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2007 Season Previews
Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 8-8)
Veteran Additions:
QB David Carr, OLB Terrence Melton.
Draft Picks:
FB Dante Rosario, WR Dwayne Jarrett, C Ryan Kalil, DE Charles Johnson, OLB Jon Beason, OLB Tim Shaw, CB C.J. Wilson, KR Ryne Robinson.
Major Subtractions:
QB Chris Weinke, WR Keyshawn Johnson, WR Karl Hankton, TE Mike Seidman (IND), OT Todd Fordham, OT Dave Kadela, G Scott Peters, MLB Chris Draft (STL), Vinny Ciurciu (CAR), S Shaun Williams, S Colin Branch.

Offense This Year: Watching last year's version of Carolina's offense was about as bad as sitting in a dentist's chair for three hours. Unfortunately, I've done both, and I can't decide which one's worse. Under offensive coordinator Dan Henning, the Panthers were guilty of being extremely predictable; they always seemed to run the ball on first and second down, and rarely went downfield. They only had two plays longer than 43 yards the entire season.

If you were to guess that Steve Smith was responsible for those two long plays, you'd be correct; Smith caught 83 passes for 1,166 yards and eight touchdowns in 2006, reinforcing his place among the elite weapons in the NFL. Keyshawn Johnson was the perfect complementary receiver (70 catches, 815 yards), but he was unceremoniously released because of salary-cap implications. Replacing Johnson will have to be either Keary Colbert (five receptions in 12 games), rookie Dwayne Jarrett or Drew Carter (28 receptions, 357 yards). Although Colbert is currently listed as the No. 2 wide out on the depth chart, I have to believe that both Jarrett and Carter will pass him before September.

While the Keyshawn move was shocking, I was even more surprised that the Panthers didn't pursue a legitimate tight end this offseason. New coordinator Jeff Davidson promised to open up the offense a bit more, but how is Jake Delhomme going to improve upon last year's mediocre campaign without a solid player to go over the middle of the field? His current options at that position are Michael Gaines (15 catches in nine starts), Jeff King (one reception in 12 contests) and fifth-round rookie Dante Rosario. Delhomme needs all the help he can get; he was inconsistent as ever in 2006, throwing for 365 yards against the Ravens one week, and tossing two picks in an inexplicable 17-13 loss to Washington the next.

DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams combined for 1,398 yards, but only four touchdowns last year. I expect Williams to get more of the workload in his second season, but that won't mean anything if the offensive line can't open up holes for him; both Foster and Williams averaged less than 4.2 yards per carry in 2006. The Panthers announced that they will be switching to a zone-blocking scheme, but mysteriously didn't add anyone to the front, save for second-round rookie Ryan Kalil, who should be able to take over for Justin Hartwig once he gets his feet wet. I wanted to see Carolina add a left tackle so they could move Travelle Wharton inside. That just didn't happen.

Defense This Year: What happened to Carolina's once-gritty defense? After surrendering 14 or fewer points on nine occasions in 2005, the Panthers saw that number dwindle down to four last year, as they gave up 19.1 points per game. So, what went wrong? That's no easy answer; it was a number of things. Let's go through the stop unit at every level.

At a distance, the pass rush didn't seem to be affected; Carolina registered 41 sacks in 2006 and 45 the season before. Julius Peppers' total rose from 10.5 to 13. The problem was the Panthers' lack of a secondary rusher. Mike Rucker, once a double-digit sack master, notched only five sacks last year. The 32-year-old is over the hill and needs to be replaced. The best Carolina did was draft Charles Johnson in the third round. I like Johnson as a prospect, but it could be too much to ask for a rookie to be an upgrade over a once-great Panther.

With close to an identical number of sacks, you'd expect the Panthers' interception total to remain static as well. That was simply not the case. In fact, Carolina picked off nine fewer passes (14) than it did in 2005. Starting cornerback Ken Lucas was in and out of the lineup, and there are now rumors floating around that his teammates suspect that he faked some of his injuries last season. Both Lucas and Chris Gamble saw their interception totals drop by at least four. Meanwhile, strong safety Shaun Williams' skills rapidly declined, prompting the Panthers to let go of him. Nate Salley and his four career tackles will be taking Williams' spot in 2007. At free safety, 33-year-old Mike Minter announced this season will be his last as a professional. Deke Cooper is the team's best backup at the position.

One area I thought Carolina would surely improve would be in the run-stopping department, given that defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was out the entire 2005 season. Well, Jenkins played in all 16 contests and the Panthers still saw their yards-per-carry numbers increase. Don't look at Jenkins, however. Blame the linebackers.

