Camp Confidential: Panthers eye next step

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The good news is the Carolina Panthers were 12-4 last year and return 20 of 22 starters.

"We don't have any reason to be bad," All-Pro offensive tackle Jordan Gross said.

The bad news is coming off a winning season has never led to good things for the Panthers. In their short existence (the franchise began play in 1995), the Panthers never have been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons. That's a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of owner Jerry Richardson, head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.

The Panthers have won big at times -- making the Super Bowl in the 2003 season and the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season -- but they've also followed up with some massive flops. Take the 2006 season, when they were the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl after adding the supposed missing link (Keyshawn Johnson). Instead, with injuries and locker-room dysfunction playing big roles, they were one of the NFL's most disappointing teams.

Preventing that kind of downturn this year is a big theme in Carolina's camp. Like Gross said, there really is no reason for the Panthers to be bad. The only starters they're missing from last year are cornerback Ken Lucas, who was getting older and was released in a salary-cap move, and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who went out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon on the first day of camp.

Other than that, the Panthers look a lot like the NFC South champions of last year.

"There's no doubt that back-to-back winning seasons is on the front burner for us this year," Hurney said. "We've always said we wanted to be consistently competitive and we have been. But the next step is to win in back-to-back years. We started this in '02 by saying we wanted to draft well, develop young players and keep your core players. That philosophy is probably more evident now than at any time since we started this in 2002. We were able to keep the core players we identified over the past year and, now, as a result, I think we need our young players to step up and fill those holes as far as backups and depth."

The Panthers have kept the nucleus of last year's team together, re-signing Gross to a huge new contract, extending the contract for quarterback Jake Delhomme and forcing defensive end Julius Peppers to play for the franchise tender. But those moves have come at a high cost.

With almost no salary-cap room, the Panthers didn't sign a single player in free agency and they watched as some key backups walked away. Depth is a question mark almost everywhere. Carolina has a very good starting lineup. But is that enough to give the Panthers back-to-back winning seasons?

"It starts with having enough depth to sustain," Hurney said. "Different things happened in different seasons in the past. But drafting well and having a young base is really important as far as staying ahead of the game and not having to go out in free agency and bring in guys a lot. If you draft well and bring those guys up, you have a continuity in there that should keep you competitive. Continuity is a result of bringing in the right guys from the start."

Key Questions

Can Delhomme recover from his horrible performance in the playoff loss to Arizona?

That game was the ugliest of Delhomme's career. He threw five interceptions and lost a fumble. But that game was totally out of character with everything else Delhomme has done for this franchise.

That's why Fox and Hurney decided to stick with their quarterback even when fans were screaming for a change. For whatever reason, the Panthers got thrown off their basic philosophy in the Arizona game and Delhomme suddenly was asked to win a game by himself. That's not what Delhomme does and it's not Fox's style.

The Panthers simply need to let Delhomme get back to what he does best; that's going out and managing a game. With an excellent running game around him, Delhomme's at his best when he simply is asked not to lose games.

ow devastating was the loss of Kemoeatu?

More than you might think. Kemoeatu is a very average defensive tackle with no pass-rush skills and should be replaceable. But the problem is the Panthers had absolutely no depth behind him.

They almost certainly will have to go out and trade for a defensive tackle or wait for one to come available as other teams trim rosters. At the moment, second-year pro Nick Hayden would be the top choice to start. The Panthers also have rookie Corvey Irvin, but he's a project and not ready to be a big contributor from the start.

While it's true that new coordinator Ron Meeks hasn't relied on massive run-stuffers in the past, Fox's defenses always have and this still is a Fox defense.

Where else could depth issues catch up to the Panthers?

The offensive line is very good, but it's dangerously thin beyond the five starters. The Panthers have had quality depth on the line the past few years, but the cost of that was that backups Geoff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale got big contracts and the chance to be starters elsewhere.

Center Ryan Kalil showed a tendency to get banged up last year and any injury on the offensive line could be devastating because the Panthers don't have a proven backup to turn to.

Market watch

Jarrett Johnson
Wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett has been one of the most talked about players this offseason. He was disappointing his first two seasons, but there have been signs of hope throughout offseason workouts and early in camp. Jarrett seems to have finally picked up the offense and many say he appears more dedicated this year. Although Muhsin Muhammad is still going strong at 36, the Panthers need Jarrett to start taking on a bigger role.

With Lucas gone, Richard Marshall moves into a starting role at cornerback. The Panthers wouldn't have let Lucas go if they didn't think Marshall was ready. He's been a solid nickelback and he plays with a swagger that Lucas didn't have.

There are some people within the organization who believe defensive end Charles Johnson is ready for a breakout season. Johnson has some pass-rush skills and could even slide inside in some situations.

Newcomer to watch

The Panthers may bring second-round pick Everette Brown along slowly. With Peppers and Johnson, the Panthers have some good pass-rushers and Brown's not ready to be an every-down player. Carolina likes to rotate its defensive linemen and that means Brown will get some work, but it likely will be only as a situational pass-rusher at the start of the season.

Rookie cornerback Sherrod Martin better be good right away. That's because the Panthers need him to be their nickelback immediately. But Fox has a good history of drafting guys for that position and getting instant results from them. He's done it with Marshall and Ricky Manning Jr.

The Panthers took running back Mike Goodson in the fourth round. They have a very good tandem with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but you're going to see a fair amount of Goodson. He has excellent speed and some skills as a receiver. Carolina's going to install a few new offensive wrinkles to try to get him the ball in space and he could be a big factor in the return game.

Observation deck

The battle for the starting fullback job might be more competitive than you think. Veteran Brad Hoover has been a very dependable player and an underrated part of this offense for a very long time. But Hoover has taken a pounding through the years and it's starting to catch up to his body. Rookie Anthony Fiammetta is a younger version of Hoover and he's picking up the system very quickly. At the very least, Fiammetta is going to get significant playing time. ... Peppers' motivation has been questioned at various times throughout his career and he's going to be under the microscope because he's carrying an $18 million franchise tag. But with another possible shot at free agency next year, there's plenty of reason for Peppers to be highly motivated. ... Gary Barnidge barely made a ripple as a tight end last season, but the Panthers are expecting a big leap from him this year and think he can get some playing time in a rotation with Jeff King and Dante Rosario. ... The most underrated player on Carolina's roster might be linebacker Na'il Diggs. He gets lost in the shadows of Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, but Diggs is as steady as they come. The Panthers would like Dan Connor to take over this position, but that's a year or two away. ... You don't hear much about Carolina's backup quarterbacks, but the Panthers seriously believe that Josh McCown or Matt Moore could be adequate starters if anything happens to Delhomme. ... It may cost them a roster spot for another position, but the Panthers appear to be ready to keep kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd for another year. That's a luxury, but Lloyd provides a big boost when it comes to field position.