1 Carolina Panthers

Defensive end extraordinaire Julius Peppers and the return to health of a handful of stars make this club the team to beat in the NFC
September 04, 2005

You could argue that Carolina's best big-play threat last season didn't line up at wide receiver or in the backfield. He was on the defensive line, in the form of 6'7", 290-pound end Julius Peppers. That's part commentary on the injuries that bedeviled the Panthers in 2004--they played most of the season without receiver Steve Smith and running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster--but it also tells you something about Peppers's athleticism. Against Tampa Bay he returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown; against Atlanta he snatched a Michael Vick fumble out of midair with one hand and went 60 yards for a score; and against Denver he returned an interception 97 yards before being dragged down just short of the goal line. No other Carolina player had as many plays of at least 45 yards.

You could write that off as a case of Peppers's being in the right place at the right time; or, more accurately, you could say that Peppers, who also led Carolina in sacks (11) and forced fumbles (four), is redefining the defensive end position. "I'm always trying to be around the ball, and when it comes out, I'm ready to get it," says Peppers, who in an Aug. 20 preseason game against the Giants was up to his old tricks, sacking Eli Manning, picking up the ball and running 29 yards for a touchdown.

Here's another way that Peppers gets himself ready: When the Panthers do off-season running drills, he doesn't participate with his linemates. Rather, he runs his gassers with the defensive backs. No wonder the coaching staff doesn't hesitate to drop him into pass coverage. "He's a D-back in a D-tackle's body," says fellow lineman Mike Rucker. Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac says Peppers's big-play abilities are related to his basketball skills. The second pick in the 2002 draft, Peppers played forward for two seasons at North Carolina; it's natural for him to go for the steal and head the other way.

This season the Panthers won't have to rely on Peppers to make all the big plays. They should much more closely resemble the 2003 squad that advanced to the Super Bowl than the banged-up unit that finished 7--9 last year. In addition to Foster (broken clavicle) and Smith (broken fibula), Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is also coming back from an injury (dislocated shoulder) that sidelined him for most of the season. (Davis, who is attempting to rebound from microfracture surgery on his right knee, went through his first contact drills last week.) The return of Smith along with the acquisition of 6'2" Rod Gardner in a trade with the Redskins should help offset the loss of free agent Muhsin Muhammad (league-leading 16 touchdown catches), now in Chicago.

Carolina also made its biggest payouts to free agents since coach John Fox was hired in 2002, signing guard Mike Wahle (five years, $28 million) from Green Bay and cornerback Ken Lucas (six years, $36 million) from Seattle. Lucas's acquisition means Carolina will start the two corners (Chris Gamble is the other) who tied for the NFC lead in interceptions last year. "This is probably the most talented team in my tenure," Fox says.

The return of Jenkins, who went down in Week 2, raises the possibility that Peppers could be freed up to have an even bigger season. Plus, it will help that Peppers, who never played spring football in college because of his basketball commitments, better understands how to attack NFL offenses. When Peppers was a rookie, Fox and Trgovac decided not to overload him with information. "We didn't want to do that to him because then he'd be thinking too much, and we didn't want him to do that," Trgovac says. "Now he can react to things faster, without thinking."

When that happens, Peppers's physical abilities take over. "Everyone always makes the mistake of saying who is going to be the next this or the next that," says Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, a 12-year veteran. "Before you put a label on someone, saying he'll be the next Julius Peppers, do your homework. Those come along once in a lifetime." --B.S.

PLAYMAKER

Ask a Panthers coach how Steve Smith has looked in the preseason, and he'll reach for the nearest piece of wood to knock on. After breaking his leg in the first game of 2004 and missing the rest of the season, the speedy wideout appears ready to pick up where he left off in '03, when he had 1,514 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches (regular season and playoffs combined). Smith will also resume returning punts; he has brought back four for touchdowns in his three full seasons.

AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
ENEMY LINES

The addition of Mike Wahle solidifies the offensive line, and moving Jordan Gross back to the right side should help them in the running game.... Rookie Eric Shelton fits right into John Fox's pounding, control-the-clock offense. If Stephen Davis is back, they'll have great depth at running back and they'll probably have to let go of a pretty good player.... Keary Colbert played very well last year, and that's probably why they felt like they could let Muhsin Muhammad go. A healthy Steve Smith gives them a big-play threat.... The team rallies around Jake Delhomme; he's shown he can drive them down the field for a comeback.... Losing Todd Sauerbrun was big. He's one of the few punters who's a weapon in the NFL.... The defensive line is deep and physical, and Julius Peppers is probably the best defensive player in the league. They have a good wave of guys behind the starters, so they can stay pretty fresh up front.... The acquisition of Ken Lucas allows them to move Ricky Manning inside [to cover the slot receiver] and line up a trio of cornerbacks that just about everyone in the NFL would like to have.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics

