- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Opponents of the Carolina Panthers are well aware of the game plan: This is a running team, and the Panthers are daring you to stop them. In 2008, opponents couldn't stop the Panthers, not until the playoffs, when the Arizona Cardinals went to Carolina and built a big lead, rendering the dynamic running game a bit useless.
DeAngelo Williams was a fantasy monster, the best running back on the planet in 2008 and No. 3 in overall fantasy scoring, but you might be surprised to see that his name is not at the top of this season's rankings or projections. There's a good reason for that: Jonathan Stewart, likewise a powerful, speedy running back drafted in the NFL's first round and with the potential for Pro Bowl numbers, is expected to share carries. It's not that Williams will become irrelevant, but even if he maintains the better side of a 60/40 split in carries, it's going to be tough for either Panthers runner to amass 20 touchdowns on his own, as Williams did in '08. The Panthers figure lessening the workload is a good way to keep both weapons healthy. Fantasy owners might not be pleased, but this should be one of the few running back tandems in which each player is worth an early fantasy draft pick.
The Panthers will look eerily similar to last season's version, which isn't really bad news, since the team didn't lose a regular-season home game and seemed poised for a Super Bowl run. Kurt Warner and the Cardinals ended the dream, and then the Panthers had to deal with the offseason demands of franchise player Julius Peppers. Eventually, Peppers agreed to stick around for a whole lot of money and anchor the defense, but for much of the spring, the team was hamstrung in its ability to make moves. For example, the Panthers weren't able to sign a single free agent from another team. Quarterback Jake Delhomme had his contract restructured, and defensive help and running back depth were picked up in the draft, but basically, these are the same Carolina Panthers. See if you can stop them.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: It's not really a battle at running back, because Williams and Stewart have been through this before, and the end result is not expected to be one of them getting all the attention. It's a mistaken belief that Williams was able to run wild in the second half of '08 because Stewart missed action and wasn't healthy. That might have been true to a degree, but Stewart did get carries in every game. He didn't get as many in the final two months, as Williams ran for nearly 1,000 yards and scored 15 times in the final eight games. Stewart had a few big games as well and ended up running for 10 touchdowns and 836 yards. These guys are going to put on a show, but they're not really battling. They know going in that there will be plenty of touches for each of them.
On a veteran-laden team with so little turnover, there's not very much to watch in training camp in terms of jobs being won and lost. Muhsin Muhammad is entrenched as the No. 2 wide receiver opposite Steve Smith, although he could be pushed by Dwayne Jarrett, a third-year option from USC who has played sparingly so far in his NFL career. However, Delhomme did most of the throwing in the direction of Smith (78 receptions) and Muhammad (65) and didn't share much. Williams was third on the team in catches with 22, and Jarrett was third among the wide receivers, with all of 10 receptions. Muhammad is 36 years old and could see a reduction in his reps, but it's not likely Jarrett will become fantasy relevant unless there's an injury. He is, however, the likely third receiver for this team.
Fitting in: Despite being led by Peppers and terrific individual defensive players option Jon Beason, the Panthers weren't a great fantasy defense in 2008, finishing the season 13th in team fantasy points. The secondary was probably the main weakness, even before Warner and the Cardinals picked it apart in January, and the release of cornerback Ken Lucas puts pressure on those left behind. The Panthers likely will have to rely heavily on second-round draft pick Sherrod Martin to contribute right away, with Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble starting on the corners. Second-round pick Everette Brown from Florida State will be given time to learn the system and fit in as a reserve with Peppers back on the prowl.
On the line: Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah are mammoth tackles who open holes with regularity. Otah dealt with ankle problems for much of his rookie campaign but pronounced himself healthy at the organized team activities recently. Few teams can generate a consistent rushing attack like the Panthers do year after year, and 2009 shouldn't be any different.
On the mend: The Panthers didn't feel the need to bring back return specialist Mark Jones, due to Ryne Robinson returning to health. Robinson, a speedster who missed all of last season due to knee problems, also could figure into the team's wide receiver corps. It's important that Robinson is healthy, because the only other Panther to return more than a few kickoffs in 2008 was Stewart, and it's not likely coach John Fox wants to repeat that action with such a key player.
As for Delhomme, he wasn't a fantasy star in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but his arm is fine. In fairness to Delhomme, he's not asked to do much, finishing outside the top 20 for pass attempts in 2008.
The bottom line
The Panthers feel they should have beaten the Cardinals in the home playoff game, and it's likely the sting of that loss will resonate into the upcoming season. Regardless, the team is just as loaded, especially at running back, and all the offseason angst about the potential loss of Peppers is over. The Panthers are built for an actual playoff run this season, with two running backs each capable of taking the lead and putting up big numbers. Their projected time share won't make Williams owners very happy, but he's still going to be worth quite a bit this season.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.