Panthers gambling on D-line

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas.

Entering a season in which his job could be on the line, Carolina coach John Fox's traditional strength is at its weakest point.

At least on paper, Carolina's defensive front doesn't look like much. It's a collection of former first-round picks (Julius Peppers, Tyler Brayton and Damione Lewis) who haven't produced much lately and some very ordinary guys (Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Stanley McClover and Charles Johnson) who have never done anything out of the ordinary.

The days when Carolina had what was considered one of the league's best defensive lines are long gone. Back in 2003, Peppers was hot and he teamed with Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker to lead Carolina to the Super Bowl. The line stayed good for several years, but it began to crumble last year when Peppers slumped and so did the rest of the line.

But that didn't lead to any dramatic overhauls. If anything, they're banking on addition by subtraction. They traded Jenkins, a three-time Pro Bowler, to the Jets and Rucker retired. Aside from bringing in Brayton, who never reached his potential in Oakland, the Panthers did little with their defensive line. The returning defensive ends -- Peppers, McClover and Johnson -- combined for 3.5 sacks.

That's a huge gamble because Fox depends so much on his front four. So how can Fox return this unit to respectability?

First, he has to get production from Peppers. That wasn't an issue before last year, when Peppers came up with only 2.5 sacks. Peppers and the Panthers firmly denied his slump was due to injury or illness and they're going to shake things up by matching Peppers up against left tackles after he's spent most of his career going against right tackles.

There's no doubt Peppers has Pro Bowl talent and the Panthers are hoping the fact he's in a contract year will motivate him. Even if Peppers can return to previous form, plenty of other questions remain on the line.

The Panthers are going to use training camp to let Brayton, McClover and Johnson compete for the other starting defensive end spot and there's no clear favorite. Brayton was a first-round pick by Oakland, but he hasn't had a sack since 2005. McClover was handed the No. 3 spot behind Peppers and Rucker last year, but produced only one sack. Johnson was a third-round pick last year, but he barely got on the field.

Maybe the change of scenery will be a boost to Brayton's career or maybe McClover will be ready to step up this time around. Johnson might have the most potential as a pass rusher of this trio, but he might be too light to play the run consistently.

No matter how the defensive end picture sorts out, the Panthers are going to need help from their tackles. They're going to miss Jenkins, who drew double teams away from Peppers last year. Kemoeatu can fill Jenkins role as a run stuffer, but he hasn't had a sack since joining the Panthers in 2006. Kemoeatu isn't going to suddenly turn into a pass rusher, but the Panthers believe Lewis can help in that area.

As Carolina's third defensive tackle last year, Lewis tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks. As an every-down player, he might be able to produce more sacks. But Lewis' weak point has always been his run defense.

The defensive front ultimately could decide how Carolina's season goes and it could be the downfall of Fox. But it also could be what saves Fox. If Fox, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac and defensive line coach Sal Sunseri can get a group of underachievers to achieve, Carolina's defense will be fine. If not, Fox and his staff could be in big trouble.