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2006 Team Report: Carolina Panthers

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Quarterbacks

Starter: Jake Delhomme
Backup(s): Chris Weinke, Stefan Lefors

Starting QB: Jake Delhomme enters his fourth season as a Panther firmly entrenched as the team’s starter. He led the Panthers to the NFC Championship last year, and will benefit from free agent acquisition Keyshawn Johnson lining up across from superstar Steve Smith. Delhomme has passed for over 3200 yards in each of his first 3 seasons with the team, racking up 262/435 for 3421 yards, 24 TDs and 16 interceptions last year – and he had only 1 legitimate starting-caliber WR to throw to during 2005. The sky is the limit this year for Delhomme – he could easily return to his 2004 levels (310/533 for 3886 yards, 29 TDs and and 15 interceptions), as long as Johnson melds well with the team.

Backup QB: Chris Weinke has been with the Panthers his entire career, and signed a three-year extension this past March. He’s not an outstanding talent, but he’ll do to mop up during blowouts and stand in during the second half of pre-season games. Stefan Lefors enters his second NFL season and may be the QB of the future, but he’ll be on the bench “seasoning” as long as Delhomme is good to go. Lefors had some solid performances during the 2005 pre-season – keep an eye on his progress during training camp this year.

Running Backs

Starter: DeShaun Foster
Backup(s): DeAngelo Williams, Eric Shelton, Nick Goings (RB/FB), Jamal Robertson
Fullback(s): Brad Hoover, Nick Goings, Casey Cramer

Starting RB: Foster is coming off a broken fibula (leg), but his rehabilitation is on track and he’s expected to be ready for the start of training camp. He’s well enough to participate in OTA’s, which is a good sign for his prospects. Last year, while splitting the work-load with Stephen Davis for the majority of the season, Foster racked up 205/879/2 rushing and 34/372/1 receiving. He has the tools to be a featured back – good hands as a receiver out of the backfield – and as long as he can stay healthy (which has been a challenge for him throughout his career; Foster has never played a full 16 game slate in any year), Foster could be a huge fantasy star this year.

Backup RBs: Eric Shelton had a disappointing start during pre-season last year, and then broke his foot. He spent the rest of the year on IR, so he’s largely an unknown quantity at the NFL level. DeAngelo Williams was a first-round selection in a weak draft class at his position – he has good power to run inside the tackles and can also bounce the ball outside. Williams is a solid receiver, too. He’s insurance behind Foster, who has been fragile throughout his career. Nick Goings (who also plays fullback) proved that he could step into the starter’s role during the injury plagued 2004 season (217/821/6 rushing and 45/394/1 receiving that year in essentially ˝ of the season), but dropped back into a support role during 2005 (37/133/0 rushing and 14/151/0 receiving). He has fantasy value only if he ends up in the starting role again. Jamal Robertson has bounced around from San Francisco to Carolina and back again – he’s mostly a special teams contributor.

Fullback: Brad Hoover is the lead blocker and occasional pass receiver in the Panther’s offense. He put up 10/22/0 rushing and 14/87/0 receiving during the 2005 season. Nick Goings can play either FB or RB (see above), and was the team’s starter at RB in the NFC Championship game last year. Casey Cramer doesn’t get much opportunity to play (he had 0 rushes and 0 receptions last year).

Wide Receivers

Starters: Steve Smith, Keyshawn Johnson
Backups: Keary Colbert, Drew Carter, Karl Hankton

Starting WRs: Steve Smith exploded for 103/1563/12 receiving last year, leading all receivers in total fantasy points (he was second in points per game to Terrell Owens). With Keyshawn Johnson across from Smith, there is no reason to expect him to drop off – Smith had little in the way of support from Keary Colbert or the tight ends last year. Johnson should become a big part of the passing game – he’s got tons of experience and is still a productive NFL receiver. He snagged 71/839/6 with the Cowboys last year and hauled in 70/981/6 in his first year there. He should easily pull down 70 catches during 2006 and could break through the 1,000 yard receiving barrier again in 2006, despite his age (34 at the start of regular season).

Backup WRs: Keary Colbert was a huge disappointment last season (25/282/2) – he dropped way too many passes and didn’t improve as a route runner (in fact, he regressed in all areas last season). Now that Keyshawn Johnson is in town, Colbert will be an after-thought. Drew Carter (a second-year player that the Panthers believe will develop into a bona-fide NFL receiver) and special teams ace Karl Hankton round out the WR stable.

Tight Ends

Starters: Kris Mangum
Backups: Jeff King, Michael Gaines, Mike Seidman

The Panthers’ TE’s are more notable for their blocking than their pass-catching. Mangum (23/202/2 receiving last year), Gaines (12/155/2) and Seidman (0/0/0) shared time during 2005 and none of them are particularly noteworthy in fantasy terms. 2006 draftee Jeff King could be an upgrade, but we’ll have to wait and see how he develops during training camp.

