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Jake Delhomme's return to health can go a long way in determining Carolina's fate in '08.


NFC South preview:

Bucs: Offense aging | Falcons: Rebuilding project | Panthers: Extreme makeover | Saints: Emphasis on defense

The Panthers have had just one winning season in four years since their 2003 run to the Super Bowl, and they're undergoing an extreme makeover this year as coach John Fox tries to recreate past success.

Fox has remade the entire offensive line -- three new starters, two starters in new positions. He has gone from a unit that was based on quickness to one based on size and power. The Panthers want a physical team built around defense and the running game.

2008 forecast
Vic Carucci: It's pretty simple: If Jake Delhomme is fully recovered from the elbow injury that shortened his 2007 season, the Panthers contend; if not, they don't. Prediction: 9-7

Thomas George: Panthers remain a force on occasion but not consistently. Prediction: 8-8

Pat Kirwan: Jake Delhomme looked sharp this summer and should return to where he left off last season when he threw 8 touchdowns to 1 interception before getting hurt. The Panthers could make the playoffs, but New Orleans and Tampa won't make it easy. Prediction: 9-7

Gil Brandt: Think they missed Jake Delhomme last year? Delhomme had 8 TDs in two-and-a-half games; the backups had 11 TDs the rest of the season. Still, the key in 2008 will be whether or not DE Julius Peppers can return to form. Prediction: 8-8

» Panthers' 2008 schedule
Fantasy file
Riser: DeAngelo Williams
Williams is an elusive running back with good hands, and he has a chance to start for coach John Fox. He should post career bests in scrimmage yards this season.

Faller: Steve Smith
Smith will miss the first two weeks of the season due to a team-imposed suspension. That time lost will make it close to impossible for him to reach his statistical potential.

» Fantasy draft kit | More fantasy

There's a common thread that pointed Fox to the change.

In 2003, Carolina quarterbacks attempted 459 passes; in 2005, the Panthers' QBs threw 448. Both of those seasons ended with 11-5 records, the first ended in the Super Bowl, the second in the NFC title game.

In 2004, 2006 and 2007, the Panthers finished with records of 7-9, 8-8 and 7-9, respectively, and their quarterbacks attempted more than 500 passes in each season.

That's a lot of throws for a team trying to find reliable receivers, and more than Fox wants. Further, Steve Smith, the go-to guy, is suspended for the first two games this year for slugging cornerback Ken Lucas in camp. Besides Smith, the Panthers have offseason acquisitions D.J. Hackett and Muhsin Muhammad, neither of whom is considered an elite wideout.

Last year was particularly trying for the Panthers. Quarterback Jake Delhomme was off to a good start before suffering a season-ending injury after just three games and the Panthers wound up starting four quarterbacks. They think Delhomme is healthy enough now that they didn't even try to solidify the position in the offseason.

To power the running game, Carolina replaced last year's leading rusher, DeShaun Foster, who was prone to fumbling, with first-round draft choice Jonathan Stewart. Stewart is a powerful 235-pounder who will split carries with DeAngelo Williams and has a good chance to supplant him as the feature back.

Defensively, the big issue is the health of Julius Peppers, who lost two weeks of training camp a year ago with an illness and never seemed to regain his strength. Peppers, who had 53½ sacks in five previous seasons, had only 2½ in 2007. In fact, the Panthers totaled just 23 sacks as a team, the lowest in their 13-year history and the second lowest in the NFL last year. Peppers has looked outstanding this summer.

On the hot seat

Coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney, who hired him, are both in trouble if the Panthers do not have a good season.

Difference-maker

Stewart looks like a player. He's a powerful man with good moves and quickness and he could be as good as any rookie back in the NFL.

Hard road to hoe

There's a nasty finishing stretch of the schedule that includes post-Thanksgiving road games against Green Bay, the New York Giants and New Orleans, and a home game against Tampa Bay.

Panthers will be better than you think if ...

Delhomme stays healthy and he doesn't have to throw 500 passes, something the Panthers desperately want to avoid. Delhomme shared the NFC passer-rating lead when his season ended in the third game a year ago.

Panthers will be worse than you think if ...

Peppers has a second consecutive down year. But that's not likely as long as Peppers stays healthy. He's just 28 years old and in his contract year.

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