It's an understatement to say that linebackers Chris Draft and Na'il Diggs struggled at times last year. At least Draft notched a respectable amount of sacks and tackles; Diggs had nothing positive to contribute. Both are out of the starting lineup. At middle linebacker, Dan Morgan is expected to make a triumphant return. Well, let's forget that adjective for a second. Any sort of playing time would be nice. Excluding the 2005 campaign, Morgan has missed at least a quarter of a season ever since he was drafted in 2001. Last year was the icing on the cake; Morgan played in one contest and recorded only two tackles. At weakside, first-round rookie Jon Beason is expected to start. Beason is a hot prospect who has the ability to play the middle, should Morgan go down again. If that happens, Diggs, Adam Seward, James Anderson, Terrence Melton and fifth-round rookie Tim Shaw will battle it out for the position.

Schedule and Intangibles: What's up with NFC South teams struggling at home? The Panthers are only 49-47 as hosts since 1995 (4-4 last year). The only NFC teams to have worse records are Arizona and New Orleans. ... John Kasay nailed four 50-yard field goals and connected on 12-of-15 attempts from beyond 40. ... Punter Jason Baker is one of the league's best. He somehow maintained a 45.7 average despite hitting 31 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. ... Carolina couldn't even come close to returning a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown. That's why they drafted Ryne Robinson in the fourth round. Hopefully he changes that. ... Of the Panthers' first six contests, only one will be against a team that qualified for the postseason in 2006 (New Orleans). After their bye, however, they must battle Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Seattle and Dallas.

Additional Reading: Endless Banter coming soon.

Positional Rankings (0-4 stars):
Quarterbacks
Offensive Line
Secondary
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams
Receivers
Linebackers
Coaching


Divisional Rival History:
Atlanta Falcons: The only time the Falcons beat the Panthers the past two years was when the latter didn't have Steve Smith.
New Orleans Saints: The road team has mysteriously won six of the previous seven matchups. Guess the Panthers' horrendous home record plays a factor here.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Domination. Carolina has claimed seven of the past eight meetings.

Fantasy Football:
Jake Delhomme: It's hard to dub Jake Delhomme a spot starter in fantasy football because he has his best games against defenses like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, and his worst performances versus Minnesota, Cleveland and St. Louis.
Projected Stats: 3,450 passing yards. 22 passing TDs. 20 rushing yards. 1 rushing TD.
Projected Fantasy Points: 312.

DeAngelo Williams: The Panthers use two running backs and cannot open interior lanes very well. DeAngelo Williams will, however, score you points in the passing game.
Projected Stats: 800 rushing yards. 575 receiving yards. 7 total TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 179.

DeShaun Foster: He shares his carries with DeAngelo Williams and provides nothing in the passing game. Pass.
Projected Stats: 650 rushing yards. 3 total TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 83.

Michael Gaines: The Panthers plan on using tight ends more in the offense, but how much can you really expect from a guy who caught only 15 passes in 2006?
Projected Stats: 275 receiving yards. 1 TD.
Projected Fantasy Points: 33.

Steve Smith: One year removed from catching 103 passes, 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns. Steve Smith's numbers dropped a bit because he missed the first two games of the 2006 season. He's still one of the top wide outs in real and fantasy football.
Projected Stats: 1,300 receiving yards. 11 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 196.

Drew Carter: A potential sleeper. Drew Carter will be Carolina's new possession receiver in the wake of Keyshawn Johnson's release. Carter caught eight passes for 144 yards against the Giants on Dec. 10.
Projected Stats: 825 receiving yards. 4 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 106.

Dwayne Jarrett: I'm not sure exactly how much Dwayne Jarrett will contribute this season. Rookie wide outs are so difficult to predict.
Projected Stats: 400 receiving yards. 1 TD.
Projected Fantasy Points: 46.

John Kasay: John Kasay has hit at least three 50-yarders the past three seasons. There's not much more you can ask from your fantasy kicker.
Projected Stats: 24-29 FG (3-6 50+). 32 XP.
Projected Fantasy Points: 118.

Carolina Defense: You're guaranteed a bunch of sacks if you take Carolina's defense. They'll also give you a shutout or two. Keep in mind, however, that they play Seattle and Dallas weeks 15 and 16.
Projected Fantasy Ranking: Top 10 Defense.

Analysis: I think there's a rule that states that at least half the media must pick the Panthers as a sleeper Super Bowl team. If Jake Delhomme gets his act together, and Steve Smith and the top players on defense stay healthy, there's no reason Carolina can't get to the Promised Land.

Projection: 10-6 (Tied 1st in the NFC South)


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