CHARLOTTE -- Whether Carolina Panthers wide receiver Keary Colbert starts remains to be seen, but it's largely irrelevant.
Even if he doesn't take the field for the first play Sunday in St. Louis, he's at least a factor, which wasn't the case the last two years.
Colbert admitted being disappointed with the way the last two years have gone for him, although one wasn't his fault.
He showed the Panthers he could play as a rookie, catching 47 passes in 15 starts as the replacement for the injured Steve Smith. When an ankle problem slowed him in 2005, he dipped to 25 receptions.
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Last year, he was supposedly healthy, but caught just five passes and was declared inactive for four games late in the season, making his future a viable question.
"Did I think I was in the plan? It was hard to say at that time," Colbert said. "It wasn't my call or my say, so it was something I didn't focus on since I had no control over it.
"It can be (frustrating), but I tried not to let those things bother me. It wasn't about me as Keary Colbert, a human thing. It was a team thing. They had other guys they needed to dress at different positions. The best thing is to help the team win."
Perhaps, but it could have easily become personal if he didn't rebound with a solid camp. Colbert came to Spartanburg with a fresh haircut (shearing off two year's worth of dreadlocks) and a new attitude, which was easy for his teammates to recognize.
"You guys see it, he's a different football player," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "When his confidence is high, he's pretty good, and his confidence is sky-high right now.
"The biggest thing for Keary, he's having an offseason where he isn't rehabbing or having surgery or anything like that. He's come back, and since day one he's looked pretty good."
Colbert played most of the interview the way he always does -- low-key.
Of his goals this year, he said, "I keep my personal goals personal. My goal this season is to contribute to a winning team."
Of struggling the last two years: "I was hurt a couple of years ago. I wasn't hurt last year. I'm happy it's a new year, a new opportunity."
Even when he was asked if he had more to prove this year because of his uneven past, Colbert shrugged.
"Not really. Not extra. You set out to prove what you can prove every season, but I don't think I've got anything extra to prove," he said. "I don't focus on that (criticism) at all. That's going to come. I can't accept, believe or let what people say affect me."
• WEARING THE C: The Panthers elected their five captains for the season Wednesday, with Delhomme and Smith representing the offense, defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker Dan Morgan from the defense and Nick Goings from special teams.
Coach John Fox said 28 different players (of the 53) got at least one vote, a sign of a stabilizing team.
"I always tell them that it's a guy that grabs a bull by the horns when things are going bad and makes sure he leads us in the right direction," he said. "I told them, 'Just because you're not a captain doesn't mean you still don't lead.'"
Unlike past years, the captains will be recognized as such on their uniforms, with a 'C' stitched onto the front of their jerseys. Hockey's done that for years, but Fox said he likes the league's allowing teams to single them out.
"I think what the league's done is really good," he said. "So much has been made this offseason of maybe some negative issues as it relates to players, and I think there are a lot of good things being done around this league, not just on this team but everywhere."
• INJURY UPDATE: Safety Nate Salley (knee) and defensive end Stanley McClover (thigh) were held out of practice. Long snapper Jason Kyle (back) was limited.
That's all the Panthers have to say, since the league doesn't require teams to put the old qualifiers (out/doubtful/questionable/probable) on players until after Friday's final practice of the week.
"I was disappointed," Fox said sarcastically, since like many other coaches he abhors the discussion of injuries for fear of giving away a competitive advantage.
• EXTRA POINTS: Fox wouldn't talk about his plans for safety Marquand Manuel this week, although he is getting a crash course in defense and special teams. Manuel has 36 starts in the league, almost more than the rest of the safeties on the roster combined (42). Twenty of those belong to August trade acquisition Chris Harris, the projected starter at strong safety, while free safety Deke Cooper has the other 22.
"Oh yeah. Chris Harris is a guy that just recently has been with us, and he's starting," Fox said. "I don't know that we are going to put any timetable on Marquand, but he'll definitely figure in."