Carolina Panthers

Panthers head to camp without hefty expectations

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers report to training camp at Wofford today, with the addition of several new parts but without the high expectations that crushed them last year.

They're younger in the coaching staff and on the field and hope that rejuvenates a club which disappointed mightily a year ago.

Instead of making the Super Bowl, as many assumed, they scrambled to get to 8-8, narrowly avoiding the alternate-year losing seasons coach John Fox has posted since taking over.

They're hoping to get back on the odd-year success of 2003 and 2005, but they're doing so with a new offense and many new parts who weren't around for those seasons.

Here's a look at some of this year's pressing questions:

Can they run?

Despite all the talk about new backup quarterback David Carr, the search for a complement to receiver Steve Smith and all the new wrinkles in the offense, this will be the one thing that determines success.

They're fiddling with the blocking schemes to take advantage of the linemen they have, and DeShaun Foster should be the prime beneficiary. DeAngelo Williams will help, but Foster's still the guy.

If they can finish in the top third of the league instead of the bottom third in rushing (24th last year), all the other elements of the offense will fall into place.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme is very good when they run, so establishing the ground game will have the extra benefit of keeping people from asking when Carr's going to play.

Who's going to be out there?

Kris Jenkins for one, but we don't know what kind of shape he'll be in. He stayed away from all the voluntary work after asking for a new contract and being told no. The trade speculation was almost secondary, and it's clear that if he wants a new deal, he'll have to stay healthy and replicate last year's Pro Bowl level.

Left tackle Travelle Wharton's telling people he's ready, that he expects to pass today's physical and practice Saturday. If he's not out there, he should be soon, after recovering from last year's opening day knee injury.

Defensive end Mike Rucker's a little behind Wharton, but still ahead of schedule with his own knee rehab. Going from day one's not likely, but he should practice at some point during camp.

Defensive tackle Jordan Carstens shouldn't be counted on this year. He hasn't practiced since being hospitalized last year with a blood clot, the result of medication he was taking for a kidney ailment. If he passes a physical today it's an upset, and even so, he's lost so much weight it would likely be some time before he's effective.

How long do the courtesy starts for the older guys last?

There's no question the Panthers expect first-round pick Jon Beason and second-rounder Dwayne Jarrett to start.

How soon we'll find out Saturday morning.

Beason's got a tougher path, since solid veteran Na'il Diggs has been in front of him at weakside linebacker throughout the offseason work. They'll shed no tears if Diggs starts, since he's smart and efficient.

But if Beason's out there with Dan Morgan and Thomas Davis, the Panthers will have as fast a group of linebackers as anyone. There's been talk he's long-term insurance against another Morgan injury, but he's taken all his work outside.

Jarrett began taking reps with the first offense in June, though Drew Carter will get the first shot start. Jarrett was drafted to replace Keyshawn Johnson in the lineup, so his apprenticeship probably won't last long.

What position provides the toughest decision?

The Panthers will keep four or five cornerbacks, and they have at least seven who've played meaningful time in the NFL. They're set with Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall, and newcomer Curtis Deloatch can run with any receiver he sees, as new secondary coach Tim Lewis knows from their days in New York.

Derrick Strait, Christian Morton and Dion Byrum played well at points last year. They're deep enough they had to cut a guy they liked (Garnell Wilds) just to get under the roster limit for camp.

Have they figured out what the offensive line will look like?

Not really. If Wharton starts practice Saturday, he'll be back at left tackle next to Mike Wahle. The early word is Justin Hartwig will get a chance to prove he can play center before they move him to guard or the second string. Last year's replacement tackle, Jeremy Bridges, looked comfortable at right guard, and Jordan Gross is happier being back at right tackle.

But unlike years past, they've got options.

Second-round pick Ryan Kalil looks ready-made to start for years, and could push Hartwig over or back. Geoff Hangartner, who played well in the middle last year, could play any of the three interior slots. They've also got a sleeper in D'Anthony Batiste, enough so that they shifted former starting guard Evan Mathis to tackle. He'll need to impress, because they're in a position they might have to cut one of their former third rounders (Mathis or Rashad Butler) or a guy who played well last year (Will Montgomery). If Wharton wasn't ready to start the regular season opener, they'd probably move Wahle out there for a game or two, but Wharton should be fine by September.

Quick hitters

Is Delhomme in any danger of losing his job?

Only if he got kicked by a horse last week and we don't know it yet.

How about Mike Minter?

Doubt it. They made him take a pay cut and then didn't add any real competition for his farewell tour.

Is there a sleeper who could make an impact?

Wide receiver Taye Biddle could make Keary Colbert obsolete, though Colbert's nearly done that himself.

Will the special teams improve?

They can't get any worse, and that's why they overhauled.

Will Julius Peppers get a new contract?

Maybe, but he'll need another dorm room to stack his money in if he signs soon.

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