SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Five observations on the Carolina Panthers, based on training camp practices of July 31:
1. The major overhauls of two key areas notwithstanding, coach John Fox, a guy to whom his players seem to naturally respond, is preaching a daily homily about stability and carryover, even though he understands that the NFC championship of '03 has little impact on what transpires this season. "Hey, we're the same," said Fox over lunch on Saturday. "We aren't going to change." In terms of mindset, schemes, and the fundamental tenets of how Fox likes to play, he is correct. But this is still a team that is remaking its offensive line and secondary and, for a franchise coming off a Super Bowl berth, that is a shakeup of sizeable proportions. The only offensive lineman who will start at the same spot that he manned in 2003 is center Jeff Mitchell. In the secondary, strong safety Mike Minter is the only projected starter who was with the first unit for the 2003 season opener. Said Fox: "I'll tell you what, the new (starters) are better players than the people they're replacing, believe me. Now, I'm not saying they'll play better, but they are better football players." Time will tell if the remaking put in place by Fox and general manager Marty Hurney will succeed. But you get the feeling Fox will make it work. And, for the most part, the new starters are veterans who have lined up and played. Give Fox and Hurney credit for rolling the dice a little bit. Carolina is a team that, because of the way it plays, possesses very little margin for error. In baseball parlance, the Panthers play "small ball," and win a lot of close games. Of last year's 14 games (counting the playoffs) decided by seven points or less, Carolina won 10. The Panthers were 7-1 in games decided by three points or fewer, the only defeat coming in the Super Bowl. Contrary to what a lot of their critics suggest, the Panthers' success in close contests is a strength, the sign of a mature team that has learned how to win. You don't often tweak such a team, but the Panthers feel the moves they made in the offseason will make them better. "Even for a successful team," Fox said, "change isn't necessarily all that bad."
2. Make no mistake, tailback Stephen Davis, who showed last year that he could still pound it between the tackles, remains the workhorse in the running game. But Davis is a year older (30) and last season rubbed 318 carries off the tread. So look for third-year pro DeShaun Foster, who missed his rookie season after knee surgery, to take some carries away from Davis in '04. Foster had 113 carries in '03 and, while his average attempt was 15 percent below that of Davis, the former UCLA standout gives the Panthers a different dimension with his long speed. Foster can get the ball to the corner, and even more than being just a change-of-pace back, he is a playmaker. This is still a pretty fundamental offense and, even with the emergence of wide receiver Steve Smith as a legitimate force in the passing game, the Panthers need to get their few playmakers on the field. So look for Foster to take on a much more prominent role in 2004. Davis, by the way, tooled into camp in a vintage Bentley. We note that only because at his point in the camp tour, the Panthers certainly possess the most eclectic and varied collection of vehicles. Defensive tackle Brentson Buckner has an Escalade with a satellite antenna on the top of it. Center Jeff Mitchell has a monstrous RV parked, complete with satellite TV, in the lot outside of the cafeteria building.
3. Looking for a young veteran in this camp ready to elevate his game to the next level? Well, if he can stay healthy, and that has been a pretty big if to this point in his three-year career, middle linebacker Dan Morgan is the guy. The team's first-round pick in the 2001 draft, Morgan has missed 18 games because of injury in his career and the former University of Miami star played hurt in a lot of other contests. He sat out five games in 2003 because of injury, and has never started more than 11 games in a year. But he performed incredibly well in the playoffs. In the Super Bowl loss, Morgan was all over the field, and Carolina coaches credited him with 25 tackles. Morgan has excellent movement skills, plays well in reverse, and can run sideline to sideline. If one were to review the videotape of Saturday's two practices, there wouldn't be many instances in which Morgan was out of the frame, when the film was stopped. In a conference that features some standout middle 'backers, it might be tough for Morgan to achieve Pro Bowl status this year. But with Keith Brooking of the Falcons moving to the weakside spot, there is a possible opening for Morgan to earn himself a trip to Hawaii. One independent evaluation service contended that Morgan missed fewer tackles per game last season than any "Mike" linebacker in the league. Generally, if he hits a back, the runner is going down. He also plays better in space than people realize. This could be a real breakthrough year for him. Plus the presence of Morgan on the field benefits the Panthers' linebacker corps in so many ways. It means that Will Witherspoon, the third-year veteran who has great speed and has quietly developed into a player to watch on the weak side, won't have to move into the middle in some situations. As a group, this is a very quick bunch, and should be even more so if strongside 'backer Mark Fields is successful in his comeback from surgery. There is also very good depth, with the additions of Jessie Armstead and Brandon Short in the offseason.
4. As good as the Carolina defensive front four was in 2003, when many observers felt it was the league's premier unit, it could be even better this time around. Now entering his third season, left end Julius Peppers is playing a lot smarter, relying less than merely his physical skills. While the numbers don't indicate it, Carolina officials insist Peppers was better last year than in his '02 rookie campaign, when he notched 12 sacks. There may be a degree of hyperbole in their statements, but Peppers did play the run much better, and he looks trim and motivated in camp. Right end Mike Rucker, one of the best unknown players in the league, has definitely slimmed down. Rucker is a terrific two-way end and a guy who simply knows how to play the game. Some people feel that Kris Jenkins is the best interior defender in the NFL and partner Brentson Bucker still has something left in the tank. This is another unit that features superior depth, with veteran backups such as ends Al Wallace and Kavika Pittman (coming off knee surgery) and tackles Rod Walker, Shane Burton and Kindal Moorehead. If Walker gets himself into any kind of shape, and it didn't appear he had yet during Saturday's practices, he would be an intriguing guy in the tackle rotation.
5. The Carolina tight ends combined for only 30 receptions in 2003, the third fewest in the league, and the Panthers probably need to have more of a presence in the middle of the field this year. Even if they don't feature the tight end much, the Panthers want to control the hashes and the man who might be able to do that, and also provide a solid in-line blocker, is second-year veteran Mike Seidman. A third-round pick in 2003, injuries limited Seidman to just 12 appearances and five receptions a year ago. But the former UCLA star has size and enough speed to perhaps make a difference. He was working with the first-unit offense in Saturday's practices.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.