|Monday, August 18
Updated: September 2, 12:42 AM ET
Panthers still lacking playmakers on offense
By Len Pasquarelli
1. In an NFC South that has become one of the league's toughest and most compelling divisions, Carolina could finish fourth simply because that's where the franchise's talent level ranks when viewed against its competitors. But the Panthers will certainly be no day at the beach for opponents. Coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney have a clear-cut vision for where they want to go, and how they want to play, and have done a nice job assembling what appears to be a selfless roster that features few stars but lots of hard workers. In the NFL, having a blueprint and sticking to it, getting everyone to play within the system, provides a team the chance to compete. And, make no mistake, the Panthers will be competitive in most outings. This is a team that is far better organized, understands its strengths and limitations, and doesn't often attempt to go "outside the box." The strength is a defense that runs to the football, has one of the NFL's best front four units, and usually gets the Panthers into the fourth quarter with a chance to win. There aren't many playmakers on offense, but the addition of workhorse tailback Stephen Davis gives coordinator Dan Henning a battering ram, a guy who could get 325-350 carries. Davis should be helpful in the fourth quarter, especially if the Panthers have a lead, because he can be the "closer," the back who gets 10-12 carries and runs out the clock. In only two years, Fox has done a notable job of establishing order, and developing a very definitive style of play. The beauty of the Panthers is in their boredom, because no-frills usually means no blowouts, and serves as an equalizer of sorts against teams with superior talent. Carolina probably isn't ready yet to make the jump to the playoffs but, if the Panthers can turn some of their frequent fourth-quarter defeats into victories, a .500 record would represent another step forward.
3. To suggest Stephen Davis is the tailback who rushed for over 1,300 yards in three straight seasons, 1999-2001, would be ridiculous. To contend the former Redskins star might be the best free agent acquisition of the offseason, especially given the way that the Panthers want to play, really might not be hyperbole. At age 29, Davis has taken a ton of hits, and doesn't move the pile with the same consistency he had a few years ago. But he is still capable of handling 300-plus carries, his shoulder injuries of '02 seem to no longer be a factor, and he is certainly motivated to prove to the teams that shunned him in free agency that there is still something left in the tank. What few people ever mentioned in a discussion of Davis was what scouts call "little man's feet." But on Friday night, several times in the first quarter, Davis displayed cutting ability normally associated with smaller and quicker backs. He knows how to find a hole, even if it entails a subtle cutback, and it appears he still finishes off every run. What the Panthers need to develop is a complement to Davis and that might just be a function of DeShaun Foster's return to form. The club's second-round pick in 2002, Foster tore up his left knee in camp last summer and had "microfracture" surgery to repair it. Word is that Foster, who would give the Panthers a long-speed threat, has looked good in camp. In fact, some have suggested that Carolina officials are sandbagging a little, and that Foster is actually further along in his recovery than the team has admitted so far. The former UCLA star might not play until the final preseason outing, since Panthers officials are being prudent in how they handle him, but his return would certainly represent a huge boost. One sidebar here: Teams who are looking for a backup tailback might want to pull out the tape of Friday night's game, in which journeyman Skip Hicks ran well, and showed some quickness. For whatever reason, just as is the case with Weinke, the Panthers seem to have little use for Hicks and he is buried on the depth chart.
4. The Carolina front seven, which suffered a setback when it was announced Sunday that linebacker Mark Fields will miss the entire year because of Hodgkin's Disease, had better be as good as it was in 2002. Because the secondary is decidedly unspectacular. The best player in the unit remains strong safety Mike Minter. After that, well, you scratch your head and wonder how these guys hold together. Cornerbacks Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard might be little more than "nickel" defenders on a lot of rosters, but are starters for the Panthers. The tandem had just two interceptions each in 2002, yet Carolina still ranked No. 4 against the pass. Hard to imagine how good this defense might be if it had just one true "shutdown" cornerback. Not surprisingly, free safety Deon Grant is again being heavily scrutinized, because he simply doesn't make many plays. Grant passes the "eyeball" test, a superb athlete who looks the part, but he isn't a big hitter and doesn't demonstrate much range, either. There isn't a lot to choose from behind him, but the former second-rounder seems to always be just one snap removed from losing his job. No one can ever question the decision in 2002 to select defensive end Julius Peppers over corner Quentin Jammer in the first round. But in the next year or two, for the Panthers to really upgrade defensively, they are going to have to make a move for a top cornerback.
5. The mini-camp Achilles injury that knocked out wide receiver Kevin Dyson for the year once again left the Panthers without a deep threat. Third-year veteran Steve Smith, onetime return specialist who started 13 games in 2002 and averaged an impressive 16.1 yards on 54 catches, flashes big-play skills. But he's not a player who scares opposing secondaries and, at just 5-feet-9 and 185 pounds, there's always a fear that he will wear down physically in the second half of the season. The Panthers seem to feel their wideout corps is significantly improved, but we just don't see it. Muhsin Muhammad can still be productive, but incessant injuries have taken away some of his game, and he was always more a possession guy anyway. The venerable Ricky Proehl is one of the best slot guys in recent history but doesn't often get vertical. Dyson at least posed the perception of some outside speed. It would be hard to suggest that the Panthers will be able to stretch the field much more in 2003 than they did a year ago. Squeezing in one last observation on the offense: Rookie right tackle Jordan Gross, the team's first-round pick, is a very solid and polished young blocker. Is Gross the prototype strong-side tackle? No, since he still plays with more finesse than muscle. But he is mature, goes hard every snap, and in a few years probably will flip over to the left side.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.