The Panthers have been a roller coaster team under coach John Fox. In 2003 and '05, they played like one of the NFC's elite teams, winning 22 of 32 games. In '02, '04 and '06, however, they were very inconsistent, winning only 22 of 48 games.
Much of the frustration in the down seasons has come from suffering injuries to key positions in key stretches. When health has been on their side, starting on both lines and continuing with the ballhandlers, the Panthers have played up to their potential.
Some say Fox is the hot seat for the topsy-turvy results, but when you look at the combined old and young talent on the roster and consider it's another odd year, you expect the Panthers to deliver, especially from playing in the weaker conference.
So don't read too much into what happened in 2006 in judging how the team's individuals will perform and produce in '07, because someone else will benefit from the Panthers players that you let slide in the draft.
Projected draft round Player Round Jake Delhomme, QB 11-12 DeShaun Foster, RB 6-7 DeAngelo Williams, RB 8 Steve Smith, WR 2 Dwayne Jarrett, WR 15 Keary Colbert, WR DND John Kasay, K 17 Defense/special teams 14 Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Key additions: QB David Carr, S Deke Cooper. Key losses: LB Chris Draft, WR Keyshawn Johnson, TE Kris Mangum, QB Chris Weinke.
Steve Smith, WR. Who should be the first wide receiver taken in fantasy drafts? I think it comes down to Smith, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. Harrison is for those who love their meat and potatoes; you'll be satiated with a steady, fattening diet. Owens caters to brash on-the-go types who can't get enough takeout. Smith, however, is for those who like to be surprised with fusion cuisine.
I am somewhere halfway between the Smith and Owens camps of dining. I already picked Smith over Owens in one league after Harrison was gone; the next draft, for kicks, I probably will take Owens ahead of Smith.
Sure, Harrison is consistent every year when it comes to final numbers, but there also are games where Harrison isn't needed; Peyton Manning is at a point where he's just as comfortable throwing to Reggie Wayne or checking down to a tight end or a back. Don't get me wrong, Harrison is a stud; it's just his production now tends to come in bunches -- think that Monday night troika against Cincinnati last year.
Smith and Owens are in similar situations as go-to guys. The Panthers are still trying to find a sure replacement for Keyshawn Johnson at No. 2, and Owens' veteran complement, Terry Glenn, has been banged up all preseason. Jake Delhomme and Tony Romo are obviously not QBs on Manning's level, and that comes from tending to lock into their No. 1s, even when the coverage is too tight. While that may not be as good for reality, fantasy owners will love the final target tallies for both Smith and Owens.
The other issue that may push Smith down to third among fantasy wideouts is health. But he already came back from a broken leg to produce like a stud in 2005, and after his early hamstring woes, he exploded, cut and performed like his awesome self. Then you need to consider Smith is a pretty young receiver (28) in contrast to Harrison (35) and Owens (33). Bottom line: If you have the means, make one of these three your No. 1 receiver.
Julius Peppers, DL. Peppers might be the most intimidating athlete in the NFL. At 6-7, 283, he has ridiculous speed and quickness, which he uses to wreak havoc and rack up sacks. He's coming off a career-high 13-sack season, and with 32-year-old Mike Rucker still holding up as at least a legitimate threat on the other side, Peppers should be IDP money again.
Defense/special teams. The Panthers' unit was a little disappointing last season in contrast to '05 with their sack total down to a modest 41 and their interceptions dropping from 23 to 14. Their big plays were limited to the point where they became a platoon defense in many leagues. Now they've got a different look at linebacker and safety, putting more emphasis on the ends and cornerbacks to make more fantasy-friendly big plays. The Panthers are one of about 10 teams in the second tier of D/ST options, a definition of why this is one of the most unpredictable fantasy positions. If you're just looking for a solid starting defense late in the draft to play nearly every week, you'll get by with Carolina. 3-Star Players
DeShaun Foster, RB. Rarely do you have a low-risk, high-reward pick of Foster's caliber. Really, I think I would rather have him than several veterans in iffy situations, including LaMont Jordan, Jamal Lewis and Warrick Dunn. The Panthers have a much better chance of being a much better team than either the Raiders, Browns and Falcons, and to do so, they'll need to focus on producing with their new zone-blocking running scheme. Foster at least looks healthy and set to be the man for the start of the season. He also has a chance for a hot start as Carolina opens against the run defense sieves of St. Louis and Houston. It's hard to rely him on your No. 2 back all season, but if you like to have two No. 2 types behind an elite No. 1, you'll be happy working him into the mix, at least while he's not hurt.
DeAngelo Williams, RB. Williams is built similarly to Foster, and the one edge he has over Foster is better instincts running between the tackles. But his size gives him similar durability concerns, and Williams seemed to have his best running work for after the catch as a rookie last season. Williams has more explosive upside if he can crack the lineup enough to match Foster in touches, but that won't happen to start the season. While you draft Foster with intentions of playing him early, you should draft Williams with the idea of him possibly paying off late.
