AFTER ONE longmorning practice at camp in Spartanburg, S.C., Jake Delhomme was given the restof the day off. But the quarterback was feeling so frisky that he playedscout-team outside linebacker in the afternoon workouts, bouncing around like acolt rather than a 33-year-old in his 11th season. At the snap he'd barrel pastthe left tackle toward backup passer Matt Moore, doing his best Shawne Merrimanimitation.
"I've had mytime off," says Delhomme, who's coming back from ligament surgery in histhrowing elbow last October. "I can't tell you how great it feels to beback out here."
Carolina acquiredexciting new players while he was away. Jeff Otah, the mountainous first-roundpick from Pitt, has been installed as the starting right tackle. Anotherfirst-rounder, 235-pound power running back Jonathan Stewart from Oregon willshare running duties with shifty veteran DeAngelo Williams. Third-round pickCharles Godfrey was designated the starting free safety from Day One of camp.But the three players who are most important to the team's playoff hopes arethree of the longest-tenured Panthers, and all enter the season as questionmarks.
• Steve Smithturned Camp Harmony turned into Camp Turmoil when he coldcocked cornerback KenLucas during an Aug. 1 practice. Suspended for the first two games of theseason by coach John Fox, the eighth-year wideout turned sullen and withdrawn,and he became something of a pariah. "I had to talk guys down from goingafter him," says linebacker Jon Beason. It helped when Lucas publiclyforgave Smith and the incident was addressed in team meetings. "There'ssome magic going on behind the scenes," says wideout Muhsin Muhammad, afree-agent signee from the Bears. "When the season's over, you'll look backand see this was a blessing in disguise." It's hard to imagine drawingsomething positive from the loss of your best offensive weapon at the start ofthe season because of a tantrum.
• Julius Peppers,one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, with 13 sacks in 2006, had only2 1/2 in 2007, which is one reason Carolina had just 23 total. Theories abound:1) Peppers was in a funk over stalled negotiations for a new contract (whichnever got done); 2) he was the victim of constant double- and triple teams; 3)something was wrong with him physically. While Peppers wasn't talking duringcamp, Fox subscribes to that last theory, saying, "He got a virus in camplast year, missed time, lost weight and didn't seem as quick." Peppersbulked up in the off-season and looks stronger in the upper body. "I'vebeen blocking him since I came into the league," says sixth-year tackleJordan Gross, "and this is the best I've ever seen him." In the firstpreseason game Peppers strip-sacked Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi on the firstseries, forcing a fumble. On the second series he pressured Sorgi into aninterception. He had another sack and a forced fumble in the third exhibitiongame. This should be a big year for Peppers, who moves to the speed-rushingright side to cut down on chip blocks from tight ends and backs.
• For threeyears, whenever Delhomme used his right arm—to brush his teeth, carrygroceries, throw a football—it hurt. Then, in Week 3 last year, he felt a popand a burn in the elbow while throwing a pass; he had completely torn his ulnarcollateral ligament. Ten months later he says he's throwing pain-free for thefirst time since 2004. "The past couple of years," he says, "if Irolled right and had two deep comebacks, I'd always choose the one to the rightbecause I knew how much it'd hurt to throw across the field. This summer Ihaven't had one time where I've even felt anything wrong, and I've been cuttingit loose." Carolina needs the old Delhomme back, the one who averaged 3,509passing yards and had 25 more touchdowns than interceptions from 2003 through'05.
It's simple: IfSmith, Peppers and Delhomme have big years,
so will the Panthers.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JOHN FOX (51--45 in NFL), seventhseason with Panthers
Jeff OTAH (R) --New ACQUISITION
Jonathan STEWART(R) -- New ACQUISITION
Keydrick VINCENT-- New ACQUISITION
Muhsin MUHAMMAD-- New ACQUISITION
Tyler BRAYTON --New ACQUISITION
Charles GODFREY(R) -- New ACQUISITION
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
Landon JOHNSON --New ACQUISITION
New ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 RECORD 7--9NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 14/29/29 DEFENSE 18/17/16
7 at San Diego
21 at Minnesota
5 KANSAS CITY
12 at Tampa Bay
19 NEW ORLEANS
9 at Oakland
23 at Atlanta
30 at Green Bay
8 Tampa bay (M)
21 at N.Y. Giants
28 at New Orleans
NFL Rank: 22
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .465
Games against playoff teams: 5
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Panthers' units.
Can Delhomme stay healthy? Backup Matt Moore shows promise.
Nice speed-power duo in DeAngelo Williams and rookie Stewart.
Smith is a great playmaker; Dwayne Jarrett must mature.
King is hardly a household name; little else there.
The two tackles are good, but depth is a worry.
Get Lewis and Peppers both playing well, and this line is solid.
Beason improved game to game as a rookie.
Competent at corner, but safeties aren't aggressive enough.
Kasay and Baker remain a very solid kicker-punter duo.
He began his career as a right tackle in 2003, movedto the left in '04 and has gone back and forth each year since. With thearrival of rookie tackle Jeff Otah, who's huge but not quick enough for theleft side, Gross is on the move again. "I look at it like it's made me abetter all-around player," he says. "If I'd stayed on one side,football would be easy street."
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
January 23, 2006
EVEN COMING off a career year, Smith acts as if he hassomething to prove. Says Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas, "He plays with achip on his shoulder, which helps him. He probably has the biggest heart in thegame. He goes across the middle. He doesn't care who's [covering him]. He'sgoing to go up and get that ball."
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GRANT HALVERSON/GETTY IMAGES
REVITALIZED Peppers looks ready to rebound from his shocking 2007 sack drop-off.
JOHN BIEVER (COVER)