Place Kicker

John Kasay : The Panthers elder statesman turned in another solid performance in 2005 with 121 points. The team ranked 5th in kicker scoring for the second time in three years. His FG average dipped uncharacteristically below 80% for the first time in awhile, however all his misses were from over 40 yards including five from over 50 (53WL, 62WL, 52B, 56SH, 50RU). He has a tendency to miss one extra point in most years, which he did again in 2005.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: DeAngelo Williams; Richard Marshall; Nick Goings; Brad Hoover; Steve Smith

First round draft pick RB DeAngelo Williams returned kickoffs during his earlier years at Memphis, and second round draft pick CB Richard Marshall averaged 22.6 yards on kickoff returns at Fresno State last year. Potential backups include WR Steve Smith (3 returns, 20.3 avg.), RB Nick Goings (1 return, 21 yards), and FB Brad Hoover (1 return, 10 yards). The frontrunner for the KR role is rookie RB DeAngelo Williams. It may be unusual for a first rounder to be returning kickoffs, however he suggested the idea to the coaches and they were very intrigued. Second round draft pick CB Richard Marshall and WR Keary Colbert have also been working on kickoff returns.

Punt Returners: Chris Gamble; Steve Smith; Richard Marshall

In addition to being the top ranked fantasy WR in the NFL last year, Steve Smith also found time to lead the Panthers in punt returns. He had 27 returns for 286 yards, and his 10.6 average ranked 13th. Smith’s backup, CB Chris Gamble, actually had a slightly better average of 11.3 yards, which ranked 11th. Overall, the solid punt return game was negated by the lackluster kickoff returns, and the Panthers once again ranked near the bottom of the fantasy return rankings (28th in 2005, 32nd in 2004). WR Steve Smith is the teams’ best punt returner, however the Panthers are becoming increasingly reluctant to use him on special teams, given his importance on offense. CB Chris Gamble appears to be the likely successor.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: RT Jordan Gross, RG Evan Mathis, C Justin Hartwig (Tennessee), LG Mike Wahle, LT Travelle Wharton
Key Backups: T Todd Fordham, G/T Rashad Butler (rookie), G Will Montgomery (rookie)

The Panthers offensive line is pretty solid. Coach Mike Maser is back for his 4th season and he has done a very good job with the Panthers. Right tackle Jordan Gross is entering his prime and could be considered one of the best right tackles in the game by the end of the year. He has excellent athleticism, good technique and is an intelligent player. At left guard, Mike Wahle was everything the club expected last season when they picked him up from the Packers and he’ll be excellent again this year. He only took 2 holding penalties and gave up only 1 sack. At right guard, the Panthers lost Tutan Reyes and will have to fill his spot. Expect Evan Mathis, a 2nd-year player from Alabama to earn the job. Newcomer Justin Hartwig from the Tennessee Titans will slide in at center and he will do a good job for the club. At left tackle Travelle Wharton, going into his 3rd season is continuing to learn on the job. He is the weak link at this time along the line but he has upside and should continue to improve. He gave up 9 sacks a year ago. The Panthers drafted Rashad Butler from Miami Fla. who has the athleticism to grow into a starter down the road with good coaching. Finally Todd Fordham returns for great veteran depth. Expect a production season from this unit.

Team Defense

The Panthers were the third best defense overall in the NFL last season. They were well above average in every phase of the game, finishing fifth in points allowed, fourth in rush yards per carry, and ninth in passing yards allowed. After finishing 2004 with the most takeaways in the league, the Panthers ended 2005 with 42 takeaways, behind only Cincinnati. The 2005 Panthers had talent at every level. Led by Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, the defensive line accounted for 35 of the team’s 45 sacks, good for seventh in the league. Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon led a LB corps that played the run and pass equally well. CB Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas had thirteen interceptions between them. While the Panthers suffered the loss of Witherspoon and Marlon McCree in free agency, they’ll be bolstered by the return of Kris Jenkins and the addition of Ma’ake Kemoeatu on the line. The Panthers hope to offset the loss of Witherspoon by inserting Thomas Davis into the lineup at linebacker. He’ll be expected to contribute right away as a big play defender and blitzer from anywhere on the field. With Peppers, Davis, Gamble, and Lucas, the Panthers should again force turnovers in bunches and finish among the leaders in all defensive categories

Defensive Line

Starters: RDE Mike Rucker, LDE Julius Peppers, RDT Kris Jenkins, LDT Ma’ake Kemoeatu
Backups: DE Al Wallace, DE Stanley McClover (r), DE/DT Damione Lewis, DT Kindal Moorehead, DT Jordan Carstens

Starting DL: While Peppers and Rucker may not have fulfilled the extremely lofty expectations placed on them last preseason, they still combined for 18 sacks. Peppers is a freakishly quick and explosive 285 pounds and must be accounted for on every play. He could be a little more effective against the run and has yet to put up a 16 or 18 sack season but he remains one of the most disruptive ends in the game. Rucker has been slowed by ankle and knee injuries over the past two seasons but remains a solid two way player. He should remain productive and could post double digit sacks if his injury woes are behind him. Both Peppers and Rucker will benefit from the return of a healthy Kris Jenkins. Jenkins was a key to the top Panther defenses in 2002 and 2003, but missed most of 2004 with a shoulder injury and nearly every snap last year after suffering a torn ACL in the opening game. And if three All-Pro performers weren’t already enough, the Panthers snagged 350 pound space-eater Ma’ake Kemoeatu this offseason. Kemo is coming off a very impressive season with the Ravens, his first as a starter, and will be a nice upgrade over the departed Brentson Buckner. He’ll be counted on the clog the middle and allow everybody else to flow to the play. This group has the potential to be the best in the league.

