The Panthers are the team to beat in the NFC South.
The Atlanta Falcons might be the sexy team in the NFC South heading into this season, with sophomore Quarterback Matt Ryan apparently living at the gym this offseason and developing into a Peyton Manning-like QB. But the Carolina Panthers are still the team to beat in that division and have a chance of repeating the success they had last year. Aside from that horrendous playoff game against the Cardinals, the Panthers had a very good season.
It starts with QB Jake Delhomme who re-signed a 5 year extension over the summer. While not explosive, he is dependable. His 3288 passing yards put him right about where he belongs in the league, at 15th most last year. And while he was just brutal in that aforementioned playoff game against Arizona, the 5 year extension should allow him to negate any doubting of his abilities.
What often makes an average quarterback look great or conversely a superb quarterback look pedestrian is the offensive line and Delhomme is blessed with perhaps the best O-line in the game. They give Delhomme all the time he needs in the pocket and open holes for the running backs. There's no question the O-line is the most important position in football and good teams build around them. The Panthers have a great one, barring any injuries. Unable to retain key backup members of that line, the downfall of this team this year could occur if the O-line gets bitten by the injury bug. Definitely keep that in mind when looking at this team in November or December.
They will need the O-line to stay healthy so they can continue to make room for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, two backs coming off big seasons poised for a repeat performance. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 1515 yards and a fantastic 94.7 yards per game (fantasy football owners take note) while Stewart was no slouch himself, with a total of 836 yards on 184 carries. The Carolina Panthers have a great running game, period.
In the air, Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad should continue to get the most touches, with Smith again putting up strong numbers last season (1421 yards, with an average of 18.2 yards per catch). Tight end Jeff King is as dependable as they come, a target that Jake Delhomme always enjoys reaching. Again, it comes down to the Offensive line. If they are healthy and give Delhomme time, he will find his targets.
The most interesting aspect of this team this year is the status of Julius Peppers. After last season, he wanted out. The team subsequently put the franchise tag on him, shopped him around a little and then failed to sign him to any type of contract extension. That means that Peppers will get over 16 million dollars this season to play on a team he publicly asked to be traded from. Although this fact might be fun for journalists to write about and bloggers to comment on, his on-field performance should remain top notch.
Throw in a couple of key draft picks and the defence looks somewhat formidable, though draft picks are obviously a big question mark until they actually hit the field. Even so, Everette Brown and Sherrod Martin should contribute immediately to this franchise.
One big, nay huge, drawback for this team and the reason many aren't picking them to repeat as NFC South title holders is their schedule, which might be the toughest in the league. Remarkably, they have only 1 game against a team that had a losing record last season (the Buffalo Bills on October 25th). They have 3 games with teams who finished at .500 while the rest all had winning records.
It's going to be imperative that the Panthers get off to a fast start or else they will quickly be written off. Opening the season against the Eagles is going to be a huge challenge and it will just get more difficult from thereon with dates with Atlanta and Dallas in week 2 and 3 respectively. The Panthers definitely have no friends at the league's schedule makers. If the Panthers do repeat as NFC South division winners, they sure will have earned it.
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