2009 team preview: Carolina Panthers

Inside Slant

The Panthers enter the regular season with just as many questions, if not more, about the defense as they had when the group was much-discussed and often criticized late last season.

Injuries and poor tackling have left the Panthers‘ defense looking very soft in the preseason.

In a Week 3 preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Panthers allowed Joe Flacco to throw for 247 yards in just over a half. The Ravens aren’t exactly known for their passing prowess and the simple manner in which Flacco diced up Carolina’s defense certainly leaves plenty of cause for concern.

That loss came on the heels of two games in which the Panthers also struggled with tackling.

“The biggest thing is we need is to tackle better,” said safety Chris Harris. “We have been a poor tackling team these three preseason games. It’s disappointing for us to come out and play like this three weeks in a row.”

Added coach John Fox: “I don’t think we were as crisp tackling as I’d like to see. By the naked eye, that is one of the things that stood out to me.”

But injuries have also been a problem.

All-Pro middle linebacker Jon Beason is out with a sprained knee and his status for the season opener against Philadelphia remains in question. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis has missed almost all of the preseason with a similar injury — but is now back at practice — and free safety Charles Godfrey will play the start of the season with a broken hand.

The biggest blow came early in training camp for the Panthers when run-stuffing defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu ruptured his Achilles and had to be placed on injured reserve. It was the team’s thinnest position to begin with and only recently did the team begin to address it when they traded an undisclosed draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for third-year pro Louis Leonard, a 6-foot-4, 325-pound run stuffer.

With so many injuries and the team still learning a new defense, they’ve needed some stability from the highest-paid player on the roster — franchise defensive end Julius Peppers, who’ll make more than $1 million per game this season. But Peppers has been mostly invisible in the preseason, registering two tackles in six quarters.

Cornerback Chris Gamble was also taken apart by Ravens 35-year-old receiver Derrick Mason in the preseason raising concerns about his ability to handle the role of shutdown corner.

With the Panthers opening the season against Philadelphia, Atlanta and Dallas, new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks had best get his players on the same page — and do it fast.

The offense should be fine, even with backup running back Jonathan Stewart limited with a sore Achilles. Rookie Mike Goodson has filled in nicely and is a homerun threat whenever he touches the ball.

The Panthers will look for consistency from quarterback Jake Delhomme, but the offense will still go as DeAngelo Williams goes. And so far Williams has looked outstanding in the preseason. He seems on the verge of taking the next step to greatness.

COACHING: John Fox, 8th year overall, 8th year with Panthers (63-49).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 12-4 (1st in NFC South); lost in divisional playoff at home to the Arizona Cardinals, 33-13.

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 7-9 (3rd in NFC South).

Notes and Quotes

–Team president Mark Richardson and stadium president Jon Richardson, the only two sons of owner Jerry Richardson, unexpectedly resigned from the organization on Tuesday in part because of a sibling rivalry.

An acrimonious relationship between the two brothers led both to resign Tuesday.

Jon, who privately informed his father of his intentions to resign last month, has been involved with Bank of America Stadium since its construction. Mark oversaw the effort to obtain an expansion franchise and has served as the team president since the retirement of Mike McCormack in 1998.

Although the unexpected resignations and owner Jerry Richardson’s recent health problems raised questions about the long-term future of the Panthers in Charlotte, Johnny Harris, a member of the Panthers partnership group, said the organization is “absolutely not relocating and is not for sale.”

Jerry Richardson addressed about eight members of the partnership group of his sons’ decisions on Tuesday morning at a meeting in Charlotte. He talked to other investors afterward by phone.

Harris, a longtime friend of Richardson’s, said the nature of the sons’ resignation was not discussed, but the future of the team was.

And, he said, it’s very stable.

“I can tell you unequivocally the Panthers are not for sale,” Harris said. “There was no talk of selling or moving the team from Charlotte. That’s not going to happen. I can say that unequivocally. The Panthers are staying here in Charlotte. There were no discussions by Jerry or any other members about the sale of the team or the relocation of the team. Period.”

