- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have been built on a foundation of defense.
From Dom Capers to George Seifert to John Fox -- all former defensive coordinators -- the team's head coaches have fostered a defensive mentality. In April's draft, however, the Panthers beefed up on offense, drafting quarterback Jimmy Clausen and three receivers. Now Fox -- in the last year of his contract as Carolina head coach -- is more loaded on offense, while the defense is in transition.
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Linebacker Jon Beason is the only current homegrown Panthers defender available with a Pro Bowl on his résumé. Meanwhile, on offense the Panthers have Pro Bowlers Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil on a line that also features blocking studs Jeff Otah at right tackle and Travelle Wharton at left guard. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart each rushed for more than 1,100 yards last season -- the first time that has been achieved by a team in NFL history -- and Steve Smith is still a star at wide receiver.
To take advantage of its new weapons, Carolina is working on a few more three-receiver sets.
"We have been [using] a lot of two-back, one-tight end or one-back, two-tight end [offense]," quarterback Matt Moore said. "With the additions of [receivers] Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, who are threats to go downfield, it's shaping up nice. But obviously we are going to run first."
Here are five things I learned Wednesday at the Panthers' final practice before training camp:
1. Not rushing Clausen: Second-round draft choice Clausen is the third-string quarterback behind Moore and Hunter Cantwell. Fox isn't going to rush Clausen into the opening-day starting lineup. To start, Clausen must light it up in preseason games and blow away Moore. This doesn't mean things aren't going well for the former Notre Dame star.
Clausen is a rhythm quarterback who could be a master of the short passing game. On five-step drops, he seems to have a knack for running up in the pocket to find good passing lanes. His accuracy on underneath passes is exceptional. But I get the feeling Fox hopes to carry over Moore's success at the end of 2009 -- the Panthers were 4-1 in their last five games -- into the regular season to see if he can get some early wins as starter.
Plucked off the waiver wire after his release by the Cowboys in 2007, Moore was 6-2 as a starter filling in when Jake Delhomme was injured. Delhomme couldn't recover from his five-interception playoff game at the end of the 2008 season and was cut in the offseason. Suddenly Moore, 25, went from being the youngest quarterback on the roster to the oldest.
The Panthers' quarterback situation reminds me of the 49ers' last year. Shaun Hill entered last season with a 7-3 record and won his first two starts. But defenses caught up to him after coordinators had an offseason to study him and he was replaced as starter after six games by Alex Smith. Don't be surprised to see a similar scenario in Carolina, with Clausen starting by the seventh game.
2. Expect two rookies to be in the three-receiver offense: LaFell and Edwards are Carolina's most exciting receiving additions in years. At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, LaFell is a big target and catches the ball well. But more than that, he shows explosiveness once he catches the ball, which could result in more yards after the catch. Edwards, a converted quarterback from Appalachian State, could be the steal of the draft. You can't tell he is making the transition from quarterback to receiver because he runs nice routes and catches the ball so well. He excites the team with his pass-catching ability. Throw in sixth-rounder David Gettis and the Panthers look so much faster at wide receiver.
Smith, a 10-year vet, seems to like the transition. The toll of carrying the passing offense has weighed on the 31-year-old. If LaFell and Edwards come on, Smith might slide into the slot more, where he could avoid a lot of double coverage.
3. Enough depth at linebacker: Losing Thomas Davis with a season-ending injury hurt because he is one of the team's better players. But the Panthers have enough linebacker depth to survive. Two-time Pro Bowler Beason moves from the middle to the weak side, where he still has enough speed to chase down ball carriers. Dan Connor gets the chance to live up to his potential as a middle linebacker. James Anderson can handle the strong side, and if he can't, former Chicago Bear Jamar Williams should be up to the challenge. Williams spent years being groomed behind Lance Briggs with the Bears and has been waiting for a chance to play. Carolina also has Quinton Culberson, an undrafted gem plucked from the Rams who has a little starting experience.
4. Defensive adjustments: Fox used to field a defense with Pro Bowlers Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers attacking from end and Kris Jenkins creating havoc in the middle. With those three gone, the Panthers must attack in numbers, not names. General manager Marty Hurney spent last season making trades and grabbing as many defensive tackles as he could. That leaves Fox with the task of sorting out the best of the lot from among Tank Tyler, Louis Leonard, Nick Hayden and former Colt Ed Johnson.
Everyone knows the Panthers can't expect the dozen or so sacks from one defensive end with Peppers now in Chicago. Charles Johnson takes over for Peppers at right end and Everette Brown, who had 2.5 sacks as a rookie, must pick up the load at the other. The sleeper could be sixth-rounder Greg Hardy, who once was considered a high draft choice out of Mississippi but underachieved last season. He closed offseason workouts by blowing out his teammates in agility drills.
5. Outstanding offensive line: The Panthers have a great offensive line, a largely unheralded unit. Gross has established himself as one of the conference's better left tackles. Kalil received long-overdue recognition with last year's trip to the Pro Bowl. Otah established himself as a rookie as one of the NFL's more physical right tackles. Wharton, a former tackle, has great feet at left guard. The Panthers hope Duke Robinson, a 2009 sixth-round pick, can start at right guard, because he would add another physical presence to the rushing attack.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
8hBy Ian O'Connor