Today's Absurd Prediction:
The Panthers will once again fail to send any players to Hawai'i.
Last year, the Panthers didn't have a single Pro Bowler, not even an injury replacement. This year, I expect the same. This means Steve Smith and Julius Peppers not having a renaissance year, DeAngelo Williams not stepping up as the starting RB, the NFC East linemen dominating those selections largely based on name recognition, and none of the young guys turning the corner to be come superstars at this time.
Coaching Changes: The Less Things Change, The More They Stay The Same (A)
It looks like the whole crew is staying together this year; not a single new name has been brought on to the coaching staff. Many of their assistant coaches have been there for five years or longer. However, John Fox is often brought up as a “hot seat” coach for this year, and if he disappoints this season, he and several assistants are likely to be replaced. It’ll be interesting to see Jeff Davidson’s performance in his second year as offensive coordinator – his climb up the coaching ranks has been steady, and if he puts together a good offense, he could enter the mix as a head coaching candidate in a few years.
Draft: The Panthers didn’t need a QB like I don’t need health insurance (C+)
Jonathan Stewart is my kind of running back, short and big, patient finding holes, and fighting past initial contact for additional yards. He’s a great fit for Carolina – he’s not unlike Stephen Davis – and should flourish in a system that prioritizes power running and a strong offensive line. However, his ability to effectively platoon with DeAngelo Williams is questionable; neither is a speed guy, so defenses can stock up on run stuffers and not worry about getting burned around the end. OT Jeff Otah was a good value pick at 19th overall; he plays the position smartly and seems hard to knock off balance. I’m not a big fan of CB Charles Godfrey – he seems like the type to go for the big play, and I imagine he’ll give up a number of touchdowns at the NFL level by making bad decisions. ILB Dan Connor was a smart choice to replace Dan Morgan, though something strikes me as odd about the way he tackles; maybe it’s just that he keeps holding on to the ballcarrier long after the whistle blows. He’s a guy who can anchor the defense for a long time; what he lacks in physical skills he makes up with his mentality. Connor is a very smart and hungry player. TE Gary Barnidge isn’t much of a blocker, and I don’t really see what he’s doing in Carolina. It’s not a good fit. DT Nick Hayden can make a play or two in relief, but can’t hold up for a full game, and seventh-rounders DE Hilee Taylor, OT Geoff Schwartz, and G Mackenzy Bernadeau probably won’t get past special-teams play. Taylor is too small to play DE, Schwartz can’t move side-to-side fast enough, and I don’t know anything about Bernadeau, which probably isn’t a good sign. But here’s what I can’t understand most of all about the Panthers’ draft. Last year, you’re so desperate for a passer that you call a 43-year-old out of retirement, then later have to start an undrafted rookie, and you lose the division to Tampa Bay, who, instead of trusting that all will go well, stockpiles quarterbacks like a nuclear holocaust is coming. This year, with nine picks, you draft zero quarterbacks. I’m not saying they should have taken Flacco in the first round (though I thought they would), but instead of Barnidge, they could have gotten very good value by drafting Erik Ainge, Matt Flynn, or Josh Johnson, who by the way went to Tampa Bay.
The Panthers had to make some tough cuts, including the perpetually concussed Dan Morgan (insensitive, I know, I just wanted to say “perpetually concussed”), G Justin Hartwig, and DeShaun Foster, the last of which came as a surprise to me, considering the general effectiveness of the Foster-Williams pairing over the past two seasons. They also cut David Carr, but I don’t see that as a “tough cut.” Mike Rucker’s retirement leaves them weak at defensive end. Free agency defections from the Panthers include WRs Keary Colbert and Drew Carter. The team plugged a few holes through free agency – at guard, they pulled in Toniu Fonoti and Keydrick Vincent; at RB they picked up LaBrandon Toefield, and at defensive tackle they took two guys from the Bears, Ian Scott and Darwin Walker. WR D.J. Hackett and the return of Muhsin Muhammad form the latest attempt to get another target in the receiving game, and Ricardo Colclough and Terrence Holt bolster the secondary. But I don’t think new DE Tyler Brayton will offset the loss of Rucker – they needed to upgrade the position, not downgrade it. The solution to the “what happened to Julius Peppers” problem would have been to give the defense another rusher they have to worry about, and the Panthers didn’t address that through free agency nor the draft. And if you’re keeping count, they didn’t add any quarterbacks either. Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, Brett Basanez – that’s your depth chart.
There are new faces on the offensive line, which could throw off the blocking game for a little while until they get good at working together. It’s tough to see how the Panthers will be able to handle injuries at most positions, and there’s plenty of historical reason to believe that Steve Smith or Jake Delhomme might not make it for all 16 games. Matt Moore did well in three games to close out the season, and all against division champs, so he should be given a chance, but keep in mind: it was only three games, his performance was seen as good because he came out of nowhere, and teams had no idea what to prepare for. He’s got a lot to prove.
The Grade: The Panthers will have a C- season, which may not be enough to save John Fox's job.