–Defensive end Everette Brown has shown something in every preseason games. The only thing that prevented him from registering his third sack in as many games against Baltimore was tackle Michael Oher grabbing his jersey from behind after Brown beat him off the edge. “I feel like I’m getting better,” Brown said. “Every day, every practice, it’s all coming together.”

–The Panthers gave Chris Gamble a $54.5 million contract extension last season to be their shutdown cornerback. Given that financial investment the Panthers can’t be real happy with the effort they got from Gamble on Saturday night.

The six-year NFL veteran had a rough first half against the Baltimore Ravens, giving up a 42-yard completion to Kelley Washington, completions of 26 and 10 yards to 35-year-old Derrick Mason and was flagged for illegal hands to the face, all resulting in Ravens first downs. If he’s struggling against guys like Washington and Mason, you have to wonder how he’ll fare Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss this season.

Gamble said he played with “bad technique” and that he’ll correct the problem.

–The Panthers like what they’ve seen from rookie RB Mike Goodson.

With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart sitting out, Goodson responded with a solid effort rushing for 40 yards on 10 carries while adding 26 yards on three receptions. He also had a 14-yard run called back on an illegal formation penalty.

He also returned kickoffs for the Panthers.

–When Steve Smith injured his shoulder in training camp it looked serious.

But Smith was back in the lineup in the third preseason game and showed he still has plenty of strength. He caught two passes for 37 yards in the first half, including an electrifying catch and run in which he threw Baltimore CB Domonique Foxworth aside, turning a 6-yard gain into a 26-yard pass play.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Both Mark and Jon made great contributions to the stadium and team that have enabled us to enjoy much success over the last 15 years. At the same time I am thankful that we have a staff that has been in place for many years and knows our philosophy.” — Panthers owner Jerry Richardson on his sons Mark and Jon resigning Tuesday.

Strategy and Personnel

PLAYER NOTES

–WR Ryne Robinson, the team’s kickoff and punt returner in 2007, was released.

–WR Kenny Moore solidified his spot on the roster following the release of WRs Ryne Robinson and Jason Carter.

–WR Dwayne Jarrett, a second-round pick in 2007, continues to struggle getting off the line of scrimmage and finding ways to get open. He could get bumped from third to fourth on the depth chart.

–WLB Thomas Davis returned to practice last week and should be ready for the regular season opener against the Eagles.

–MLB Jon Beason will be questionable for the season opener vs. the Eagles.

–RB Jonathan Stewart has only participated in eight practices all year for the Panthers as he continues to nurse his Achilles.

–DT Louis Leonard was acquired in a trade with Cleveland on Tuesday. He has a chance to play some, although the Panthers could add another defensive tackle this weekend after other teams make cuts.

The Carolina Panthers actually made some news on the field Tuesday.

The Panthers finally made a move to bolster their thin defensive tackle position by trading a late-round draft pick in 2010 to the Cleveland Browns for Louis Leonard. He played two seasons for the Browns, but was found himself out of place when the team switched to a 3-4 defense this year.

The Panthers also placed safety Nate Salley (knee) on injured reserve for the second time in three years and released undrafted rookie defensive tackle Lonnie Harvey to get down to the league limit of 75 players. It’s unclear at this point if the team will try to reach an injury settlement with Salley, who is due to cost the Panthers $1.01 million under the salary cap.

Also released last week were receiver Ryne Robinson, tackle Gerald Cadogan and defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams.

Leonard, 25, is expected to compete with Nick Hayden for a starting job.

“He’s got some athletic ability and he’s a guy our scouts have had their eye on the last couple of years,” said general manager Marty Hurney.

At 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, Leonard is better suited as a nose tackle than Hayden (6-4, 292).

