We continue our tour of 32 teams in 32 days with the ...
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2007 record: 7-9 (267-347)
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 5.6-10.4
All-time franchise record: 97-111-0 (.466)
Playoff record: 6-3 (.667)
Last five seasons: 44-36 (.550)
Worst Quality Stat in 2007:
Special Teams Index, Passing YPA (30th)
Best game of 2007: Week 6, 25-10 win at Arizona. Vinny Testaverde's lone shining moment came here, when he showed up off the street to key a road win over a good Cardinals team. The 181 rushing yards the Panthers piled up didn't hurt, nor did the five turnovers the defense forced.
Coaching. With no QB and a hobbled Julius Peppers, the Panthers didn't have much of a team last year. But they still managed to win seven games, and placed 12th on the Big Play Index
despite a dearth of Big Play players. That's a tribute to the coaches putting whatever players he has in the best position to win, something John Fox is one of the best at.
Weakness: Pass-catchers. Steve Smith is borderline unstoppable when he's got someone throwing to him and some other target to take the heat off. But the Panthers had neither last year, and were 30th in Passing YPA while Smith had pedestrian (for him) 87-1,002-7 numbers. The Panthers got Muhsin Muhammad back in free agency, but his contributions remain to be seen. No. 2 WR Drew Carter and TE Jeff King had decent numbers (923 yards between them) last year, but the Panthers needed much more as teams loaded up to stop Smith.
Most underrated player: RB DeAngelo Williams. It doesn't always work out that the exit of one-half of a talback tandem leads to success for the guy who becomes "the man." But subtraction looks to be addition for Carolina. DeShaun Foster, now with San Francisco as a backup, got 272 touches for 1,058 yards from scrimmage (3.89 yards per touch, 3.5 per carry) to Williams' 892 yards on 167 touches (5.34 yards per touch, 5.0 per carry). Williams' numbers are all the more impressive considering the one-dimensional quality of Carolina's offense. Carolina's passing game should be back to average or better – and that'll be a boost to Williams and the run game. In his third year, Williams, the former first-round pick, will get a shot to prove his 5.0 average of 2007 wasn't misleading.
Unit on the rise: Linebackers. The Panthers actually have only two of their three linebacker slots filled, but those two players – MLB Jon Beason and OLB Thomas Davis – are very exciting. Beason was off the hook, and Davis gets better and better as he leaves his former position (safety) behind. The Panthers are going to have to find another OLB between now and August (the subpar Na'il Diggs is the starter now), but they should be rock-solid here for the next half-decade.
: The Panthers have already been very active. They re-signed starting tackles Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton, retaining one of the best combos in the NFC. They also added possession WR Muhsin Muhammad, who turns 35 this spring and may or may not have something left after a 40-catch season with Chicago last year. They traded DT Kris Jenkins to the Jets for draft picks and added DE Tyler Brayton.
Youth/experience: The Panthers are very young – only QB Jake Delhomme and DE Mike Rucker are major contributors returning from last year's roster on the wrong side of 30. The Panthers let a slew of complementary veterans go in free agency, and will have to continue to be active with lesser free agents. They had 14 rookies on the roster in 2007.
2007 Draft grade: B. Seven different Panthers rookies started games last year, and ILB Jon Beason was a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. One No. 2 pick, Ryan Kalil, will likely start at guard or center in 2008, but the other one, WR Dwayne Jarrett was a bust (six catches). The rest of the rookies are on the fence.
2008 Draft power: 1st (13), 2nd (44), 3rd (68), 3rd (75), 4th (107), 5th (134), 6th (172), 7th (204).
General Draft strategies: The Panthers are kind of an NFC version of the Colts – the overwhelming majority of their team is homegrown, thanks to rock-solid drafts over the past half-decade. Fifteen of their 22 main starters from 2007 began their careers in Carolina. The Panthers have had an extra second- or third-rounder in each of the last four drafts and have an extra third this year. They've gone defense with their top pick six of the last eight seasons, which seems to have impacted their offense (26th in scoring last year).
Coaching: Head man John Fox and DC Mike Trgovac have been a good combo for the Panthers. In six years together (Trgovac for the last five as coordinator), the Panthers have been in the top half of the league in scoring defense each year. The Panthers brought in Jeff Davidson as the offensive coordinator in 2007, and he gets a mulligan thanks to the absence of a QB. But he'll be expected to get the Panthers offense back into the top half of the league in 2008. Special teams coach Danny Crossman has some splainin' to do after his team's awful showing last year (30th on our Special Teams Index).
Overview: Carolina could be much closer to contending for a NFC title than you might think. Jake Delhomme's career passer rating is 85.2, and his three replacements were all under 68 last year. The return of Delhomme is a huge difference, and the Panthers should consider inking one of the better free agent QBs to back him up as well. Other than the passing game, the Panthers were pretty good last year. Their scoring defense was average (15th) despite that albatross of an offense, and despite Julius Peppers being a shell of his usual self. They also averaged 4.0 YPA on offense without a viable passing game.
However, they have been in the bottom of the league in scoring two years running – including a 2006 where they had a healthy Delhomme – so either Williams at RB or a legitimate second threat in the passing game must emerge. But this team showed a lot of spunk with seven wins when their play dictated a 5-11 season, and the infusion of new (and) old blood could be just what the doctor ordered.