Home > NFL, Roster Roundouts > Roster Roundouts ’10: A Carolina Panthers Season Preview

Roster Roundouts ’10: A Carolina Panthers Season Preview

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Carolina Panthers (projected finish: 8-8)

Team synopsis: The schedule reveals one tough contest after another, with potential reprieves against Cleveland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Arizona, perhaps?  Unless you have Tampa Bay as one of the three worst teams in football (and I do not), Carolina plays a pre-bye schedule of NY Giants, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Chicago, and then a November stretch of New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore.  Luckily, you’d expect the Panthers to pull an upset or two based solely on their organizational talent and unique abilities to control the clock better than any other team.  Unfortunately, the sum of all these factors looks something like an 8-8 finish, but a particularly promising 2011 if, and this is a big if, the team sees enough to extend the contract of head coach John Fox.

Best Players

  • RB DeAngelo Williams (drafted — Memphis/2006 1st round pick)
  • RB Jonathon Stewart (drafted — Oregon/2008 1st round pick)
  • WR Steve Smith (drafted — Utah/2001 3rd round pick)
  • LT Jordan Gross (drafted — Utah/2003 1st round pick)
  • C Ryan Kalil (drafted — USC/2007 2nd round pick)
  • LB Jon Beason (drafted — Miami/2007 1st round pick)
  • CB Chris Gamble (drafted — Ohio State/2004 1st round pick)

Best Prospects

  • WR Brandon LaFell (drafted — LSU/2010 3rd round pick)
  • TE Gary Barnidge (drafted — Louisville/2008 5th round pick)
  • RG Geoff Schwartz (drafted — Oregon/2008 7th round pick)
  • DE Everette Brown (drafted — Florida State/2009 2nd round pick)
  • LB Eric Norwood (drafted — South Carolina/2010 4th round pick)
  • CB Captain Munnerlyn (drafted — South Carolina/2009 7th round pick)

The Panthers are one of Peter King’s darkhorse contenders this year.  They should consider themselves lucky to not be Dr. Z’s super bowl pick!

The first thing that sticks out about the Panthers roster is that they’ve done a better job retaining successful first round picks of yesteryear than they have retaining their own first round picks.  The Panthers last had a first round pick in 2008, when they had two, drafting RB Jonathon Stewart and RT Jeff Otah with them.  Their 2006 first round pick, Jonathon Stewart, is in the last year of his contract.  If the franchise tag exists past this year, he should be back in 2011, but there’s a very real possibility that he will be elsewhere next year.  If Stewart walks, he would be the first Panther 1st rounder to spend fewer than 7 years with the team since 2000 1st rounder Rashard Anderson, and the first to not sign an extension since Julius Peppers (notwithstanding Otah and Beason).

He’d also contribute to an aging problem in the roster by leaving.  Stewart, Otah, and Beason are still very young, but Gross, Gamble, Travelle Wharton, and Thomas Davis are all aging at the same rate, and will hit their thirties before the end of the year 2012  Davis, perhaps, faster than others because he tore his ACL again in OTAs, and will miss most if not all this season.  Steve Smith will be 31 this season, and he, himself does not feel like he is best suited to remain the Panthers no. 1 receiver.  No. 1, 2, or 3, Smith is still the go to guy in the Panthers’ passing game.  He’s just no longer a passing game onto itself.  He needs help.

He might have help in the form of receiving TEs Dante Rosario and Gary Barnidge, but likely will receive very little from WR Dwayne Jarrett.  The Panthers have one of the deepest, most impressive TE depth charts in the league, but next year, they will likely have to make choices about who to pay among that group and who to let go, as all three, including starter Jeff King, near unrestricted free agency.  Their wide receiver depth chart is the very definition of unimpressive.  Beyond Steve Smith, returning Panthers receivers combined for…24 catches, 23 of which belong to Jarrett and Kenneth Moore.  The team selected Brandon Lafell in the third round this year, and his contribution could be immediate because, well, there’s just not a lot here.

More than ever, I’m convinced that the Panthers only ever “built” a passing game because they happened to stumble upon Steve Smith in the 2001 drafted.  They were looking for a dynamic kick returner, and found a guy who might end up in the hall of fame as a receiver someday.  This year’s draft class was a step in the right direction, adding receivers LaFell and Armanti Edwards, and quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike.  Clausen fits the scheme well, as with a run blocking line, you need a quarterback who can sell play action to buy himself time.  Pike, if nothing else, was a good value, as you never know in the NFL if your power offense of 2008 might end up taking on a spread look by 2013.

Clausen is irrelevant in the short term because the Panthers are going with 26 year old Matt Moore at quarterback.  Moore has been promising, completing 59.4% of 249 attempts as an NFL quarterback between 2007 and 2009, and finishing up his three starts last year with a 98.5% QB rating.  His college statistics see a guy who completed 60% of his passes in 24 starts and got sacked on 7.6% of his dropbacks, so unless Moore is a better pro player than a college player, there might not be much here to work with.  Playing him until the flame is doused is probably the best strategy.

Clausen’s long-term prospects are pretty mediocre.  He had a better college completion percentage than the man he succeeded, Brady Quinn.  Accurate, with a low college interception rate, and a middling amount of college starts at a fairly advanced age (Clausen spent just three years at ND, but was a 19 year old early admission, playing his true freshman season just before turning 20 in December).  In other words, a game manager in the mold of Matt Leinart.  The best case scenario for the Panthers is for Moore to establish himself as the team’s franchise passer, but Clausen is a nice Plan B.