Leonard appeared in 20 games with four starts over two seasons with Cleveland in 2007 and 2008, posting 33 tackles. Originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by San Diego in 2007, he spent two weeks on the Chargers‘ practice squad before being signed by the St. Louis Rams to the active roster Sept. 12, 2007. He was waived by St. Louis in October of that same year and was signed by Cleveland as a free agent a day later.

The Panthers will pick up Leonard’s $460,000 salary. In return, the Browns get a late-round draft pick for Leonard, believed to be Carolina’s seventh-round pick.

PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Kenny Moore — A hometown Charlotte kid and former fifth-round pick by the Detroit Lions could emerge as Carolina’s third receiver ahead of Dwayne Jarrett.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 2/43, DE Everette Brown, Fla. State — He’s looked great in camp and in the preseason games and will be a big help on pass-rushing downs. He may struggle playing the run.

Rd. 2/59, DB Sherrod Martin, Troy — He’s moved from corner to safety, a position he played in college. But he suffered a setback last week when he injured his knee. He’s considered a bit of a project, but could see some action on nickel and dime situations.

Rd. 3/93, DT Corvey Irvin, Georgia — Another project, Irvin will be used mostly on passing downs.

Rd. 4/11, RB Mike Goodson, Texas A&M — He has been a camp star and will see some action in a crowded backfield and is the No. 1 kick returner.

Rd. 4/128, FB Tony Fiammetta, Syracuse — Has a chance to make the roster as Brad Hoover‘s backup, but whether or not he sees much action depends on Hoover’s health.

Rd. 5/9163, OG Duke Robinson, Oklahoma — Another project, Robinson is learning fast and has a chance to be the eighth linemen. If things stay the way they are, you can foresee him being a weekly inactive.

Rd. 7/216, CB Captain Munnerlyn — Another camp superstar, Munnerlyn is battling with C.J. Wilson for the nickel spot and could return punts.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter — Jake Delhomme. Backups — Josh McCown, Matt Moore.

Delhomme enters the season as Carolina’s unquestioned starter despite his six-turnover performance in the playoffs against Arizona last January. The Panthers ensured Delhomme will be around for awhile after giving him a five-year, $42 million contract extension in the offseason. Delhomme threw 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions last year, but led the team to a 12-4 record and the NFC South championship after Tommy John surgery ended his season early in 2008. The big question here will be if the playoff debacle will affect Delhomme’s confidence this season. McCown is a journeyman backup with a losing record as a starter and should be the No. 2 guy. Moore started three games in 2007 for the Panthers but took a step back in 2008 when he was demoted to third string after breaking his leg. He looked better this year in camp, but it’s unlikely he can beat out McCown. The team will likely sign Hunter Cantwell to the practice squad if he clears waivers.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — RB DeAngelo Williams, FB Brad Hoover. Backups — RB Jonathan Stewart, RB Mike Goodson, FB Tony Fiammetta.

Williams is coming off a dynamic season, establishing a franchise record for rushing yards (1,515) and touchdowns (18). Over the final nine games last year Williams averaged 122.3 yards per game and scored 16 touchdowns. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry despite splitting carries with rookie Jonathan Stewart. And here’s the good news — he looks even better this year. Folks around the country had better take notice as Williams is a star in the making. Stewart, despite missing most of the offseason recovering from a toe injury he suffered in college, turned in a great effort setting franchise rookie records for rushing yards (836) and touchdowns (10). But he’s barely practiced in training camp due to sore Achilles. The Panthers want him to rest and recover, but you have to wonder how effective he’ll be given how much practice time he’s missed. If Stewart can’t go, then the Panthers won’t be afraid to give the ball to rookie Mike Goodson, who has looked very promising in the preseason. He could see action as a slot receiver and as a receiver out of the backfield because that plays to his strengths. He’ll also return kickoffs. Hoover is a reliable and underrated fullback now in his 10th season with the team. Fiammetta, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Syracuse, should make the club.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Gary Barnidge. Backups — Jeff King, Dante Rosario.

