1 Carolina Panthers

A team that was one healthy back short of the Super Bowl last year will go all the way if its ground game stays potent
September 03, 2006

THE BELIEF
A more robust ground game and a stronger middle of the defensive front givesCarolina a healthy shot at the Super Bowl. Having drafted running back DeAngeloWilliams out of Memphis in the first round, the Panthers will avoid anotherdebacle like last year's, when fifth-stringer Jamal Robertson played themajority of the NFC title game because of injuries to everyone in front of him.And the pairing of defensive tackles Kris Jenkins, who returns from twostraight season-ending injuries, with free-agent signee Maake Kemoeatu forms amountainous, near-impenetrable wall.

THE REALITY
With all due respect to All-Pro wideout Steve Smith, it's the running game thatwill determine how far Carolina advances. The top two backs, Stephen Davis andDeShaun Foster, each missed parts of the last three seasons with injuries,hampering the attack. Davis was cut last March, so the starting job goes toFoster; now can he make it through 16 games? "I've just had freak thingshappen to me," says Foster, who had, in order, knee, hand, collarbone andleg injuries. "I know I'm not injury-prone." He has yet to average asmany as 15 carries a game in a season. "I've told DeShaun he can't worryabout injuries," coach John Fox says. "It's like telling a race cardriver, 'Don't wreck.' DeShaun just has to go out and play." Williams, afeisty runner who blocked like a fullback in training camp, gives Fox moreconfidence in his depth than he's had in recent years.

The running gamewill also be helped by the addition of free agent Keyshawn Johnson, one of theNFL's best blocking receivers. He'll often line up in the slot, joiningblocking tight end Kris Mangum in giving the Panthers two extra big bodies onrunning plays. "That physical presence will make it hard for teams todevote all their energy trying to stop Steve Smith," says quarterback JakeDelhomme. "They're going to have to respect the run on every down."

On defense Fox isdrooling over the prospect of Kemoeatu, the surprisingly expensive (five years,$23 million) free agent from the Ravens, and Jenkins playingshoulder-to-shoulder in first- and second-down situations. "Two big guyswho aren't fat slobs clogging the middle would be a tremendous addition to ourdefense," says the coach. There's little reason to believe Jenkins willmake it through the season, though; not after operations on his right knee andleft shoulder limited him to a total of five starts in the past two years. Hemight be one of those huge guys whose body breaks down at 27 instead of at 30or 31. During one morning workout in training camp Jenkins was bent over andpleading for ice because of a lower-back condition that plagued him thissummer. A trainer came to his aid, wrapped ice onto the sore area, and the335-pound defensive tackle hobbled through the rest of practice. Fox remainsconfident that Jenkins will hold up.

Despite havingall the makings of a very good team, the Panthers are in a tough division, havea killer schedule--including the four NFC East teams, plus the Steelers and theBengals--and all those fragile bodies. They're a Super Bowl--caliber team inSeptember but no lock to be there in February.

2006 SCHEDULE

SEPTEMBER

10 ATLANTA
17 at Minnesota
24 at Tampa Bay

OCTOBER

1 NEW ORLEANS
8 CLEVELAND
15 at Baltimore
22 at Cincinnati
29 DALLAS

NOVEMBER

5 Bye
13 TAMPA BAY (M)
19 St. Louis
26 at Washington

DECEMBER

4 at Philadelphia(M)
10 N.Y. GIANTS
17 PITTSBURGH
24 at Atlanta
31 at New Orleans

(M) Monday

SCHEDULESTRENGTH

NFL rank
T17

Opponents' 2005winning percentage
.504

Games againstplayoff teams
6

ENEMY LINES
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE PANTHERS

> KeyshawnJohnson is the perfect addition to this offense--if he remembers why he'sthere. He'd better be happy with being the clear-out guy for Steve Smith.

