Panthers should challenge for SB berth

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The NFL almost always has a shocker of a team advance deep into the
playoffs, and the Panthers filled that role last season. Behind
comeback-specialist QB Jake Delhomme and a defensive front seven that kept
them in every game, the Panthers went 7-0 in games decided by three points
or less in the regular season. Carolina eventually advanced to the Super
Bowl before losing a thriller to New England.

Everyone in Charlotte knows how hard it would be to win that many close games
two years in a row. So the Panthers will concentrate on trying not to live
so dangerously this season, hopefully by putting teams away earlier.
That won't be easy, either. Carolina's offensive line is a mess, undone by
defections, injuries and retirements. The defensive secondary is also a big
question mark.

Still, the Panthers have all their offensive skill players returning, and the
front seven may be even better with the addition of strong-side LB Mark
Fields, who missed last season fighting off Hodgkin's Disease, meaning
Carolina could challenge for its second straight Super Bowl berth.

Quarterbacks: Delhomme was a revelation last season. An undrafted free
agent who was cut three different times by the Saints, Delhomme came to
Carolina in 2003 having started only two NFL games in his career. Now he is
a fixture for Carolina at the position. Although his arm strength would rate
in the bottom third of starting NFL quarterbacks, his intangibles would rate
in the top five. His leadership ability is superb, and his ability to get
the most out of his teammates is unparalleled. And, as head coach John Fox
loves to say: "The bigger the game, the bigger Jake gets." The Panthers
opened up the offense in the second half of last season and the playoffs to
take into account Delhomme's development. Expect that trend to continue this
season, although Carolina will still be a "run-first" squad. Chris Weinke
and Rodney Peete had a good competition in training camp for the No. 2 job.
Offensive coordinator Dan Henning has been more comfortable with Peete in
the past, but Weinke has had a couple of years in the system now and
certainly has more pure talent. Grade: B-plus.

Running backs: The Panthers are in better shape here than ever before.
Stephen Davis rushed for a career-high 1,444 yards last season, giving the
Panthers the pounding back (with surprising speed) they'd never had before.
Davis also has a backup who could start on many teams - speed merchant
DeShaun Foster. Foster scored on a 33-yard run in the Super Bowl against New
England and will get more touches this year. He will also serve as the
third-down back. FB Brad Hoover is a battering ram who hardly ever carries
the ball. Grade: A.

Receivers: Steve Smith had an eye-opening season and playoffs last year and
seems poised for just as good a year in '04. After a big offseason contract
extension, Smith overcame outside concerns of complacency by showing up at
training camp in great shape. Muhsin Muhammad is a far more bullish receiver
who uses strength where Smith uses speed and elusiveness. Muhammad was
wonderful in the playoffs and is a fearsome blocker, but at age 31, he
doesn't get off the line of scrimmage the way he used to. Rookie Keary
Colbert has shown great hands in practice and will compete with savvy
veteran Ricky Proehl for the third-down receiver role. TEs Kris Mangum and
Mike Seidman won't get many chances to catch the ball in this offense.
Mangum is a better blocker; Seidman the better pass catcher. Grade: B-plus.

Offensive linemen: For the moment, a near-disaster. The Panthers have only
one player (C Jeff Mitchell) starting in the same place as he did a year
ago. OLT Jordan Gross, who has switched over from the right side, has good
enough feet to handle quick defensive ends. But the rest of the line is a
mediocre mishmash. The Panthers may regret, in particular, letting Jeno
James sign a big free-agent contract with Miami. If Matt Willig really has
to start at right tackle, there will be trouble. The OG positions are still
up in the air between a host of average players (Tutan Reyes, currently
bothered by a high ankle sprain; Rich Tylski; Doug Brzezinski). Bruce Nelson
was expected to be one of the starting guards, but he will miss at least the
first six weeks of the season after undergoing hip surgery at the start of
camp. Newly acquired Javiar Collins (trade from Dallas) adds depth. Grade:

Defensive linemen: The Panthers believe they have the best D-line in the
league. Kris Jenkins is the up-the-middle force who influences almost
everything outside - many believe he has taken over as the NFC's most
dominant defensive tackle. DEs Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker crash in from
the outside on all pass plays. Rucker had 12 sacks to Peppers' modest total
of seven last season, in part because Rucker's motor always runs hot.
Peppers needs to keep working on his run defense (New England constantly ran
his way during the Super Bowl), but his athleticism is ungodly. Brentson
Buckner, the fourth starter, is a coach on the field who still has something
left. The top backup is DE Al Wallace, who made an inordinate number of big
plays last season in limited playing time. Grade: A.

Linebackers: The most positive sign for the Panthers in August has been the
re-emergence of Fields from his season away fighting cancer. Fields looks
strong -- he had two sacks in one preseason game -- and he's still so fast
that he can run step for step with Smith on some pass routes. MLB Dan
Morgan, left to roam, can be deadly. He had a team-record 25 tackles in the
Super Bowl and stayed healthy throughout the playoffs. Will Witherspoon, the
weak-side starter, is a smart player who is sometimes overmatched against
physical blockers. The Panthers also signed some insurance depth in Jessie
Armstead and Brandon Short. Grade: A-minus.

Defensive backs: Here's where people will try to attack Carolina. Reliable
SS Mike Minter will have to get all his teammates in the right place,
because the Panthers will get thrown at often. CB Ricky Manning is a
gambler. Sometimes it does not pay off, and sometimes it does, like when he
helped win the NFC championship game with three interceptions vs.
Philadelphia. Either Colin Branch or Travares Tillman will likely play free
safety. Tillman has a little more athletic ability, but Branch is a very
smart player. Rookie Chris Gamble, the No.1 pick, may be starting at the
other CB slot by midseason or sooner. If the Panthers don't want to take
that risk, though, they may be able to get by with Artrell Hawkins for a
while. Grade: C-minus.

Special teams: Todd Sauerbrun and John Kasay return as one of the steadiest
punter-kicker duos in the NFL. Smith will keep returning punts. Foster may
be added to the kickoff-return team, which would give it a boost. Jarrod
Cooper and Rod "He Hate Me" Smart will lead the coverage teams. Grade:

Scott Fowler covers the Panthers for the Charlotte Observer.

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