Aside from the best backfield tandem in the league, the offensive line is the team’s strength.  Jordan Gross is the team’s franchise LT, fresh off injury, and Ryan Kalil might be the NFCs best center.  Travelle Wharton is a placeholder at LG who does a decent job at tackle when necessary.  Geoff Schwartz might already be the team’s third best lineman at RG, and Jeff Otah is an average RT, which is all the Panthers were expecting out of their first round draft pick.  The Panthers will go without a blocking fullback for the first time in recent memory, moving Brad Hoover out to make room for multiple dual TE sets.

Without a passing game to speak of, the defense absolutely has to answer the bell.  While a very young unit, the issue here is that the group is Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, and a plethora of young guys in development.  This could be a problem.  When Julius Peppers wasn’t producing last year, the Panthers began the season 0-3.  Now they don’t have to worry about Peppers’ inconsistent production, because they do not have him.

The defensive line, in general, is a who’s who list of no-names.  6th round draft pick Greg Hardy, a college DE, could be in the mix to start as the three technique.  Other defensive tackles on this team are named Nick Hayden and Louis Leonard.  Ed Johnson, Tank Tyler, and Derek Landri are also in camp.  Tyler Brayton, Everette Brown, and Charles Johnson are a formidable, if forgettable, rotation at defensive end.  The strategy to replace Peppers will look similar to the strategy of the Titans to replace Albert Haynesworth, though likely with less impressive results on the DL.

The Titans defense folded last year because of secondary play.  For the Panthers, the secondary figures to be a strength.  Or at least, it has to be.  Chris Gamble is a no. 1 corner, and Richard Marshall is a good starter with excellent run support skills.  Both can be beaten deep.  Captain Munnerlyn figures to be a starter on this team sooner rather than later, particularly since Marshall is in a contract year.  Charles Godfrey played well as the strong safety last year.  Free safety is a major concern on one hand, but on the other hand, might be the least important position in the Panthers defensive scheme.  If Richard Marshall can be picked on all year, the Panthers could be in trouble.  But I doubt either Sherrod Martin or rookie DB Jordan Pugh are going to ruin the Panthers season.

There are plenty of competent linebackers who can play beside Beason on the roster, but that doesn’t mean Thomas Davis isn’t a big loss.  James Anderson has traditionally been a fourth linebacker, but is more than competent in a starters role.  Jamar Williams is an excellent player in his own right, picked up from the Bears for Chris Harris in a trade.  Dan Connor has been disappointing through two injury-plagued NFL seasons, but Davis’ injury gives him a chance to establish himself this year.

If the Panthers are done in by anything this year, their defense will probably be to blame.  Having the running game is one of the surest things in all of football this year, and the Panthers go in knowing that using play action and tight end routes are the only way to open up holes in the passing game for Moore to throw into.  The post-Peppers defense could be anywhere between a top ten unit, and a bottom eight unit.  A strong unit makes them a darkhorse playoff contender.  A weak unit makes them a 6-10 team, and starts the coaching search for 2011.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Tony Pike edition.  The Panthers are very loyal to all their quarterbacks, so it’s too early to pencil Pike onto the roster, at the expense of Hunter Cantwell.  If Cantwell outplays Pike in the preseason, he could win the backup QB job over Clausen, and force Pike to the practice squad.

Running back behind Williams/Stewart could be interesting and have significant future implications.  The team likes Tyrell Sutton as a kick returner, but he was also a great college running back at Northwestern who could easily be the no. 3 on this team.  He’s behind Mike Goodson right now.  Goodson was a guy the team was really high on last season, but his rookie year was disappointing (22 carries, 49 yards), to say the least.  His roster spot could be in danger this pre-season because of Dantrell Savage, a RB picked up on waivers from the Chiefs, who was thought to have a future there.  The Panthers didn’t keep four RBs at the outset last year, but when Goodson went on IR, Sutton filled the third RB role, rushing for 68 yards on just 12 carries.

Mackenzy Bernadeau played well in a relief effort last year, likely earning his spot as the eight lineman on the roster this year.  Steve Justice was picked up from the Colts in the offseason to be backup Center.  Duke Robinson, a second year pro from Oklahoma can play multiple positions on the line, and should slide nicely into Geoff Schwartz’ 6th OL spot for a group filled with utility players.  The interesting backup OT battle between Jason Capizzi, a camp star for the Steelers the last two years, and Rob Pettiti, who was horrible as Cowboys starter back as a rookie in 2005, but got some quality reps in the UFL last year.  The winner is probably bound to be inactive more likely than not.

Quentin Culberson has resurfaced in Carolina, and will probably be the 5th LB on a team likely to keep just six, even if Thomas Davis lands on IR.  The reason is with the Panthers kicking game.  The Panthers keep four special teamers, employing Rhys Lloyd as a kickoff man to help John Kasay the last two seasons.  Lloyd has departed, and in his place, is former Grand Valley kicker Todd Carter.

The safety roster situation is pretty clear, even if the starting FS position remains up for grabs: Aaron Francisco will be the backup SS.  Behind the three corners who figure to play the most, there’s a major roster crunch at corner.  The team drafted Roger McClain and R.J. Stanford with it’s last two draft picks, but does not figure to keep both.  C.J. Wilson, a late round pick from three years ago, is ready for a bigger role in the defense, which means Dante Wesley’s old role.  Former Jaguar Brian Witherspoon will return kicks in the preseason, and an excellent performance there could push him through on the final roster as a gunner and returner.

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