Offseason Notebook: Panthers' improved passing game

The major rush in free agency in the NFL is over, and from a fantasy perspective, there's not much to watch for in the immediate future. Sure, the draft is quickly approaching, and not too long from now, we should see Shaun Alexander officially get released from the Seahawks, which will certainly create a stir. There are already rumors that the Bengals could be interested in him, while a team like the Lions could also use his services.

There are still some free agents who remain unsigned, but no news regarding any of them will conjure up much interest. At quarterback, it really won't matter too much in fantasy leagues where Daunte Culpepper or Byron Leftwich lands. There's not much on the open market at running back; Kevin Jones and Michael Pittman figure to be nothing more than fantasy reserves no matter where they sign. The wide receiver pickings aren't very attractive, although Darrell Jackson can certainly fit in well somewhere after being released by San Francisco. Still, he figures to be not more than a third fantasy wideout with a new team.

The amount of player movement that is notable in fantasy leagues has slowed down to the point where Carolina's signing of ex-Seahawks wide receiver D.J. Hackett became the biggest piece of news this past week. Yet Hackett's addition does have the potential to re-energize the Panthers' passing game, which hasn't been the same since those same Seahawks shut down Steve Smith in the NFC Championship Game in 2006.

After starting the 2007 season with a pair of 100-yard games and four touchdowns, Smith was unreliable the rest of the way. He was also inconsistent and dealt with injuries during the 2006 season. Much of Smith's unreliability over the past two years can be linked to injuries to quarterback Jake Delhomme. Smith has also suffered from a lack of capable complements at wide receiver, but the Panthers have aggressively addressed that problem during the offseason.

Delhomme, who is recovering from elbow surgery, is hopeful he will be ready for training camp, according to the Charlotte Observer. The Panthers, in addition to signing Hackett to a two-year deal, have brought back veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammad and are looking forward to improved play and more contributions from second-year man Dwayne Jarrett. If Delhomme makes a successful return to the field, Carolina's improved passing game in 2008 bodes well for fantasy leaguers.

In a thin market for wide receivers this offseason, Hackett was considered one of the best guys available. A widespread favorite as a fantasy sleeper in the 2007 preseason, Hackett is a strong receiver with good quickness and the ability to make big plays downfield. Injuries, however, have been an issue for Hackett, and he missed 10 games last season because of an ankle sprain. According to the Charlotte Observer, Hackett's agent, Kevin Robinson, was told his client would start opposite Smith.

With Hackett (assuming he's healthy), Muhammad, who can still serve as a very trustworthy big target on key downs even though his best days are behind him, and Jarrett, another receiver with good size, the Panthers can challenge defenses in a major way next season. Smith will face less double-teams and will have the chance to rebound as a top-level fantasy player. Smith should be a good value selection in the fourth round of many yearly drafts in 2008.

Smith's overall numbers haven't looked bad the past two seasons, but he is very capable of spreading his totals out over a full schedule now. Surpassing 1,200 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, which he has not done in either of the past two years, is possible if his supporting cast doesn't break down.

Delhomme can also look forward to a possible rebound year, and with the lure of a comeback season, he will certainly be worth a selection in the late rounds as a backup. Hackett and Delhomme both have been plagued by durability problems, but when they are on the field together, they will prove to be an effective connection Hackett should be viewed as a third receiver in yearly drafts. Muhammad will be an integral part of the Carolina offense and Jarrett could break out at any time, but neither player is worth drafting initially. Simply keep both of them on your free-agent radar in case injuries press either player into more action.

The loss of Hackett leaves Seattle with an altered outlook at wide receiver. Bobby Engram will return after an outstanding season, but he is 35 years old, and you have to wonder if he can come anywhere close to last year's 94 catches, 1,147 yards and six touchdowns. He could be overvalued in some 2008 drafts. Nate Burleson has never been dependable, and Deion Branch is recovering from knee surgery that clouds his outlook for next season. Younger wideouts such as Ben Obomanu and Courtney Taylor may be given a chance to play more next year, so fantasy owners should monitor their progress. I especially like Obomanu as a deep sleeper; he can run good routes, has reliable hands and is not afraid of contact.

Seattle's NFC West rival, the 49ers, also continued the makeover of their passing game last week, signing former Cardinals wide receiver Bryant Johnson while releasing the aforementioned Jackson. I don't expect this move to have a major fantasy impact. Johnson was never dependable when pressed into starting duty with the Cardinals in the past, and he is better suited to be a third wide receiver, even though he wasn't consistent in that role for an Arizona team that threw the ball often.

Jackson's departure opens the door for Johnson to start with the 49ers, but I wouldn't use anything more than a late-round pick on him. New 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz was brought in to upgrade the air game, but with Johnson, Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill as his best options, the outlook is bleak. Bruce understands the offense, obviously, but he will turn 36 during the season.

Battle has been a stopgap for the Niners, and Lelie is a notorious bust. Hill has some upside but won't be worth picking on draft day. In addition, as much as I like him, Vernon Davis has yet to live up to expectations. The addition of Martz isn't going to be enough for me to draft most 49ers pass-catchers until late, if at all. I haven't even covered how the quarterback situation is still shaky.

Offseason Mailbag

Andreas, Sweden:I'm in a keeper league and we retain three players. Scoring is one point for every 15 yards and six points for all touchdowns. I'm choosing between Ronnie Brown, Willie Parker, Laurence Maroney and Terrell Owens. Right now I'm leaning towards keeping Brown, Maroney and Owens.

Engel: I agree with your selections. Owens is a lock. He is still an elite receiver, and you want to win next season, as well as in the future. When making keeper choices, you have to look to 2008 as well as future seasons. Maroney started to evolve as an interior runner late last season and is ready for his real breakthrough campaign in 2008. Brown has dealt with injuries, but he is versatile and will also prove to be much more of a regular scoring threat than Parker. Pittsburgh could draft a more physical complement to Parker this year.

Javier (San Juan, Puerto Rico):I'm in a league in which we keep three players. I have Rudi Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Travis Henry, Chad Johnson and Brandon Marshall. I would like to keep Marshall because I took him in the late rounds and he produced more than expected. And now, without Walker, he is the No. 1 WR in Denver. What do you think about staying with him and Jones-Drew.

Engel: Well before Walker's departure, Marshall had established himself as Denver's new top receiver in 2007. The departure of Walker isn't great news, as now Brandon Stokley and/or Keary Colbert will have to take defensive pressure off Marshall, but those concerns should not be major. Marshall is a true playmaker with a very bright future, but more double-teaming could mean a few disappointing performances in 2008. You'll still be very pleased with him overall. Jones-Drew can score any time he touches the ball, but he's not near the top of the position as much as Chad Johnson is. Keeping Chad Johnson and Marshall gives you an outstanding duo of wideouts and you'll simply have to focus on getting running backs early in your next draft. Rudi Johnson and Henry have questionable outlooks in 2008, so they don't merit consideration in this scenario.

Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.