role in order to remain a starter throughout the season. At 6-4, he offers ideal size for a red-zone target, so there's definitely sleeper potential here if he's able to translate his physical tools into consistent production.
HOW WILL THE PASS RUSH REPLACE Julius Peppers?
Replacing Julius Peppers may not be possible for one player, but Everette Brown is going to be counted on to pick up most of the slack. Brown was muscled around by NFL offensive linemen last season after using his speed to beat tackles around the outside at Florida State. Brown was praised by middle linebacker Jon Beason for having an excellent work ethic upon arrival as a rookie last season, so it should come as little surprise that he's added 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason to better prepare himself for an every-down role. Barring something unforeseen, he should be the Panthers' starter at Peppers' old spot in Week 1.
DECLINING: The Panthers’ offense will continue to be run-first, and Steve Smith could see a lot of double teams. He’s still a top-20 WR but no longer a lock for a top-10 finish.
SLEEPER: Dwayne Jarrett could finally become part of the Panthers’ weekly game plan this season. His size makes him a potential red-zone threat.
SUPERSLEEPER: Armanti Edwards possesses good hands, athleticism and versatility, which could make him a useful weapon sooner than expected.
Jon Beason, LB Leader of the Carolina defense is also its most reliable IDP. Expect him to finish among the league leaders in tackles again.
Thomas Davis, LB Returning from a torn ACL suffered in November but was having a Pro Bowl year before the injury.
Sherrod Martin, S His three picks in a limited role as a rookie could be a sign of things to come.
RotoWire Rank: 18