> ChrisGamble is the league's most underrated corner. He's not afraid of anything, andat 6'1" he's got the size to be physical with big receivers.

> Big upgradeat center, and Carolina needed it. Jeff Mitchell got pushed around last year,so the arrival of Justin Hartwig, a 310-pound drive-blocker from the Titans, isgood for the running game.

> There'll beno excuses from defensive end Julius Peppers this year, not with MaakeKemoeatu, the free agent from Baltimore, next to him. Peppers is so gifted anathlete that it's an upset when he doesn't lead the league in sacks--but hehasn't done it yet.

John Kasay is over the hill. You can't rely on him to make a long field goal.I'm surprised they didn't replace him.

BREAKOUTPLAYER
Thomas Davis
LINEBACKER

Carolina knew ayear in advance that it would not match a big free-agent offer to WillWitherspoon whenever it came in early 2006--indeed, he went to the Rams for a$33 million deal. So the Panthers drafted Davis out of Georgia in April '05 toeventually succeed him. Now, after shuttling between strong safety andlinebacker as a rookie, Davis will play over the tight end and try to surpassWitherspoon's 81 tackles from last year.

PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP
WITH 2005 STATISTICS

COACH
JOHN FOX (36--28 in NFL), fifth season with Carolina

OFFENSE

STEVE SMITH
POS WR
REC 103
YARDS 1,563
TD 13

DESHAUN FOSTER
POS RB
RUSH 205
YARDS 879
TD 3

JAKE DELHOMME
POS QB
ATT 435
COMP 262
PCT 60.2
YARDS 3,421
TD 24
INT 16
RATING 88.1

BRAD HOOVER
POS FB
RUSH 10
YARDS 22
TD 0

KEYSHAWNJOHNSON--NEW ACQUISITION
POS WR
REC 71
YARDS 839
TD 6

JORDAN GROSS
POS RT
HT 6'4"
WT 300
G 16

EVAN MATHIS
POS RG
HT 6'5"
WT 312
G 9

JUSTINHARTWIG--NEW ACQUISITION
POS C
HT 6'4"
WT 312
G 16

MIKE WAHLE
POS LG
HT 6'6"
WT 304
G 16

TRAVELLEWHARTON
POS LT
HT 6'4"
WT 312
G 16

KRIS MANGUM
POS TE
REC 23
YARDS 202
TD 2

JOHN KASAY
POS K
FG 26-34
POINTS 121


DEFENSE

NA'IL DIGGS--NEWACQUISITION
POS WLB
TACKLES 35
SACKS 0
INT 0

JULIUS PEPPERS
POS LE
TACKLES 50
SACKS 10 1/2

MAAKEKEMOEATU--NEW ACQUISITION
POS LT
TACKLES 40
SACKS 1

KRIS JENKINS
POS RT
TACKLES 2
SACKS 0

MIKE RUCKER
POS RE
TACKLES 44
SACKS 7 1/2

THOMAS DAVIS
POS SLB
TACKLES 38
SACKS 1 1/2
INT 0

KEN LUCAS
POS CB
TACKLES 69
INT 6

SHAUNWILLIAMS--NEW ACQUISITION
POS FS
TACKLES 19
SACKS 0
INT 2

DAN MORGAN
POS MLB
TACKLES 75
SACKS 3
INT 0

MIKE MINTER
POS SS
TACKLES 62
SACKS 1
INT 1

CHRIS GAMBLE
POS CB
TACKLES 75
INT 7

JASON BAKER
POS P
PUNTS 72
AVG 43.3

2005 RECORD11--5

NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
OFFENSE 19/17/22
DEFENSE 4/9/3

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PHOTOBOB ROSATO (FOSTER) TOPCAT
Foster assumes the featured-back role, with a strong rookie behind him and someblocking on the wings.
PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COMKASAY PHOTOPAUL ABELL/US PRESSWIRE TWO PHOTOS PHOTOHELMET PHOTOS BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ

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