Sports

2010 NFL Team Preview: Carolina Panthers

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 8-8, 4-2
Division finish: 3rd NFC South
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 21st, 19th, 27th, 3rd
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 9th, 8th, 4th, 27th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Jonathan Stewart, 1,133 yards, 10 TD; DeAngelo Williams, 1,117 yards, 7 TD
Passing: Jake Delhomme, 2,015 yards, 8 TD, 18 INT; Matt Moore, 1,053 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT
Receiving: Steve Smith, 982 yards, 7 TD; Mushin Muhammad, 581 yards, 1 TD; Dante Rosario, 313 yards, 2 TD; DeAngelo Williams, 252 yards, 0 TD; Jeff King, 200 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Jon Beason, 111 total tackles; Richard Marshall, 75 total tackles
Sacks: Julius Peppers, 10.5 sacks; Tyler Brayton, 5 sacks
Interceptions: Chris Gamble, 4 interceptions (0 touchdowns); Richard Marshall, 4 interceptions (0 touchdowns)

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2010 Season Outlook

Schedule
(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 26 at New York Giants: This team is similar to the Panthers in the sense that they are a running-based team with a strong defense. Being able to control the line of scrimmage will be key in this game, and it will be interesting to see if the Panthers can force Eli Manning into third-and-long situations and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Though the Panthers annihilated the Giants last year, this game should be closer due to the return of several crucial Giants defenders. However, the Panthers' running back duo will simply be too much for the Giants defense to contain, especially in the Giants' first game under new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.

October 24th vs. San Francisco 49ers: Yet another run-based team with a nasty defense, the Panthers are going to have a tough time containing Frank Gore. At the same time, the defensive backfield won't be able to play a lot of run support because their hands will be full as they try to bottle up receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Meanwhile, the 49ers' defense is going to make life difficult for Matt Moore, and the key to this game will be which of the two teams' quarterbacks is able to step up and put together a game-winning drive in the final two minutes.

November 7th vs. New Orleans Saints: Unless they can beat the Saints, the Panthers are on the outside looking in on the divisional championship race. Both teams will know this, and will throw everything they've got at each other. The Saints are more than capable of pounding the ball up the middle, but are still capable of exploiting any weakness through the air. While the Saints' passing game probably gives them the advantage in this game, a Carolina upset can't be ruled out at all. If that happens, the division will suddenly be up for grabs, and the Panthers might have the inside track on surprising everybody and winning the NFC South.

Key Losses

Jake Delhomme, QB; Julius Peppers, DE; Chris Harris, S

Key Returning Players

Matt Moore, QB; Jonathan Stewart, RB; DeAngelo Williams, RB

Key Draft Picks

Brandon LaFell, WR; Eric Norwood, LB; Jimmy Clausen, QB

Key Free Agent Signings

N/A

Offensive Overview

The offensive line is practically impenetrable; they blow the defense off of the ball without a problem, and they gave quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Matt Moore plenty of time in the pocket. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are phenomenal, and the offense is perfectly suited to win by playing smash-mouth football. Receiver Steve Smith is one of the top 10 receivers in the league, but his effectiveness has been severely limited due to the lack of a receiver to complement him. The Panthers hope that rookie Brandon LaFell, who recorded a streak of 41 consecutive games with a reception during his career at LSU, can take some pressure off of Smith. If this works out, LaFell could create more room for Smith. Historically, though, the position of wide receiver is the hardest for rookies to learn in the NFL, and very few receivers make a significant impact in their first year. If that trend continues, Panthers fans will be in for yet another year of watching Smith's talent wasted. At the tight end position, Jeff King is a solid blocker, but never caught more than three passes in any 2009 game. That being said, King was an excellent goal-line outlet, as 3 of his 25 receptions on the season were touchdowns. Once LaFell develops into a starting-caliber receiver, King's numbers will increase as defenses focus on LaFell and Smith, leaving the middle of the field open for King to exploit.

At quarterback, the Panthers seem intent on letting Matt Moore start, while Jimmy Clausen develops and prepares to be the quarterback of the future. Jettisoning Jake Delhomme was the right move – despite being great for the Panthers in the past, his play suffered an inexplicable decline as he threw for 8 touchdowns compared to a whopping 18 interceptions! While the Panthers were better under Moore, he looks good, but not great, which is why the Panthers took Jimmy Clausen to be their quarterback a few years down the road. However, his line gives him so much time in the pocket that he is still able to help the Panthers win games. For this reason, expect Moore to be the starter going into 2010, while Clausen learns from the bench and is groomed to be the quarterback of the future.

Defensive Overview

For a team that likes to run the ball and play the game close, the defense has to be able to keep the score close. This year, the Panthers' defense will struggle to do that, especially after the losses of Julius Peppers, Chris Harris, and Na'il Diggs. Last year, the defensive line and linebackers struggled mightily against the run, but they now have defensive tackles Tank Tyler and Louis Leonard returning from season-ending injuries. Linebacker Thomas Davis was supposed to be coming back this season from a torn ACL, but suffered yet another ACL tear in minicamp in June. His speed, evidenced in this video and his claim of running a 4.47 second 40-yard dash while still recovering from his surgery, would have been a huge boost to the linebacking corps, and his loss will hurt them greatly. Middle linebacker Jon Beason is excellent as well, but his talent is wasted as he has no help in the front seven of the defense.

