| Peppers looks ready to rebound from his shocking 2007 sack drop-off.|
|Grant Halverson/Getty Images|
7 at San Diego
21 at Minnesota
5 KANSAS CITY
12 at Tampa Bay
19 NEW ORLEANS
9 at Oakland
23 at Atlanta
30 at Green Bay
8 TAMPA BAY(M)
21 at N.Y. Giants
28 at New Orleans
|Jordan Gross, Tackle: He began his career as a right tackle in 2003, moved to the left in '04 and has gone back and forth each year since. With the arrival of rookie tackle Jeff Otah, who's huge but not quick enough for the left side, Gross is on the move again. "I look at it like it's made me a better all-around player," he says. "If I'd stayed on one side, football would ? be easy street."|
The performance of a familiar power trio -- Delhomme, Smith, Peppers -- will determine whether this team rocks.
After one long morning practice at camp in Spartanburg, S.C., Jake Delhommewas given the rest of the day off. But the quarterback was feeling so friskythat he played scout-team outside linebacker in the afternoon workouts, bouncingaround like a colt rather than a 33-year-old in his 11th season. At the snaphe'd barrel past the left tackle toward backup passer Matt Moore, doing his bestShawne Merriman imitation.
"I've had my time off," says Delhomme, who's coming back from ligamentsurgery in his throwing elbow last October. "I can't tell you how great it feelsto be back out here."
Carolina acquired exciting new players while he was away. Jeff Otah, themountainous first-round pick from Pitt, has been installed as the starting righttackle. Another first-rounder, 235-pound power running back Jonathan Stewartfrom Oregon will share running duties with shifty veteran DeAngelo Williams.Third-round pick Charles Godfrey was designated the starting free safety fromDay One of camp. But the three players who are most important to the team'splayoff hopes are three of the longest-tenured Panthers, and all enter theseason as question marks.
• Steve Smith turned Camp Harmony turned into Camp Turmoil when hecoldcocked cornerback Ken Lucas during an Aug. 1 practice. Suspended forthe first two games of the season by coach John Fox, the eighth-year wideoutturned sullen and withdrawn, and he became something of a pariah. "I had to talkguys down from going after him," says linebacker Jon Beason. It helped whenLucas publicly forgave Smith and the incident was addressed in team meetings."There's some magic going on behind the scenes," says wideout Muhsin Muhammad, afree-agent signee from the Bears. "When the season's over, you'll look back andsee this was a blessing in disguise." It's hard to imagine drawing somethingpositive from the loss of your best offensive weapon at the start of the seasonbecause of a tantrum.
• Julius Peppers, one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, with13 sacks in 2006, had only 2 1/2 in 2007, which is one reason Carolina hadjust 23 total. Theories abound: 1) Peppers was in a funk over stallednegotiations for a new contract (which never got done); 2) he was the victim ofconstant double- and triple teams; 3) something was wrong with him physically.While Peppers wasn't talking during camp, Fox subscribes to that last theory,saying, "He got a virus in camp last year, missed time, lost weight and didn'tseem as quick." Peppers bulked up in the off-season and looks stronger in theupper body. "I've been blocking him since I came into the league," sayssixth-year tackle Jordan Gross, "and this is the best I've ever seen him." Inthe first preseason game Peppers strip-sacked Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi on thefirst series, forcing a fumble. On the second series he pressured Sorgi into aninterception. He had another sack and a forced fumble in the third exhibitiongame. This should be a big year for Peppers, who moves to the speed-rushingright side to cut down on chip blocks from tight ends and backs.
• For three years, whenever Delhomme used his right arm -- to brush histeeth, carry groceries, throw a football -- it hurt. Then, in Week 3 lastyear, he felt a pop and a burn in the elbow while throwing a pass; he hadcompletely torn his ulnar collateral ligament. Ten months later he says he'sthrowing pain-free for the first time since 2004. "The past couple of years," hesays, "if I rolled right and had two deep comebacks, I'd always choose the oneto the right because I knew how much it'd hurt to throw across the field. Thissummer I haven't had one time where I've even felt anything wrong, and I've beencutting it loose." Carolina needs the old Delhomme back, the one who averaged3,509 passing yards and had 25 more touchdowns than interceptions from 2003through '05.
It's simple: If Smith, Peppers and Delhomme have big years, so will thePanthers. -- Peter King