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Hard working Panthers optimistic after final offseason practice

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After lumbering across the field numerous times in the series of sprints that concluded the Panthers' offseason workouts Thursday, Carolina defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu collapsed to the ground in exhaustion.

A few minutes later, the 6-foot-5 345-pound Kemoeatu sprawled on the back of a golf cart, getting a ride to the locker room.

Following two years of poor play and no playoff games, the new-look Panthers seemed to be pushing themselves a bit more this offseason in hopes of ending their slide into NFL irrelevancy.

"I've been real impressed with our offseason, both with the new guys and the kind of conditioning effort the guys gave, even our veteran guys," coach John Fox said. "I like what I see so far and now we've just got to stay healthy."

Jake Delhomme's surgically repaired right elbow was the team's biggest health issue going into the three weeks of workouts, but he didn't miss a day of throwing. Delhomme said he's pain free and declared himself ready for the start of training camp on July 25 in Spartanburg, S.C.

"We haven't had any setbacks and we took our time. I feel ready to go," Delhomme said. "Will I have a pitch count in camp? I'm sure I will because it will probably be the smart thing to do. But that is part of it and I'm fine with that."

Through the exhausted faces of the players leaving the field following the sprints in the heat and humidity Thursday, there was a clear sense of excitement and confidence after a series of offseason moves designed to give the offense more weapons and the defense more depth.

"It's been awesome," said receiver Muhsin Muhammad, back with Carolina after spending the past three seasons in Chicago. "I learned a lot this camp."

Muhammad and former Seattle receiver D.J. Hackett give Delhomme options after Steve Smith, who dazzled with several impressive catches during the workouts. The offensive line is bigger and retooled in hopes of establishing a ground attack missing for several years.

The Panthers' 11 workouts did not include first-round pick Jonathan Stewart of Oregon, who is still recovering from toe surgery. Stewart, who is expected to supplant DeAngelo Williams as the featured running back, also couldn't be around the team because classes at Oregon are still in session.

"Everything is on schedule. He's out of the (protective) boot," Fox said. "He'll be coming here shortly and doing rehab with our medical people. They're telling me he's going to be ready for July 25."

Landon Johnson was getting work with the first team this week at linebacker after he was signed in the offseason from Cincinnati. Third-round pick Charles Godfrey was the first-team free safety next to Chris Harris, who liked what he saw during the workouts.

"We're flying around. We look pretty fast out there," Harris said. "Guys are getting it now. Last year we got it, but I think guys are gelling together and playing better as a unit. I'm pretty excited about this season."

Before the Panthers report to training camp at Wofford College, the team must shed nine players to get to the training camp limit of 80, sign their draft picks, including first-round choices Stewart and tackle Jeff Otah, and perhaps reach a contract extension with Julius Peppers.

The defensive end, coming off his worst season as a pro, is entering the final year of his contract and is set to count about $16 million against the salary cap. The Panthers could free up cap space by reaching on a new deal, but it will be costly.

Peppers was among the players running at the end of Thursday's workout. Then they scattered for vacations, feeling confident they can end their playoff drought in 2008.

"I anticipate we're going to do some good things this year," Delhomme said. "I really like what I've seen. We've got some guys that want to work."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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