Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson
The Panthers have two major areas that could be selected as their weakest unit: The passing game and the defensive line. Even if Julius Peppers signs his franchise tender, returns to the team and plays as he did a year ago, I am still not sold on the Panthers' defensive front, particularly at defensive tackle. But as little faith as I have in Carolina's front four, I actually have slightly less faith in the Panthers' ability to throw the football effectively.
It must be noted that the Panthers' fantastic power running game makes a lot of problems far less severe. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart (who may end up being a big-time player) and their excellent run-blocking offensive line allows the passing attack to see favorable matchups and keeps the Panthers' defense watching from the sideline.
While I understand that the Panthers have dedicated many of their top resources to fortifying the running game, it drives me crazy that Carolina has not put a greater effort into lightening the load that Steve Smith receives on just about every snap. Smith is tremendous. He hasn't had anyone around him who could threaten defenses at his level for as long as I can remember. Yet, he still scorches consistent double coverage. He isn't the biggest wide receiver around, but his game is gigantic. So calling out Carolina's passing game in no way reflects poorly on Smith.
But the rest of the passing game -- with the exception of the backs' ability to catch the ball -- I can really do without.
Jake Delhomme isn't able to elevate the play of his pass catchers like many of the best quarterbacks can. He is a tough guy and has somewhat of a gunslinger's mentality, but often he runs too hot and cold. Certainly there are teams worse off at starting quarterback than the Panthers, but over the last eight games of the regular season and an awful playoff performance against Arizona, Delhomme threw seven touchdown passes against 12 interceptions.
While nine of those interceptions came in two games, it still makes me wonder if Delhomme is on the decline. At this time last year, Delhomme was recovering from Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm -- a rather new procedure for quarterbacks. To his credit, Delhomme did show the ability to stretch the field and isn't bashful about going long, which is paramount considering all the stacked boxes that his offense faces.
Because the Panthers don't have a strong receiving group, they cannot afford to have a declining quarterback -- even with their fantastic running game. The tight ends are pedestrian, Dwayne Jarrett has shown some glimpses of developing into a productive receiver but still struggles to consistently gain separation. He has only 16 career receptions, none for a touchdown. Muhsin Muhammad catches the ball well and is crafty, but is clearly in the twilight of his career. And those are the best bets for a second option behind Smith.
For these reasons, I expect the Panthers' win total to drop drastically in 2009. Winning 12 games again seems like asking too much, especially considering their very average passing game.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.