CHARLOTTE -- There was a curious exchange last week, when Panthers coach John Fox was asked a question about free agent wide receiver D.J. Hackett, and proceeded to turn it into a discourse on enigmatic wideout Dwayne Jarrett.
"They've all been good," Fox said when asked specifically for impressions of Hackett. "I think really with the addition of Moose (Muhsin Muhammad), I think Dwayne Jarrett's been impressive the first week, along with D.J.
"I see a pretty able corps right now. Now it's a matter of staying healthy and improving."
If you're into reading tea leaves -- and Fox often leaves plenty of room for interpretation in his answers, on purpose -- you could take that several ways.
One, they want to make sure Hackett knows nothing's promised here. But as telling is the fact Fox was going out of his way to praise Jarrett's early work.
Perhaps no player will be under as much scrutiny this offseason as their second-round pick in 2007 who managed a mere six receptions his rookie year. He seldom played, since he never seemed to grasp the adult responsibilities of the NFL playbook (which Steve Smith called him out on). He complicated his own future by being arrested for driving while impaired in March, registering a 0.12 blood alcohol content. If the Panthers were impatient with his progress, that didn't help.
They seem cognizant that developing Jarrett was going to take time, since he was 20 years old when they drafted him.
But Fox followed up his first unsolicited volley with recognition of the strides Jarrett's made, even though he was out sick Friday.
"Same as any rookie, coming in here is digesting a lot of stuff," Fox said. "Look around the league, a lot of rookie receivers don't produce all that much that early. You see most of your improvement year one to year two. So we're hoping that takes place, but there will be some strong competition. ...
"He's been through it, he's a year more mature, grown up some. I think age isn't always an indicator of maturity, but it can be a factor."
What we do know is that there's plenty of competition at the spot beyond the aforementioned four. Ryne Robinson and Jason Carter took turns making acrobatic catches last week, and just because you haven't heard of Chris Hannon doesn't mean he's not a serious prospect to make this team or another one.
• PART OF THE CULTURE: It was interesting hearing Fox discuss his team's lack of drafted quarterbacks and saying: "It wasn't by design."
In a roundabout way, it is, since there's a boot-strap quality the whole franchise aspires to that doesn't come by accident. And when the leader on the field has had to fight, there's a certain message being sent, one they don't mind filtering through the whole building. General manager Marty Hurney couldn't help but laugh when asked about it, gleefully using one of Fox's clichés. "It's not where you start, it's where you finish," Hurney said, cracking himself up.
"I like it," starter Jake Delhomme said with a grin of leading a pack of unwanteds. "One, we've all got a chip on our shoulder. In my opinion, and certainly I'm biased, it goes to show you the inexact science of picking a quarterback. You just don't know. Look at the best quarterback in the league, Tom Brady. I mean a sixth-round pick, how does he slide? I look at a Kurt Warner, a Jeff Garcia, a guy that's playing forever. You fall through cracks.
"I think a lot of it has to do with your size, (people think) you have to be a certain height or size. No, you don't. You have to be a leader and you have to play. It is pretty interesting. I must admit, we're pretty proud of the fact there's no signing bonus babies in our quarterback room."
The Panthers are the only team in the league without a quarterback who was drafted at all.
By contrast, 19 teams have a first-rounder on the roster, and five teams have at least two. Baltimore and Atlanta have three each, though those numbers will drop when Steve McNair retires and Michael Vick gets out of jail.
The only team close to the Panthers in draft-day ignominy is Dallas. Of the Cowboys' three on the roster, only backup Brad Johnson was chosen, and he was a ninth-rounder (227th overall) in 1992. Jacksonville also has one drafted quarterback, but 2002 fourth-rounder David Garrard is practically a pedigreed passer compared to the Panthers' lot.
• LEARNING BY EXAMPLE: Third-string quarterback Brett Basanez was asked what he learned from hanging around with elder Vinny Testaverde last season.
"Everything," Basanez said, wide-eyed at the question. "He is the consummate professional. That's one thing you can say around the locker room that really means a lot. He came in every day, he worked hard, it didn't matter if it was year 23, 22, 28, he was still working like he was a first-year player. He'd take notes and watch film and everything. To keep that drive and passion's amazing."
• CASE CLOSED: While many Panthers fans were hoping linebacker Dan Morgan would be able to sign a ceremonial deal with the team to "retire a Panther," that's now off the board.
New Orleans placed Morgan on the reserve-retired list last Tuesday, which effectively ties his rights to the Saints. For the Panthers to have signed him to any kind of deal, New Orleans would have had to terminate his contract, and there's no real reason for them to.
Morgan's going to be in Charlotte anyway, living in town to help run his pet daycare business he started with former teammate Will Witherspoon.