Barnidge overtook King as the starter in training camp, but King has started the last two preseason games for Carolina. Basically, both, along with Rosario, will see plenty of action. The Panthers love two tight end sets. Barnidge’s development is crucial because he gives the Panthers another receiving threat down the middle of the field. He was a rookie last year and didn’t catch any passes, but the team is looking for bigger and better things this season. King will never put up great numbers like the other tight ends in the NFC South, but he’ll contribute. Last year he had 21 receptions for 195 yards and a touchdown. He’s not flashy, just reliable. Rosario had a 100-yard game and caught the winning touchdown in last year’s season opener against San Diego but was largely invisible the rest of the season. He’s recovered from back surgery and has turned in a solid preseason.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad. Backups — Dwayne Jarrett, Kenneth Moore.

Despite serving a two-game suspension for slugging a teammate during a training camp fight last summer, Smith rebounded by averaging more than 100 yards receiving per game in 2008 while earning another trip to the Pro Bowl. He’s still one of the top five receivers in the game and will continue to be Jake Delhomme‘s primary weapon in the passing game. Muhammad, even at 36, continues to be a valuable weapon catching 65 passes last year for 923 yards and five touchdowns. He remains the starter for now, although the Panthers would eventually like to see Jarrett take the next step and become the starter. However, Jarrett has been sluggish during the preseason. The big story here might be Kenny Moore, who has battled up the depth chart and beat out Jason Carter and Ryne Robinson (both cut) for the No. 4 receiving spot. In fact, he’s looked so good he might even take Jarrett’s No. 3 spot. There are some who believe this may be Jarrett’s last chance to prove himself. He’s not done that yet. Last year he had just 10 receptions for 119 yards.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Jordan Gross, LG Travelle Wharton, C Ryan Kalil, RG Keydrick Vincent, RT Jeff Otah. Backups — G/C Mackenzy Bernadeau, G Duke Robinson, T Geoffrey Schwartz, G Justin Geisinger.

Carolina’s offensive line was outstanding last year, paving the way for a franchise-record 2,437 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns. They allowed only 20 sacks. The good news is the Panthers signed Jordan Gross to a long-term contract extension, assuring the Panthers will have all five starters back from last year’s team as well as all 11 starters on offense overall. Otah looks like a great young player, as does Kalil. Wharton is a little overpaid, but still very effective. The bad news is Gross’ contract extension and the decision to franchise Julius Peppers took up most of the available salary cap space. That meant the Panthers weren’t able to re-sign guard/center Geoff Hangartner and tackle Frank Omiyale and had to cut Jeremy Bridges. That means they literally have no experienced backups. Bernadeau will be the first guy off the bench if a starter gets hurt. The rest of the line is really up for grabs. The Panthers are expected to keep eight or nine linemen on the roster. Look for GM Marty Hurney to add some cheap depth here if it comes available.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Tyler Brayton, LT Nick Hayden, RT Damione Lewis, RE Julius Peppers. Backups — E Everette Brown, E Charles Johnson, T Louis Leonard, T Corvey Irvin, T Marlon Favorite, E Hilee Taylor.

Carolina lost Kemoeatu for the season on the first day of training camp practice when he ruptured his Achilles and the team has been looking for a solution ever since. They finally filled his spot by trading a late-round draft pick in 2010 to the Browns for Leonard. The Panthers might not be done trying to upgrade that position but in the meantime Leonard will battle with Hayden and Favorite, an undrafted rookie from LSU. But stopping the run is a major concern now with Kemoeatu out. Without Kemoeatu last season the Panthers gave up 301 yards to the Giants in Week 16. The Panthers registered 37 sacks last year, 14.5 of those by Peppers. So you can bet the team is thrilled to have him back under contract, even though they couldn’t convince him to sign a long-term contract. Peppers will make more than $1 million per game and the pressure will be on him to produce. Brayton turned out to be a solid free agent acquisition last year for the Panthers, but isn’t a top-notch pass rusher, which is one of the reasons the Panthers traded a first-round pick in 2010 for the right to draft Florida State’s Everette Brown. Brown figures to challenge Brayton and Charles Johnson, who had six sacks last year, for playing time. The Panthers also like Taylor as a third-round pass rusher but he might get squeezed in a numbers crunch.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Thomas Davis, MLB Jon Beason, SLB Na’il Diggs. Backups — MLB Dan Connor, WLB Landon Johnson, OLB James Anderson, LB J Leman, LB Mortty Ivy.

