CHARLOTTE -- As excited as the Carolina Panthers are about the return of linebacker Dan Morgan, they also spent considerable time and expense this offseason preparing for the possibility he might not play.
Morgan, who missed all but the first quarter of last year's opener because of repeated concussion problems, is back on the field now and ready to lead the Panthers' defense into this week's regular-season opener at St. Louis.
"I feel good," Morgan said. "I've got no worries moving forward."
That doesn't mean the team doesn't.
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Because there's the chance the next wrong hit he takes could be his last for the season or perhaps his career, they worked to cover themselves.
Even though they let backup middle linebacker Chris Draft take the free-agency money from the Rams, they shored up the position by retaining incumbent weakside linebacker Na'il Diggs, using their first draft pick on Jon Beason and getting a year more comfortable with former first-rounder Thomas Davis.
They also kept eight linebackers as part of their initial 53-man roster, making sure they had numbers in the unfortunate event something happened to Morgan as it did as year ago.
"We wanted to add depth to the whole linebacker corps," general manager Marty Hurney said. "We just went into the offseason looking for fits, and we were fortunate we were able to add Jon Beason and (fifth-rounder) Tim Shaw in the draft.
"The biggest thing is, you know you want to upgrade the depth, because it's a position that's extremely difficult to fill during the season. And simply the nature of the position makes it necessary to have that kind of depth."
None of the individual players will make up for Morgan's contributions if he does go down, but it's clear that they are counting on another year of maturity for backup Adam Seward and the potential of Beason. In fact, Seward would probably get the first chance to play if Morgan were out, while Beason represents the long-term future there. The retention of Diggs was a tacit admission that they'd need a veteran there if Beason had to move to the middle.
"When you play linebacker, you need to know what the front's doing, what the coverage checks are," Beason said of the possibility of playing inside. "All three positions need to be kind of interchangeable. When they put in a new blitz or a new coverage, I can't just look at what I'm doing (on the weakside), you have to look at Mike and Sam (middle and strongside), because you never know what's going to happen as far as injuries.
"I think as my career goes on I'll be more attuned to it, but if I had to play it I think I could."
And frankly, with Morgan's snake-bitten past (he was missing an average of five games per year prior to last season), they know there's an element of luck involved.
"You just try to have plans in place," Hurney said. "Because you know you can lose any player at any time."
For his part, Morgan has kept a stiff upper lip about his situation, refusing to delve too deeply into the what-ifs of his future. He's said time and again he's done everything he could to protect himself, from consulting with world-renowned specialists to changing equipment and he way he practices.
So while the entire franchise might be concerned about his well-being (and by extension, their own) when he steps onto the field, he's not projecting any trepidation of his own.
"Honestly, I wasn't worried," he said of coming back for the one preseason game he played. "I wasn't thinking about a concussion, not even going into the game. It's just more getting back out there and getting the feel back. I felt good and thought it was a positive step."
When asked if one more concussion (he's had five) would make him think of retiring, Morgan shrugged.
"I don't know," he said. "That's something I'll weigh if it happens, and hopefully it don't. But if it happens, I'll deal with it when it comes."
Even if Morgan stays on the field, the Panthers' defense remains at a crossroads.
Veteran safety and longtime captain Mike Minter retired early in training camp after realizing his knees weren't going to allow him an 11th season. His best friend here, defensive end Mike Rucker, could also be nearing the end of his career despite a successful comeback from a late-season knee injury.
Add to that the assorted injuries (projected starting safety Nate Salley's missed most of the preseason), the late additions (the training camp trade for safety Chris Harris and Monday pickups of Marquand Manuel and Dante Wesley) and the improvement of some of the young players (Stanley McClover in particular), and the uncertainty about this year only grows.
"I think that we definitely have some new faces and new bodies, so we've definitely got to jell with each other," Rucker said. "Some of that has happened in preseason, but some of that still has to happen. I think what we've got to do is, be on the same page. I think guys came out, the energy was there, and we were on the same page. I think guys are going to be ready for that opener, and that's the key.
"Where we are and what kind of defense we're going to be is up to us this year. The trouble we get into, the type situations we get into and how we deal with those are going to shape this defense.
"I think you definitely can see guys are younger. I think time will tell. We haven't had enough time together to see where we're exactly going to be. That's the good thing though. We still have time to shape that up."
• Panthers notebook • 4C
• Adam Seward ready to go if needed • 4C