SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In 2008, the Carolina Panthers featured a potent one-two punch in the backfield and an excellent offensive line to run behind.
After watching a live full-pad practice on Monday, it appears that the Panthers -- with their strong line intact -- may be even better running the ball.
Jake Delhomme may no longer be an elite quarterback in the minds of some fans, but the Panthers players rally behind their leader, who is still capable of winning a game with his throwing arm.
On defense, the line has some question marks, while the linebackers fly around the field and the secondary is underrated. During the offseason, Panthers coach John Fox switched defensive coordinators, hiring former Colts assistant Ron Meeks. Meeks will utilize the speed on defense, particularly the front four, to rush the passer with very little blitzing.
A team that finished 12-4 a year ago and returns 20 starters is no pushover. However, Carolina seems to be flying under the radar, which makes no sense at all.
1. Jake Delhomme, a year later: Delhomme is the leader of this team and looked sharp in practice Monday. Some people argue that he should never have received a contract extension this year, and some report that it has $20 million in guaranteed money. When you break it down and realize part of the guaranteed money is his 2009 salary, which he was going to make anyway, the $20 million was really $18 million. The truth is Carolina added just $12 million of guaranteed money to keep their quarterback, which turns out to be a very good deal for the club. The Panthers should not be criticized, because Delhomme appears ready to lead this team.
2. The Panthers defensive line: There is a pressing need at defensive tackle. Maake Kemoeatu is on injured reserve and no player seems to be ready to step in and take his place. Nick Hayden gets first crack at the job, but he has a long way to go against the guards in the NFL. I would not be surprised to see the Panthers make a late August trade for a tackle, or at the very least go after a player cut at the end of the preseason. When it comes to third down, the Panthers are in good shape with a front four that can get after the quarterback. If Carolina had a game tomorrow, it would feature Everette Brown, Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers along the line.
3. Two players at a crossroads: Sooner or later, receiver Muhsin Muhammad and fullback Brad Hoover will be at the end of the trail, but not this season. There is not going to be a young receiver to threaten Muhammad in camp this year, as Dwayne Jarrett fights for the third wide receiver job. Hoover knows Tony Fiammetta is the heir apparent at fullback, but according to the players he's not ready to beat out "the Hoov," as Panthers players like to call him. After watching practice, the old guys aren't at the end of the road just yet.
This team doesn't have any fat guys and the players are in tremendous shape. They practice in full pads a lot, and they get after each other more than most teams. Full contact is normal and, as Fox said to me over lunch, "You have to play football to get in football shape."
I got a chance to sit down with DE Everette Brown, and I was so impressed with his work ethic and knowledge of this defense. He will help right away as a pass rusher, and, as Jordan Gross said, "He already has two moves -- the speed rush and a legit spin move." Brown is a lot bigger and stronger in his legs than his program size would suggest, and there's a good chance he can help on the run downs as well. The Panthers gave up next year's first-round pick to move up to get Brown at second-round money. When you throw in Mike Goodson as a fourth-round back the Panthers got in the deal, it looks like a brilliant move now.
There's some skepticism about the depth of the Panthers' defensive line, since none of the backup linemen have ever started an NFL game. But after talking to Travelle Wharton, it is clear the team could always move him back to tackle if someone gets hurt. But the big surprise is how well developed the backup linemen looked at practice, especially Mackenzy Bernadeau and Geoff Schwartz.
The defensive players love Meeks' defensive scheme. It is based on speed -- something this team has plenty of on the field. Jon Beason calls the defensive signals, and, as the linebacker said, "No one else talks. Either I get the call right or wrong and we know who to blame." With Kemoeatu on injured reserve there is more reason for the Panthers to be a speed defense up front. Expect a lot of stunts and movement from the front four.
The Panthers won the NFC South last year, but the five interceptions by Delhomme at home against the Cardinals in the divisional playoffs turned the whole season sour. The offseason was tainted by the inability to get Peppers signed to a long-term deal. The truth is Delhomme -- another year removed from his Tommy John surgery -- looks ready to roll and Peppers is at camp and in uniform. Expect the Panthers to be in the title hunt all season. A wild-card playoff berth is the worst situation imaginable at the end of the road. As one player said, "We're the same team if not better than the 2008 team, but once again people think the Falcons and Saints are the teams to beat. We love it."