Marred by injuries and terrible quarterback play, the Panthers failed to live up to expectations in 2009. In fact, outside of their run game, there wasn't much to get excited about.
But what a run game they had. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart continued to steamroll opponents, even after Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross was lost for the season with a broken ankle in Week 10. Each topped 1,100 yards rushing with at least seven touchdowns and as a duo tallied 2,250 rush yards, 391 receiving yards and 18 total touchdowns.
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The Panthers know they have that going for them -- and so do their opponents. That's why they're trying to improve their passing game.
For the last five years Carolina has struggled to find a good receiver to work opposite Steve Smith, and they might be on to something with the selection of LSU receiver Brandon LaFell in the draft. But for the first time since 2003 they are looking to replace Jake Delhomme. Matt Moore is likely that player for the short-term after finishing very strong last season, but they drafted Jimmy Clausen in April and will likely hand the reins to him if Moore can't keep up his quality play.
There are more questions the Panthers must answer this season. How will the defense fare after letting go of defensive end Julius Peppers, safety Chris Harris and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu? Will the loss of linebacker Thomas Davis to a mid-June ACL tear impact them further? As good as their run game is, the Panthers could be sabotaged by their defense and ultimately cost them another year's worth of success, if not head coach John Fox's job.
Sleeper ... Brandon LaFell, WR
LaFell is the next candidate to come in and try to take pressure off of veteran playmaker Steve Smith, not to mention be a second option for the Panthers to use in the passing game. His primary competition for the job is incumbent Dwayne Jarrett, who has been a gross underachiever (one touchdown in three seasons). LaFell has good size and has drawn comparisons to Dwayne Bowe since both went to Louisiana State, and he put up numbers like him too (he scored 11 times in 2009). He's even drawn praise during spring workouts and could earn the starting job over Jarrett before the end of training camp. The Panthers might be a running team, but LaFell is a candidate to make them think twice about that plan -- and perhaps make defenses think twice about rolling safeties exclusively to Smith's side.
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Breakout ... Matt Moore, QB
Moore will break out for the Panthers and be a good quarterback for them, but it's not going to do Fantasy owners much good. His 1,053 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions over five starts last season are a good indicator that he can be a capable game manager. But with less than 200 yards passing in five games and three games with one or no touchdowns, he's proven to be not quite strong enough for weekly Fantasy use. But if you draft Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco and need a bye-week quarterback, we love Moore since he'll play at St. Louis that week. He'd be worth drafting in those instances, and he should establish himself as a good passer in Carolina in 2010.
Bust ... Jonathan Stewart, RB
Look, Stewart is a very good player. He proved that last year when he ran for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 18 passes for 139 yards with another score. His 5.1 yards per carry average was tremendous. But let's not forget that Stewart was leaned on heavily for the Panthers' final five games, giving him the opportunity to end the season with such huge numbers. While DeAngelo Williams was injured and mustered up just 19 carries over those final five outings, Stewart racked up 589 rush yards and four touchdowns. To be clear, that's 52 percent of his total rushing yards and 40 percent of his total touchdowns in five games with Williams a rare participant. How many games do you think Stewart will have without Williams this season? Bottom line: So long as Williams is up and running, Stewart cannot be expected to produce huge numbers. Tack on the extensive list of nagging injuries he's had through the years (he even had foot/Achilles' surgery this offseason) and you've got a guy with limited reps and a long doctor's record. Don't overvalue him this summer; he'll be a decent No. 2 option.
The Panthers are well-built for this schedule as they only have two tough run defenses in front of them. They do have several improving opponents in their path, but nothing that should clamp down on Williams and Stewart's work. The Panthers do have a few more challenges as far as pass defenses go, but they're not equipped to be one of these teams that throws 40 times a week anyway.
Training camp topics
Let's lead off with Steve Smith and his broken left arm, an injury suffered in late June while playing flag football. Smith's injury should heal up in advance of the regular season, and he's got some good work in the bank with quarterback Matt Moore already (19 catches, 378 yards and three touchdowns in his last four games with Moore). But a lot of people believe that the two arm fractures in six months are a sign of Smith's body not being what it used to be; he'll be 31 when the season starts. But the reason why we didn't drop a bust label on him is because his legs are fine, and he's been such a quality stat producer for so long that it's hard to doubt him. Maybe if he had a weak history with Moore, or if the Panthers' schedule was impossible, or if he wasn't on pace to notch his fifth-straight 1,000-yard season last year before getting hurt, we'd warn you on Smitty. But unless his arm keeps him out of the start of the season, he's still a safe No. 2 Fantasy receiver.
While Smith is a 10-year veteran with the Panthers, two rookies besides LaFell and Clausen who Carolina drafted have a shot to make an impact right away. Armanti Edwards is transitioning from quarterback to receiver in the NFL and might work out as a slot option for the offense. He's small but has really nice speed and can also work on special teams. There is some potential there, making him a player to watch this summer. The other rookie is Eric Norwood, a linebacker-turned-defensive end. With Thomas Davis getting hurt, there's some talk that Norwood could play at both linebacker and defensive lineman throughout the course of a game as the Panthers like his agility and quickness.
Of course, Norwood is far from the key to the Panthers defense this season. The team is forced to rely on the likes of Tyler Brayton and Everette Brown as their primary pass rushers, a far cry from Peppers. That in and of itself will be a problem for the Panthers, but a lack of quality defensive tackle depth and the linebacker corps already up in the air after Davis' knee injury keeps this defense from being considered solid at the start of the year. Anything they can show in training camp to debunk that could go a long way.
Steve Smith (arm; out for training camp, questionable for the start of the season) ... Jonathan Stewart (Achilles'; probable for the start of training camp) ... Thomas Davis (knee; expected to miss the regular season).
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