OFFENSE

STEPHEN DAVIS
POS. -- RB
PVR -- 99
ATT. -- 24
YARDS -- 92
AVE. -- 3.8
REC. -- 2
YARDS -- 31
AVG. -- 16.0
TDs -- 0

JAKE DELHOMME
POS. --QB
PVR -- 31
ATT. -- 533
COMP. -- 310
% -- 58.2
YARDS -- 3,886
TDs -- 29
INT. -- 15
RATING -- 87.3

BRAD HOOVER
POS. -- FB
PVR -- 242
ATT. -- 68
YARDS -- 246
AVE. -- 3.6
REC. -- 21
YARDS -- 161
AVG. -- 7.7
TDs -- 2

JOHN KASAY
POS. -- K
PVR -- 238
XPs MADE -- 27
XPs ATT. -- 28
FG MADE -- 19
FG ATT. -- 22
PTS. -- 84

STEVE SMITH
POS. -- WR
PVR -- 48
REC. -- 6
YARDS -- 60
TDs -- 0

KRIS MANGUM
POS. -- TE
PVR -- 244
REC. -- 34
YARDS -- 323
TDs -- 3

TRAVELLE WHARTON
POS. -- LT
HEIGHT -- 6' 4"
WEIGHT -- 312
GMS. -- 11
STARTS -- 11

MIKE WAHLE (NEW ACQUISITION)
POS. -- LG
HEIGHT -- 6'6"
WEIGHT -- 304
GMS. -- 16
STARTS -- 16

JEFF MITCHELL
POS. -- C
HEIGHT -- 6'4"
WEIGHT -- 300
GMS. -- 16
STARTS -- 16

TUTAN REYES
POS. -- RG
HEIGHT -- 6'3"
WEIGHT -- 305
GMS. -- 14
STARTS -- 12

JORDAN GROSS
POS. -- RT
HEIGHT -- 6'4"
WEIGHT -- 300
GMS. -- 16
STARTS -- 16

KEARY COLBERT
POS. -- WR
PVR -- 153
REC. -- 47
YARDS -- 754
TDs -- 5

DEFENSE

BRANDON SHORT
POS. -- OLB
TACKLES -- 40
SACKS -- 0
INT. -- 0

MIKE RUCKER
POS. -- RE
TACKLES -- 38
SACKS -- 3 1/2

KRIS JENKINS
POS. -- RT
TACKLES -- 11
SACKS -- 1

DAN MORGAN
POS. -- MLB
TACKLES -- 102
SACKS -- 2
INT. -- 2

BRENTSON BUCKNER
POS. -- LT
TACKLES -- 41
SACKS -- 3 1/2

JULIUS PEPPERS
POS. -- LE
TACKLES -- 65
SACKS -- 11

WILL WITHERSPOON
POS. -- OLB
TACKLES -- 102
SACKS -- 3
INT. -- 4

CHRIS GAMBLE
POS. -- CB
TACKLES -- 66
INT. -- 6

THOMAS DAVIS (R) (NEW ACQUISITION)
POS. -- SS
TACKLES -- 81
SACKS -- 3
INT. -- 1

MIKE MINTER
POS. -- FS
TACKLES -- 83
SACKS -- 2
INT. -- 0

KEN LUCAS
POS. -- CB
TACKLES -- 67
INT. -- 6

TOM ROUEN (NEW ACQUISITION)
POS. -- P
PUNTS -- 26
AVG. -- 42.0

NEW ACQUISITION
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)

2004 RECORD: 7-9

NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 28/9/13
DEFENSE 17/18/20

COACH: John Fox; fourth season with Carolina (25-23 in NFL)

SCHEDULE

SEPTEMBER
11 NEW ORLEANS
18 NEW ENGLAND
25 at Miami

OCTOBER
3 GREEN BAY (M)
9 at Arizona
16 at Detroit
23 Open date
30 MINNESOTA

NOVEMBER
6 at Tampa Bay
13 N.Y. JETS
20 at Chicago
27 at Buffalo

DECEMBER
4 ATLANTA
11 TAMPA BAY
18 at New Orleans
24 DALLAS (S)

JANUARY
1 at Atlanta

(M) MONDAY
(S) SATURDAY

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 18
Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .492
Games against playoff teams: 6

"The team rallies around Jake Delhomme. He can drive them down the field for a comeback."

 

PHOTOBRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES ONE OF A KIND If Peppers gets his hands on the ball, he takes off like a defensive back.
PHOTOREX BROWN/WIREIMAGE.COMDAVIS PHOTONFL/WIREIMAGES.COM

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)