Carolina Panthers

Signing Peppers, Gross top priority for Panthers

The Panthers hope to sign defensive end Julius Peppers to a long-term deal, but he has said he wants to wait until the end of the season to talk about a new contract.
The Panthers hope to sign defensive end Julius Peppers to a long-term deal, but he has said he wants to wait until the end of the season to talk about a new contract.

CHARLOTTE -- Getting Chris Gamble wrapped up was a nice start, but the Panthers still have plenty of work to do off the field.

Signing their emerging cornerback star to a six-year, $54.5 million extension Friday was the first big step in their offseason plan. Of course, it left two big-ticket items -- defensive end Julius Peppers and left tackle Jordan Gross -- and taking care of those two will be the primary focus of the next four months. Since they used the franchise tag on Gross, they can't negotiate with him until the end of the regular season. Peppers has already been given an offer, and every indication is that he wants to wait until the end of the regular season to deal with it.

Beyond those two splurges, the rest of their free agent list consists of depth and special teams concerns.

Backup offensive linemen Geoff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale will be unrestricted free agents, and Hangartner in particular will likely find chances at starting jobs elsewhere. The other key piece is long-snapper Jason Kyle.

Their other projected unrestricted free agents are: Linebackers Adam Seward and Donte Curry, defensive tackle Darwin Walker and returner Mark Jones.

A spate of big decisions come the following year. Quarterback Jake Delhomme's contract expires in 2009 (though he'll be relatively easy to lock up whenever both sides decide it's time), along with linebacker Thomas Davis and cornerback Richard Marshall. But unless there's an extension to the league's collective bargaining agreement before then, Davis and Marshall would be restricted free agents then.

• WHERE'S THE HELP? With the recent dip of the passing game (which came too late week in Atlanta), one of the more glaring realities is the lack of a secondary target for Delhomme.

Steve Smith broke out of his funk last week (eight catches for 168 yards), but he's not getting much assistance.

Muhsin Muhammad, who looked good early this season, has fallen off the face of the earth. In his last five games, Muhammad's failed to top 50 receiving yards in any of them (16 catches for 175 yards combined), and is averaging 10.9 yards per catch.

Combined with the weekly irrelevant choice between Dwayne Jarrett and D.J. Hackett (who have combined for three receptions for 28 yards the last three weeks with both healthy), it's becoming clear the Panthers haven't been much different than in 2005, when it was all Smith, all the time.

• A HUGE RUN: There may not have been a more significant insignificant run than DeAngelo Williams' closer last week.

His 16-yard gain on the final play in Atlanta gave him 101 yards for the day, helping him reach records. It gave him his franchise-record eighth 100-yard game (in just his 13th start), and allowed him to tie Stephen Davis and Nick Goings with his fourth straight triple-digit rushing day. It also moved him past Davis into third on the team's all-time rushing list.

He'll have an opportunity to extend his hot streak today against a Packers' rush defense which simply isn't very good. They rank 26th in the league, allowing 142.9 per game.

• CHANGE YOUR OUTLOOK: There's been a lot of talk lately about the Panthers playing down to the level of their competition, a valid point after they slogged through wins over Detroit and Oakland (3-20 combined). The Panthers worked hard to stress how dangerous those two could be, but it still looked like they were playing the dregs when they rolled into Atlanta.

"I don't really think there are any teams in the NFL that are way below everybody else," Gross said last week. "I was just as happy to beat the Lions as I would have been beating the Titans when they were undefeated. Everyone's good, and a win's a win."

Gross was then asked if it took him some time to learn that mantra, and the former Utah product said it's different than his school days.

"Yeah, cause in college, I was in the Mountain West (Conference), and I hate to say it, but we had Wyoming, and they never should beat you," Gross said with a slightly embarrassed grin. "Now, a team's record might be terrible, but you could be lining up against (somebody good).

"My rookie year, the last game of the season we were in New York (to face the Giants). They were ... out of the playoffs, and we had already clinched, but I still had to deal with Michael Strahan. Everybody has good players, and there are mismatches, but you can't sleep on any team. I definitely think that's true."

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