CHARLOTTE -- Forget everything you ever knew about the Carolina Panthers. Because this year, a rebuilding one in many ways, has begun by turning the whole house upside down.
For doubtless the first time in the franchise's history, they enter a season with more issues on the defensive line than the offensive line.
What's been the hallmark of John Fox's system in places before this one opens the year as a riddle, while what's been an issue as long as the Panthers have played now looks like a relative strength.
Consider the fact that Fox openly referred to his defensive front four as a "question mark," during camp, while general manager Marty Hurney called the offensive line "one of our deepest positions," as he agonized over which of them to cut.
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These are still the Panthers, right?
It doesn't take a very deep consideration of the offseason to understand the difference.
After placing an emphasis on getting bigger, stronger and younger up front, the Panthers made the investment to sustain their philosophy. After putting the franchise tag on left tackle Jordan Gross and writing a $35 million deal to move Travelle Wharton to left guard, they traded next year's first-rounder to obtain right tackle Jeff Otah, the kind of high-end mauler the franchise has never known. Plug in veteran 325-pounder Keydrick Vincent at right guard, and the Panthers finally have the pieces to match the style the want to run.
That's seldom been the case before, and if there's a surprising element to it, it's that so many people are willing to talk about it. In discussing DeAngelo Williams' success this preseason, quarterback Jake Delhomme offered an honest assessment of the improvements.
"We'll get to see the true DeAngelo this year," Delhomme said. "The last couple of years, I mean let's be honest, we didn't get to see a true test. We're much better up front than we've been in a while."
Or really, ever.
As long as they've been playing, it seems the Panthers have been playing catch-up up front.
For most of their first decade, they used few picks on blockers, and the ones they did didn't always play to their draft grades.
They used one of their three first-round picks in 1995 on left tackle Blake Brockermeyer, who turned out to be functional and not much more. The next attempt at drafting one was Chris Terry, a second-rounder in 1998 who was a decent player whose troubles with the law shortened his stay here. Otherwise, they were filling in blanks, relying on journeymen or worse. In 1999 and 2000, they stationed Clarence Jones at left tackle, and you can still see the result of that when Steve Beuerlein walks across a room. Those were the two years the Panthers allowed 120 sacks, all but eight absorbed by Beuerlein.
Under Fox and Hurney, they've turned more attention toward building a line. Four of this year's five starters up front were picked since 2003, with both tackles coming in the first round. They're hoping the top-end talent they've added helps make up for the most recent overhaul, since none of this year's starters were in their current spots a year ago. That part of the challenge has fallen on line coach Dave Magazu and coordinator Jeff Davidson (a former NFL lineman himself), and they've largely picked their five and stuck with it.
"Well, on the offensive line we've made a lot of changes, and one of the keys there is continuity," Hurney said. "We stress that a lot, and we've made a lot of changes. It's going to be interesting to see how quickly that comes together.
"Dave and Jeff do a great job getting guys ready, but it's going to take time. We made a decision, a certain look we wanted there. It's exciting because we did some things to make it look the way we wanted to look; now we wait and see how it comes together."
This year's line has drawn favorable comparisons to the 2003 group, which had gelled together after the 2001 spending spree that brought tackle Todd Steussie, center Jeff Mitchell and guard Kevin Donnalley.
"God, I remember standing up in the huddle and not being able to see the defense on the other side," receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "And that's kind of what our offensive line looks like when I was here in '03, with Steussie and Mitchell and Donnalley and all those guys.
"So I think the one thing we didn't have that season was depth on the O-line, and this team has a lot of depth. I think our offensive line is going to be pretty good and that competition should breed some excellence."
The bread and butter
But while the attention paid to fixing the offensive front has been recent, the Panthers have always invested in solid defensive lines.
When they began the team, running a 3-4 system that rewards pass-rushing linebackers, they still made sure to find a bedrock of veterans. Mike Fox was one of the first unrestricted free agents to sign, the same day as kicker John Kasay. They surrounded him with Greg Kragen and Gerald Williams, established players from other teams. Later, inaugural coach Dom Capers would seal his own fate by trading a pair of first-round picks to Washington for Sean Gilbert, a perfectly good player who remains a pariah here because of his contract rather than his play. Then when George Seifert took over, among his moves was assembling his own over-the-hill-gang, a collection of name defensive linemen (Reggie White, Chuck Smith, Eric Swann) who weren't quite able to deliver on their reputations.
Fox's first move defined his priorities, as they used the second overall pick in the 2002 draft on Julius Peppers. He joined with Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner to form a line considered the best in the league at one time, a reputation that's gradually and certainly eroded since their Super Bowl run in 2004.
This year, the line looks like Peppers and the seven dwarfs (although nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu might be the biggest dwarf ever). While Peppers appears to be over whatever funk caused him to post a career-low 2.5 sacks last year, there's still pressure on him because he's the only proven commodity they have. The other two defensive ends who'll be active on game days -- Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson -- have a combined 6.0 sacks. The most experienced rushers on the team -- all these things come with a non-Peppers clause -- are defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Darwin Walker, who have 47.0 between them, though they'll rarely appear on the field together.
Perhaps because the defensive line has always been the strength of his defenses, Fox shrugged off the notion that this year's might not measure up to past lines. And as with most discussions of what went wrong last season, there was one major extenuating circumstance.
"Everybody starts off as a no-name," Fox said. "I'm not convinced our front four isn't good. I know one guy is fairly proven. A lot's made of that, but he's had some pretty good barbecues in the past. ...
"It's no question (pass rush) is something we need to improve. But again, the loss of your quarterback affects your pass rush. You're not seeing passes. Games we were ahead, we got sacks. Games you're behind, people don't take risks. You're getting run and play-action pass, and that's hard to get sacks. When you get people behind, it's riskier. I hate to keep coming back to that, but it's reality. It's hard to get sacks against two-tight-ends-and-run-the-ball."
This year, Delhomme's back, so the defensive line can't lean on that anymore.
This year, they have to prove themselves worthy, or at least up to the standard set by their teammates on the other side of the ball.