NFL: Peppers boosts Panthers, but fives team less depth
By Mike Cranston
SPARTANBURG, S.C. ó Thanks to Julius Peppers changing his mind, the Carolina Panthers return all but one starter from last season’s 12-4 team.
Thanks to Peppers’ fat contract, they’ll spend much of training camp trying to find suitable, cheap backups on both sides of the ball.
Peppers is expected to show up for the start of training camp here today, ending a bizarre offseason that included his pleas to play elsewhere. The Panthers didn’t blink, placed the franchise tag on him and waited him out as he skipped offseason workouts.
Peppers eventually relented and signed with Carolina, but it came at a big cost. Handcuffed by his one-year, $16.7 million deal that takes up nearly 15 percent of the salary cap, the Panthers were the only NFL team this offseason not to sign a veteran free agent from another team.
They watched helplessly as key offensive line backups Geoff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale left in free agency, while Jeremy Bridges was released to free cap space.
They didn’t re-sign defensive tackle Darwin Walker and failed to bring in a veteran to shore up that position. They didn’t sign a receiver to replace the disappointing D.J. Hackett, who was let go. They couldn’t even find the cap space to re-sign long-snapper Jason Kyle.
So while released cornerback Ken Lucas is the only starter missing from last year’s team that won the NFC South, there are still numerous concerns ahead of three weeks of workouts in the searing heat at Wofford College.
“We’ve got a lot of questions just like everybody else in the league,” coach John Fox said.
Not seven months after a shocking 33-13 home playoff loss to Arizona, the Panthers will place heavy loads on rookies and untested veterans.
As Peppers tries to overcome his missed offseason workouts and quickly learn new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks’ scheme, new defensive line coach Brian Baker must find rotation players at defensive tackle behind starters Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis.
With Walker gone, the Panthers will turn to third-round pick Corvey Irvin and Nick Hayden, a 2008 sixth-round choice who struggled mightily late last season when Kemoeatu and Lewis were hurt.
Undrafted rookies Marlon Favorite and Lonnie Harvey are behind them.
The offensive line also lacks depth. While all five starters return from the unit that helped DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart run wild last season, Hangartner, Bridges and Omiyale played important roles. All three filled in when each starter got hurt at some point last season.
Now they’ll depend on players with minuscule experience. Mackenzy Bernadeau didn’t get into a game as a rookie last season, Geoff Schwartz spent his rookie year on the practice squad, and Duke Robinson is a rookie fifth-round pick.
“As it sits now we can’t really afford to get anybody hurt,” left tackle Jordan Gross said after an offseason workout in June. “Not saying anything bad against our backups but that is really just so unknown. There is no established backup right now.”
At receiver, the Panthers have one of the game’s best in Steve Smith. But they’re depending again on 36-year-old Muhsin Muhammad, who easily beat out Hackett last year for the other starting job.
Hackett was so ineffective he was released, making it a critical year for Dwayne Jarrett to finally grab the No. 3 job.
The former Southern California star has struggled in his first two pro seasons, but is clearly ahead of Ryne Robinson, Jason Carter and Kenneth Moore, one of whom could replace the departed Mark Jones as kick returner.
“I have high hopes for him,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said of Jarrett. “If I didn’t have high hopes for him I wouldn’t be hard on him.”
The long-snapper position shows how strapped the Panthers are as they make Peppers the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player this season.
Kyle never botched a snap in eight seasons with the Panthers, but Carolina went for a cheaper alternative by sending a conditional seventh-round pick to Green Bay for J.J. Jansen. He’s never snapped in an NFL game after spending his rookie season in 2008 on injured reserve.
Jansen’s competition will be undrafted rookie Nick Sundberg.
Much of the focus early in camp will be on how Peppers responds to being back where he said he had “maxed out.” But avoiding injury and finding capable backups might be just as important if the Panthers expect to survive a difficult schedule and defend their NFC South crown.