CHARLOTTE -- When the Carolina Panthers come to training camp on Friday, they'll take the first step in fixing a two-year mess.
It won't be easy, as evidenced by a busy offseason in which they turned over huge numbers of players. But they made more splashes than ripples, meaning the core that was already around will be largely responsible for getting them back to the playoffs or onto a new course.
The players they signed were reminiscent of coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney's early offseasons, in which they added low-cost, high-potential guys. Then they drafted a personality, adding a physical runner and a huge run-blocking tackle in the first round.
That doesn't mean there aren't questions entering camp, and here are the first 10.
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1. Will the real Julius please stand up?
Yes, they've made schematic changes, moving defensive end Julius Peppers back to his natural right side and shifting the defensive tackles to create more pressure up the middle.
But the real pressure is on Peppers to get back to being himself, and not the guy that played in his spot last year.
If Peppers can return to double-digit sack form (not the 2.5 of last year), all the other pieces will fall into place for a defense that's looking at minor tweaks elsewhere. If he can't, the lack of pass rush will create more problems for the young back seven that carried them in 2007.
The only person that honestly knows the problem last year isn't talking, and until he fixes it, the entire defense will be suspect. Fox's defense is built upon getting to quarterbacks, and if the foundation is weak, the rest of the house will be shaky.
2. How important is the bullpen in camp?
Crucial. Quarterback Jake Delhomme will be on a relatively tight pitch count in Spartanburg, especially on two-practice days.
The purpose is two-fold. It gives him a final chance to rest his right elbow, rebuilt in October. Also, it gives more first-team reps to backup Matt Moore, who impressed enough in his three-game starting stint to keep the brass from hiring a veteran backup or drafting one.
As with Peppers, Delhomme's the key to the offense reviving. When he's on, Steve Smith's better, and it gives the running game a better chance. So keeping him fresh for the games that matter -- while getting him the necessary work with new people -- will be a fine line for them to walk.
3. When will they find their five?
For years the Panthers have struggled to find an identity on their offensive line, which is harder to latch onto than decent personnel. They were an odd mish-mash of players in the last few, with finesse blockers trying to play power and big-legged guys trying to work on the move.
The mandate is clear, and the parts seems to match the philosophy. Now all they have to do is get them all working together.
Jordan Gross is back to left tackle next to Travelle Wharton, and they think that's a solid side. Second-year Ryan Kalil's being given the ball to snap, but the right side's more of a question. First-rounder Jeff Otah will start at tackle, but the guard spot's wide open between generic veteran Keydrick Vincent and reclamation project Toniu Fonoti. Either way, they'd be wise to pick one and move forward, giving the rookie a chance to familiarize himself with a partner.
4. How long before, or will, Stewart take over?
Sounds like first-round running back Jonathan Stewart is largely recovered from offseason toe surgery. Whether he's ready to practice fully remains to be seen.
Either way, his absence has opened the door for DeAngelo Williams to claim a starting job. Williams might be the incumbent, but it's Stewart who best matches Fox's philosophy. A thicker, physical runner, Stewart appears to be the best chance they have of replicating Stephen Davis circa 2003, and all they did was go to the Super Bowl that year.
They'll use them both, but it's hard to imagine Stewart not having more carries by December.
5. Youth and money, or experience?
There was a sense that when they signed linebacker Landon Johnson to their biggest offseason free-agent deal (not saying much, although it was three years, $10 million), he'd start. The thought was the versatile Johnson, along with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, gave them a young, fast trio. But then they lined up in summer school, and not-young and not-all-that-fast Na'il Diggs was with the starters. The changes up front put more emphasis on the linebackers being in the right place, and Diggs always knows where to be.
It'll be interesting to see if he's able to hold off Johnson (and eventually Dan Connor) for very long, or if the natural attrition at a high-injury position makes the depth a necessity rather than a luxury.
6. Can the old hands hang on?
They always have a handful of vets on their last legs, and this year there are at least four of them, including Diggs.
Nick Goings has been on the verge of being replaced for about eight years running, but they can't get rid of him because he does so many things well. But after drafting Stewart and adding an interesting project in LaBrandon Toefield, you wonder how many backs they'll keep and if they'll give Goings another chance (considering his track record of concussions).
There was a time when it was unclear if fullback Brad Hoover would even be back, but they eventually signed him to a cut-rate three-year extension. And unlike years past, there's not even a legitimate challenger for his spot in camp this year, so he's fine.
The most interesting of the group is 35-year-old wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, back after his three-year cash-grab in Chicago. He hasn't really slowed down (since he wasn't all that fast to begin with), and he's working ahead of free agent pickup D.J. Hackett and a talented group of young wideouts. There's no telling how many years Muhammad has left, but it's clear thus far they trust him in the short term.
7. Who's on the hot seat?
Not the coach and GM. Let's not start that already.
There are a number of guys who've been around a few years who might realistically be on the wrong side of cuts.
Goings will likely hang on because of his multiple contributions, but there are some others who won't.
Former third-rounder and 2006 starter Evan Mathis never found a home on the offensive line, being worked at all three positions before sinking to the third team this spring. It's a miracle or an injury bug if he sticks. Likewise linebacker James Anderson, another third-rounder who found himself at a position where better players were added.
8. Will there be any pre-camp drama?
With a little luck, their guys will stay away from the clubs this week. Jeremy Bridges earned himself a two-game suspension (and eventually a demotion) last year after being arrested for waving a gun at a stripper during the wee hours of the morning before he reported to camp. This is always the time teams worry about most, since players know it's the last chance at free time for the year.
The Panthers also have a week to get their four remaining picks signed. The latter two (third-rounder Charles Godfrey and seventh-rounder Geoff Schwartz) are formalities, but there are still the two first-rounders to deal with. The Panthers were stung by their inability to get Beason into camp on time last summer, taking pride in their previous no-holdout streak under Hurney. You know that's in the back of their minds this week, but it's more important since Stewart and Otah will have big roles early.
9. Is there a sleeper in the bunch?
The best player not guaranteed a job is receiver Jason Carter, who spent last year on the practice squad making Smith-level plays. He's acrobatic and athletic, but he's much more of a football player than camp phenoms past such as Taye Biddle. They have to figure out a way to keep him.
And while he was on the street midway through last year, Donte Curry has fans on the coaching staff. He's like the Goings of linebackers, and they need that.
Among the rookies, defensive tackle Nick Hayden and offensive lineman Schwartz have a chance to be long-term contributors, even if they don't see much time this year.
10. Can they all get along?
Chemistry was as big a problem as injuries last year, and they've taken steps to address it.
Getting Delhomme back in the locker room is huge, but they also pruned some of the deadwood and malcontents. They hope the result is a more cohesive team, and they think the early results are good. Most of the team was around for offseason conditioning, and unlike years past, no one openly cursed at coaches when it was time to run.
Singing "Kum Ba Yah" won't help them win games, but not hating some of the guys in the huddle with you can't hurt.
As with all the other questions, we'll see starting later this week whether it works.