Carolina Panthers 2010 Season Preview: New Faces Aplenty
Who is that guy? For Carolina Panthers faithful, that isn't such a funny question. Even if the Panthers are your favorite team, you still may need to grab a roster sheet on Sundays -- there are a lot of new names in Carolina this season.
Gone are familiar faces like Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad, to name just a few. In their places are younger, healthier and most importantly, cheaper players. Nine starters are being replaced in Carolina, and the 8-8 record the Panthers achieved last season isn't as much mile marker or building block, but a top-end goal for 2010.
Offense -- The Panthers are going to break camp with a new quarterback in 2010, the first time that's happened since 2003. Delhomme was shown the door after throwing 18 interceptions in only 11 games last year. The 26-year-old Matt Moore will take over after compiling 990 yards passing in the final five games of last season, four of which were wins for Carolina. Last season also saw DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart become the first running backs in NFL history to each run for 1,110 yards in the same year. This milestone was only reached because Williams missed three games at the end of the season and Stewart was forced into action. Stewart and Williams complement one another, but either player could flourish as a featured back in this system, and you'll see that in 2010 as Williams will get a majority of the carries -- as long as he stays healthy.
After Steve Smith, who missed his fifth consecutive 1,000 yard receiving season by 18 yards last year, the Panthers have a lot of question marks in the receiving game. Fourth-year target Dwayne Jarrett seems to have held off rookie Brandon LaFell to run opposite Smith, but will have to fight to keep that job. Anyone not named Smith will have to prove they can cut it as a starting receiver. There are fewer than 20 combined 2009 receptions on the depth chart behind Smith. Heat Index: 6
Defense -- After losing their most prolific pass rusher in Peppers, the Panthers must almost completely retool their defensive line -- only one starter, Tyler Brayton, will return. Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be an issue for Brayton and third-year pro Charles Johnson. The duo had nine sacks between them last year.
After weakside linebacker Thomas Davis tore his ACL in June, the Panthers chose to move Jon Beason to replace him, instead of signing someone else. Carolina will miss Beason's awesome agility as he could move quickly to either sideline from his spot in the middle last season.
The cornerback position is the area of strength for this defense. Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are both athletic and can get to balls in the air. They may not see a plethora of passes if the 22nd-ranked run defense regresses like expected, but Gamble and Marshall can shine when forced into action. The defense has been impressive in four preseason games, even sack-happy. Remember though, preseason is called just that for a reason. The Panthers still have a lot to prove on defense once the real action begins. Heat Index: 5
Special Teams -- Only one player is left on the roster from the Panthers' 1995 expansion team: 40-year-old kicker John Kasay. He's still extremely effective from within 43 yards but will only be handling field goal and extra point tries as Todd Carter will kick off. Punter Jason Baker will help the Panthers pin opponents deep, but the team could surely use an upgrade in the return game -- neither Captain Munnerlyn or Tyrell Sutton were especially explosive last year and Armanti Edwards may not be ready to take over just yet. Heat Index: 7
Coaching -- Head coach John Fox is in the final year of his contract and reaching that final year might have been a gift from owner Jerry Richardson. In fact, most of the staff members around Fox is also on the last year of their respective contracts, which can sometimes lead to issues in the locker room. The general thought is that no matter what -- win or lose -- Fox is gone after this season. Heat Index: 6
Intangibles -- The Panthers are going to rely on two running backs to lead them this season and expectations shouldn't be too high. The team chose to save money and enter the season as a rebuilding project. That's fine, but with Fox on the hot seat, how does the team rebuild? It looks like the Panthers will have to wait until 2011 to find direction. Heat Index: 5
Total Heat Index: 29/50 -- It's going to be a long season in Charlotte. The Panthers are too young and too far removed from their winning ways to make anything out of a tough situation. They are fighting in a division that is dominated by elite NFL teams and even the lowly Buccaneers, while not as good as the Panthers, may be closer to moving in the right direction.