A more robust ground game and a stronger middle of the defensive front givesCarolina a healthy shot at the Super Bowl. Having drafted running back DeAngeloWilliams out of Memphis in the first round, the Panthers will avoid anotherdebacle like last year's, when fifth-stringer Jamal Robertson played themajority of the NFC title game because of injuries to everyone in front of him.And the pairing of defensive tackles Kris Jenkins, who returns from twostraight season-ending injuries, with free-agent signee Maake Kemoeatu forms amountainous, near-impenetrable wall.
With all due respect to All-Pro wideout Steve Smith, it's the running game thatwill determine how far Carolina advances. The top two backs, Stephen Davis andDeShaun Foster, each missed parts of the last three seasons with injuries,hampering the attack. Davis was cut last March, so the starting job goes toFoster; now can he make it through 16 games? "I've just had freak thingshappen to me," says Foster, who had, in order, knee, hand, collarbone andleg injuries. "I know I'm not injury-prone." He has yet to average asmany as 15 carries a game in a season. "I've told DeShaun he can't worryabout injuries," coach John Fox says. "It's like telling a race cardriver, 'Don't wreck.' DeShaun just has to go out and play." Williams, afeisty runner who blocked like a fullback in training camp, gives Fox moreconfidence in his depth than he's had in recent years.
The running gamewill also be helped by the addition of free agent Keyshawn Johnson, one of theNFL's best blocking receivers. He'll often line up in the slot, joiningblocking tight end Kris Mangum in giving the Panthers two extra big bodies onrunning plays. "That physical presence will make it hard for teams todevote all their energy trying to stop Steve Smith," says quarterback JakeDelhomme. "They're going to have to respect the run on every down."
On defense Fox isdrooling over the prospect of Kemoeatu, the surprisingly expensive (five years,$23 million) free agent from the Ravens, and Jenkins playingshoulder-to-shoulder in first- and second-down situations. "Two big guyswho aren't fat slobs clogging the middle would be a tremendous addition to ourdefense," says the coach. There's little reason to believe Jenkins willmake it through the season, though; not after operations on his right knee andleft shoulder limited him to a total of five starts in the past two years. Hemight be one of those huge guys whose body breaks down at 27 instead of at 30or 31. During one morning workout in training camp Jenkins was bent over andpleading for ice because of a lower-back condition that plagued him thissummer. A trainer came to his aid, wrapped ice onto the sore area, and the335-pound defensive tackle hobbled through the rest of practice. Fox remainsconfident that Jenkins will hold up.
Despite havingall the makings of a very good team, the Panthers are in a tough division, havea killer schedule--including the four NFC East teams, plus the Steelers and theBengals--and all those fragile bodies. They're a Super Bowl--caliber team inSeptember but no lock to be there in February.
17 at Minnesota
24 at Tampa Bay
1 NEW ORLEANS
15 at Baltimore
22 at Cincinnati
13 TAMPA BAY (M)
19 St. Louis
26 at Washington
4 at Philadelphia(M)
10 N.Y. GIANTS
24 at Atlanta
31 at New Orleans
Opponents' 2005winning percentage
Games againstplayoff teams
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE PANTHERS
> KeyshawnJohnson is the perfect addition to this offense--if he remembers why he'sthere. He'd better be happy with being the clear-out guy for Steve Smith.
> ChrisGamble is the league's most underrated corner. He's not afraid of anything, andat 6'1" he's got the size to be physical with big receivers.
> Big upgradeat center, and Carolina needed it. Jeff Mitchell got pushed around last year,so the arrival of Justin Hartwig, a 310-pound drive-blocker from the Titans, isgood for the running game.
> There'll beno excuses from defensive end Julius Peppers this year, not with MaakeKemoeatu, the free agent from Baltimore, next to him. Peppers is so gifted anathlete that it's an upset when he doesn't lead the league in sacks--but hehasn't done it yet.
John Kasay is over the hill. You can't rely on him to make a long field goal.I'm surprised they didn't replace him.
Carolina knew ayear in advance that it would not match a big free-agent offer to WillWitherspoon whenever it came in early 2006--indeed, he went to the Rams for a$33 million deal. So the Panthers drafted Davis out of Georgia in April '05 toeventually succeed him. Now, after shuttling between strong safety andlinebacker as a rookie, Davis will play over the tight end and try to surpassWitherspoon's 81 tackles from last year.
WITH 2005 STATISTICS
JOHN FOX (36--28 in NFL), fifth season with Carolina
SACKS 10 1/2
SACKS 7 1/2
SACKS 1 1/2
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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BOB ROSATO (FOSTER)
Foster assumes the featured-back role, with a strong rookie behind him and someblocking on the wings.
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HELMET PHOTOS BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