This team's defensive backfield is a bright spot, though slightly dimmed by the trade of safety Chris Harris. Sherrod Martin, who picked off three passes last year, is expected to fill his spot. Strong safety Charles Godfrey played well against the pass last year, and was excellent in run support, which is even more important considering the front seven's struggles in run defense. Cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are slated to start for the Panthers, anchoring the cornerback position pretty solidly.

All in all, this defense is undergoing a major youth movement, but would be in a lot better shape if Thomas Davis hadn't been injured again. Without him, the Panthers' defensive hopes lie on the shoulders of rookie linebacker Eric Norwood, a solid run-stopper from the University of South Carolina. If he can fill in for the run-stopping role Davis filled in coordinator Ron Meeks' Cover 2 defense, the Panthers' run defense will be better in 2010.

If Norwood is a solid run-stopper alongside Beason, if Tyler and Leonard can clog up the middle at defensive tackle, and if one of the Panthers' defensive ends can fill Julius Peppers's enormous shoes, this defense will be a lot better at stopping the run than it was in 2009. With the ability to shut down opponents' running games, the Panthers' defense would get more opportunities to play pass defense, their biggest strength. It's possible, but there are too many variables involved for this to be a probable situation. While the Panthers' defense will be absolutely dominant in another year or two, the outlook for 2010 is average.

Special Teams Overview

The Panthers have a quite a bit of room for improvement in their kickoff and punt coverage. Despite kicking for the 7th-highest average kickoff distance in the NFL in 2009, they tied for the second-highest average yards allowed per kickoff return. The farther the ball travels, the more time the coverage team has to get to the ball-carrier, so this disparity is incredibly bad. They were not as drastically bad in punt coverage, but still could have done better. Their average punt distance was 44.1 yards, the 12th-highest in the league. Despite this, they allowed an average of 11 yards per punt return, the fourth-highest in the league. The Panthers also allowed one kickoff and one punt each to be returned for a touchdown during the season.

The Panthers' kick return game averaged the second-lowest yards per return in the league, at 19.9, making them one of only two teams in the league to average under 20 yards per kick return. Their average punt return distance of 8.3 tied for 16th in the league, and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn will probably be the Panthers' primary punt returner again this year.

Punter Jason Baker landed 22 of his 76 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, but poor coverage kept the Panthers from capitalizing on his punts to obtain better field position. Kicker John Kasay was 1 for 4 in field goal kicks of 50 or more yards, but was a machine-like 21 for 23 inside the 50. As a warning for those of you who participate in fantasy football, ESPN advises you against selecting Kasay:

2010 Season Outlook - Old Man Kasay has been in the league since 1991, but his formerly big leg has failed him recently. He has scored 100 points or fewer in three of the past four seasons, and it doesn't seem to matter if the Panthers' run-first attack is up ('08) or down ('09). His performance seems destined for mediocrity.”

Kasay may not be considered an elite performer in fantasy football, but on a real football field, he is even better than Adam Vinatieri, who is considered one of the best kickers of the modern area. Although Vinatieri has a tiny edge in overall field goal percentage (82.0 versus 81.6), that is because a higher percentage of Vinatieri's kicks came from 20-29 yards (31.8 versus 25.4). Kasay has been slightly more accurate than Vinatieri in that range, nailing 97.6 of those kicks compared to Vinatieri's 96.2. From 30-39 yards, the gap between Kasay and Vinateiri is wider, with Vinateir's percentage of 83.1 coming well short of Kasay's 88.5. From 40-49 yards, Kasay has made 74.8 percent of his field goals, and Vinateiri has made 70.8 percent of his. The difference between the two is similar from beyond the 50-yard line as well: Kasay has hit 50% of kicks he attempted from that distance, and Vinatieri has made 45.5 percent of those field goals.

While Vinatieri had his two famous Super Bowl performances where he kicked a field goal to seal the win for the Patriots, Kasay has established himself as the more consistently accurate of the two.

Head Coach: John Fox

Coach Fox took his team to a Super Bowl within the first decade of the franchise's existence, which is commendable in and of itself. He has a pretty impressive regular-season record of 71-57 in his eight years as the Panthers' head coach. He made the difficult decision of moving on without Jake Delhomme, which was further complicated by the fact that Fox went to the Super Bowl with Delhomme just a few years ago. All offseason, Fox has been rumored to be on the hot seat if he doesn't get the Panthers back to the playoffs in 2010. Despite this, he has wholeheartedly embraced the Panthers' youth movement even though it may not pay dividends until another year or two down the road. This shows that Fox is the ultimate team player, placing the team's long-term development ahead of his own job security. Hopefully, he doesn't have anything to worry about, and he will still be the Panthers' head coach when the young core of the team has reached its prime. If you're still not sold on Fox, read his bio on the Panthers' official website.

Top 2011 Free Agents

DeAngelo Williams, RB; Dante Rosario, TE; Charles Johnson, DE

*Evans and Shanle are the only players on the Saints whose contracts are scheduled to expire in 2011

Season Prediction

3rd NFC South

This team isn't a bad team at all. They've got almost all the pieces to be successful, and they're in the process of an almost seamless transition to a younger core of talent on their team. This is the “almost” year of that almost seamless transition, though. They're in a division with two of the best offenses in the entire league, and will have to play four divisional games against legitimate Super Bowl contenders, which makes it a lot harder for them to achieve a great record. However, they should not be regarded as pushovers at all, as this divisional race will be one of the closest in the NFL. This is an incredibly close three-way battle for the division championship, but the Falcons' and Saints' passing attacks give them just the tiniest edge over the Panthers. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

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