The Panthers have been plagued by injuries at linebacker throughout the preseason. Davis has missed most of camp with sprained MCL but should be ready for the season opener against the Eagles. However, it’s unclear if Beason, who has the same injury, will be ready to go since he injured his knee later in the preseason (22 days before the regular season). Carolina needs Beason on the field. He’s developed into one of the game’s top young linebackers making the Pro Bowl in just his second season. Davis is a player with great potential. Connor has emerged as the top backup, although he’s never played in a real game. Johnson took a pay cut to stay in Carolina and it’s cheaper to keep him than cut him. Anderson is a former third-round pick who has been slow to emerge. He’s still on the roster bubble, as are Leman and Ivy. Anderson, Leman and Ivy could be battling for the final roster spot here. The Panthers really could use a little veteran depth here, but they’re handcuffed by the salary cap.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Chris Gamble, RCB Richard Marshall, FS Charles Godfrey, SS Chris Harris. Backups — CB C.J. Wilson, CB Captain Munnerlyn, SS Quinton Teal, DB Sherrod Martin, CB Dante Wesley.

The Panthers paid Gamble like a shutdown corner late last season but he struggled in the preseason against Baltimore and needs to step up his game. It’s time for him to prove he deserves that cash. Gamble seems ready for the challenge and is hoping he’ll face the opposition’s top receiver on a weekly basis instead of being kept on the left side of the field every play. After three seasons with the Panthers, Marshall steps into the starting lineup to replace Ken Lucas, the only starter from last year’s team who was let go. Marshall played great in 2007, but struggled late last season. The Panthers drafted Sherrod Martin from Troy in the second round with an eye toward the future but have since moved him to safety meaning either Wilson or the impressive rookie Munnerlyn will be the third corner. Wesley has always been a valuable special teams player, but will have to fight to keep his job. Harris is a playmaker at strong safety, while Godfrey started all 16 games as a rookie at free safety and got better as the season progressed. Carolina’s secondary really was exposed toward the end of last season, one of the reasons defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac is no longer around. They also gave up 247 yards passing in less than three quarters to Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in the third preseason game. One thing is for sure, Godfrey, who broke his hand in the preseason and needed plates and screws to fix the problem, will have his hands full with three outstanding pass-catching tight ends in the NFC South — Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow and New Orleans’ Jeremy Shockey. Harris is trying to comeback from a shoulder injury. Wesley is there for his special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK John Kasay, P Jason Baker, KO Rhys Lloyd, KR Mike Goodson, PR Kenny Moore, PR Captain Munnerlyn, LS J.J. Jansen.

The Panthers will rely on Goodson to return kickoffs and either Moore or Munnerlyn to return punts. Kasay, who turns 40 later this year, is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro in 2009 connecting on 28 of 31 field goals. He was perfect from inside 46 yards with his only misses coming from 47, 50 and 54 yards. It helps that Lloyd is the team’s kickoff specialist. He had 30 touchbacks last season, the most in the league, which is why he’ll be back. Baker is a fairly consistent punter. Although he had three punts blocked last year, two of them certainly weren’t his fault as the Panthers blew protection. Long-time long snapper Jason Kyle was not retained, which means the team will go with Jansen, a first-year player.