Jake Delhomme, QB. Delhomme has always been a Brett Favre 2.0. Of course, he can't match Favre's right-hand rifle, but he has the same passing style -- a gunslinger who isn't afraid to go for big plays, even with the risk of multiple INT games. At this point, Delhomme, like Favre, is a fantasy platoon QB. In the right matchup, usually one where Smith can take advantage of an absolute mismatch, Delhomme can easily put up 250 and three scores. So you need to pick your spots -- like Favre, Delhomme seems to get fired up and produce best against division opponents. I have him in a committee with Arizona's Matt Leinart, and their schedules seem to mesh well in always having a good matchup from which to choose.
John Kasay, K. Like the former Minnesota North Stars goalie whose name sounds exactly the same but spelled completely different, Kasay's career has no end. He's taken more licking than many of his contemporaries but he keeps on kicking with his reliable left leg. The original Panther deserves consideration as a starter in 12-team leagues, and at worst, he's a fine waiver pickup for a short stretch.
Dwayne Jarrett, WR. Looking at Jarrett at Panther camp, he is an impressive looking lanky athlete at 6-4, 219. The last game in which he played that counted, Jarrett tore up Michigan in the Rose Bowl, celebrating New Year's Day with 203 receiving yards and two TDs. Jarrett was USC's home-run hitter opposite another Steve Smith, but opposite the other Steve Smith, he'll need to be what another former USC home-run hitter, Keyshawn Johnson, was -- a strong possession No. 2 who makes for a great red zone target. Of course, there's that issue of actually being a starter, and Keary Colbert and Drew Carter are in the mix for the job opposite Smith. But really, Jarrett was drafted to win the job and his talent will win over and prove he's the best man for it. That may not happen in the first few weeks, but you'll be drafting him in the last few rounds, anyway, as a rookie to stash away for later.
Keary Colbert, WR. In a different kind of Colbert Report, Keary revealed only this summer that he was hampered by bone spurs in his feet all last season, a very disappointing one for him. Now with fellow USC Trojan Keyshawn Johnson gone and another one in Jarrett in town, Colbert had an impressive enough camp to rise to No. 2A status. Still, Jarrett has too much promise to not be the sole No. 2 sometime soon, making Colbert undraftable.
Drew Carter, WR. Carter has that lanky look that makes you think he could be the next great NFL wide receiver from Ohio State, but he just doesn't have the consistent hands to stay on the field as a possession No. 2 type. I like how dangerous he can be streaking downfield in three- and four-receiver sets, but the long yardage and touchdowns that come from that will be too sporadic to have him on your roster.
Stanley McClover, DL. McClover has been impressive as a rookie in camp, possibly putting him on the early track to be the successor to the aging Rucker opposite Peppers. He'll be productive in an end rotation, but it probably won't be like the Bears' Mark Anderson last season. Keep an eye on McClover, however, to see if he keeps it up when it counts.
Dan Morgan, Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, LBs. Morgan's difficulties with staying healthy are the song of his NFL career, and it's unfortunate, because in the rare times he has been healthy, he's been pretty good. Davis and the rookie Beason have promise on the outside, but neither be counted as good IDP draft picks.
Brad Hoover, RB Hoover is one of the most beloved Panthers in franchise history, and if all things break down with Foster, Williams and Goings, he is capable of decent production as a tough back, especially near the goal line. Many unfortunate occurrences would have to happen for Hoover to be a fantasy factor, but his dirty work in helping both the running game and Delhomme deserves a mention here.
Jeff King and Michael Gaines, TEs. The Panthers haven't had a fantasy-relevant tight end since Wesley Walls, and that doesn't change in the wake of Kris Mangum's retirement. Although King and Gaines have the pass-catching skills to develop
Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble, CBs. Lucas is a pretty solid cover corner, but his reputation makes teams often decide to throw away from him, limiting his playmaking chances. Gamble has a most appropriate last name, as a big play usually happens on his side of the field -- either by his assigned wide receiver or himself. Gamble has 16 picks over his first three seasons, but he's not a good bet for consistent IDP production, either.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: Foster ranks 31st on the price list for running backs at $5.65 million. Get him while he's healthy and cheap as one of your starters for the early season with that St. Louis-Houston-Atlanta-Tampa Bay easy stretch in the first quarter of the year.
TO KNOW LIST
Coaching: The biggest beneficiaries of new offensive coordinate Jeff Davidson's scheme will be the running backs. Zone blocking has been installed, and so far, Foster has looked good in it. So there will be more runs called, but that won't take away from Smith in the passing game.
Defensively, it remains pretty simple under coordinator Mike Trgovac get upfield with the front seven as quickly as possible to both stop the run and get after the quarterback. It's all about the players delivering better than they did last season. Offensive line: Having left tackle Travelle Wharton back healtlhy is huge, and along with right tackle Jordan Gross, the team looks pretty good on the perimeter. It's even better on the interior, however, as rookie Ryan Kalil has a good chance of joining left guard Mike Wahle and center Justin Hartwig as three athletic linemen who can help the team well execute the required zone blocking.
Schedule analysis: The Panthers should get out of the gates nicely, at least offensively with the Rams, Texans, Falcons, Buccaneers, Saints and Cardinals on the slate before their Week 7 bye. Really, their schedule doesn't get too much harder until playoff time. Jacksonville, Seattle and Dallas is daunting now, but the Panthers just may be good enough to handle that kind of challenge. Power poll rank: Tied for 4th easiest (tied for 29th toughest)