Backup DL: Wallace is a serviceable backup at end. He has played well spelling Rucker in recent years, posting 5 sacks in limited duty last year. Carolina may have gotten a steal in the seventh round when they grabbed Stanley McClover. McClover, who took a risk by leaving school a year early, will need to bulk up and become stronger in run support to keep from becoming a one dimensional situational speed rusher. Damione Lewis, a disappointment as a Ram, will rotate in at end and tackle. He will be asked to provide an inside pass rush on third down. Moorehead and Carstens played well in rotation after the injury to Jenkins. Both had trouble against the run at times, but played well overall. Carstens showed the ability to collapse the pocket from the inside with five sacks. Moorehead suffered an ankle injury late last season, but should be healthy for camp. They’ll be valuable depth for the Panthers.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Na'il Diggs, MLB Dan Morgan, SLB Thomas Davis
Backups: LB Chris Draft, LB Adam Seward, LB James Anderson (r)

Starting LBs: MLB Dan Morgan has big time talent. He has good size, speed, and athleticism as well as excellent football instincts. He is a good tackler and has shown good coverage skills. Unfortunately, he can’t stay on the field. Morgan has missed time with concussions, but has also been sidelined with knee, ankle, and shoulder injuries. He has never played a full season, averaging only 11 games a season for his career. Former safety and potential star Thomas Davis will move into the strong side linebacker role this season. While some feel his speed, agility, and size may be better suited to a traditional weak side linebacker role, the Panther coaching staff feels Davis will succeed as a SLB. The Panthers have used smaller backers on the strong side in the past. Mark Fields was very productive in on the strong side in 2002, posting 101 total tackles and 7.5 sacks. Expect Davis to be a three down player and get plenty of pass rush opportunities. Diggs won the WLB job going away in camp.

Backup LBs: Draft and Diggs are capable of playing all three linebacker spots. Draft is undersized at 235 pounds, but filled in admirably at both SLB and MLB last season. Diggs was signed just before the draft. He has experience on both the weak and strong sides from his days as a Packer. Diggs missed nine games last season after tearing the MCL in both knees. While not particularly explosive, he has the size to play strong and the range to play weak. If healthy, he’ll push for a starting role. Seward is a favorite of the coaching staff and will be solid depth behind Morgan at MLB and special teams help. Third round pick James Anderson was very impressive in rookie minicamp. With the WLB position more or less up for grabs going into camp, it wouldn't be shocking if Anderson earned a starting job early in 2006.

Defensive Backs

Starters: RCB Ken Lucas, LCB Chris Gamble, SS Shaun Williams, FS Mike Minter
Backups: CB Reggie Howard, CB Richard Marshall (r), S Colin Branch, S Kevin McCadam

Starting DBs: Lucas and Gamble give the Panthers a pair of solid corners. Both have good size (over 6’ and 200lbs), and both play the ball well. The two combined for 13 interceptions last year. Lucas proved to be just what the Panthers hoped after coming over from Seattle and is entering the prime of his career. Gamble is a little more physical than Lucas and is an emerging talent at corner who should continue to improve against the run. Minter will return at free safety. He can still hold his own in coverage, and despite his size, hits well. Shaun Williams looks to have won the SS job in camp, beating out Colin Branch, who was trying to return to the starting lineup after suffering an ACL injury during camp last year. Williams is a big, physical safety familiar to John Fox from his days as the Giants’ defensive coordinator. Like Minter, Williams is aging and has shown signs of breaking down in past seasons.

Backup DBs: Howard returns to the Panthers after spending the past two seasons in Miami. He is not an elite cover corner but is effective in the nickel role. The Panthers were left thin at corner with the loss of RFA Ricky Manning, Jr. just before the draft to the Chicago Bears. Second round draft pick Richard Marshall should more than ease that loss. He is an excellent cover corner who supports the run well. Whoever loses the battle to start alongside Mike Minter between Williams and Branch will provide good depth in the safety ranks. Fourth round pick Nate Salley will also add depth and may be groomed to take over a starting spot in the next year or two. McCadam was also added to shore up the safety ranks after the loss of McCree and the formal move of Thomas Davis to LB. He was a valuable special teams player in Atlanta and should fill a similar role in Carolina.

Last modified: 2006-09-04 09:40:43



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