CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wide receiver Keary Colbert had fallen so far down the Carolina Panthers' depth chart he was inactive for four straight games late last year.
It appeared Colbert's time with Carolina, marred by injuries and ineffectiveness two years after an impressive rookie season, likely would end.
Then, a funny thing happened to the soft-spoken former second-round pick in the offseason. Not only did he avoid being cut, he worked his way into top condition and was Carolina's second-best receiver in training camp.
Now, Colbert is preparing to start opposite Steve Smith in Sunday's season-opener at St. Louis.
"I really just kept faith in myself and didn't believe what other people were saying or what I heard," Colbert said Wednesday. "That's kind of how I dealt with it."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Colbert shrugs off just about everything. He doesn't believe there's extra pressure on him after catching just five passes for 56 yards last season.
He even insists he didn't take it personally when he was put on the inactive list after he dropped to the fifth receiver behind Smith, Keyshawn Johnson, Drew Carter and even Taye Biddle.
"It wasn't about me as Keary Colbert, a human thing. It was a team thing," Colbert said. "They had other guys they needed to dress at different positions. The best thing is to help the team win. I didn't look at it that way."
The Southern California product burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2004. He had 47 catches for 754 yards and five touchdowns and the Panthers moved him into the starting lineup a year later after Muhsin Muhammad was released in a salary cap move.
Colbert started all 16 games in 2005 and was virtually invisible. While Smith led the league with 103 catches, Colbert had 25.
It was later learned than Colbert played most of the season with an ankle injury that required surgery. Still, the Panthers took no chances, signing the veteran Johnson to replace him in the starting lineup.
Colbert said he was healthy last season, but was barely noticed, except when the inactive list was announced.
"I feel like I could have played better, could have done things better," Colbert said.
After the season, Colbert went to USC, working out with the Trojans in their conditioning program, all the while uncertain if he would be returning to Carolina.
"Did I think I was in the plan? It was hard to say at that time," Colbert said. "It wasn't my call or my say so it was something I didn't focus on since I had no control over it."
Instead of releasing Colbert, the Panthers got rid of Johnson.
During training camp this season, Colbert was much improved, moving past Carter into the starting lineup and holding off rookie Dwayne Jarrett.
Colbert had a 48-yard catch-and-run touchdown against New England and had two catches for 24 yards in the final preseason game against Pittsburgh.
"He's a different football player," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "The last couple of years he battled through some injuries and whatnot and wasn't as smooth. I think Keary is a big confidence guy. When his confidence is high, he's pretty good. And his confidence is sky-high."
Producing early will be important for Colbert, both to avoid constant double teams for Smith and to keep Jarrett at bay.
Jarrett, another former USC star, is expected to eventually replace Colbert.
As usual, Colbert isn't letting that situation affect him.
"I keep my personal goals personal," he said. "My goal this season is to contribute to a winning team."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press