Head coach: John Fox, fourth season
2004 record: 7-9
2004 rankings: Offense, 13th (326.6 yards/game); Defense, 20th (336.4 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: 13th
From SportingNews.com: NFC South overview
One year removed from the Super Bowl, Carolina was devastated by injuries, losing its top wide receiver (Steve Smith) and top four running backs (Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, Joey Harris and Rod Smart). Quarterback Jake Delhomme and the Panthers' offense weren't able to adjust until midseason when Carolina shifted toward the passing game.
Delhomme and receiver Muhsin Muhammad went on a tear down the stretch, and – with some significant production from running back Nick Goings and the defense – Carolina staged a late run. The Panthers won six of seven, but they were eliminated from the playoffs when they lost their final game of the season to New Orleans.
Carolina won't know what it can get out of Davis until late into training camp when he can start practicing on his surgically repaired knee. Foster will be the starter in Davis' absence, but the Panthers have an insurance policy in rookie Eric Shelton.
After an erratic start, Delhomme caught fire last October and emerged as one of the league's best quarterbacks down the stretch. In Carolina's final 10 games, Delhomme passed for 22 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
After signing Pro Bowl guard Mike Wahle, the Panthers should have a good offensive line this year. The running game is going to be solid, no matter who is healthy.
The key to Delhomme's success will be the receiving corps, which lost Muhammad in free agency. His absence will hurt, no matter how well Smith plays, but the acquisition of Rod Gardner from Washington will give the Panthers a solid No. 3 wide receiver behind Smith and Keary Colbert. That's a pivotal development, considering Carolina would have been taking a sizeable risk if it had to depend on the aging Ricky Proehl to replace some of Muhammad's production.
Defensive end Julius Peppers, who had a great season in 2004, looks like he's ready to have a Reggie White-type impact on games. If that happens, it would be impossible to handle the defensive line of Peppers, end Mike Rucker and defensive tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner.
With Jenkins coming off an injury, and ever-frail middle linebacker Dan Morgan in the lineup, health is always going to be a pivotal issue in the front seven. But it has oodles of starting talent on paper.
Although Carolina overpaid to get him, cornerback Ken Lucas gives the secondary a chance to be special. With Chris Gamble looking like a Pro Bowler in waiting, the trio of Lucas, Gamble, nickel back Ricky Manning Jr. and safety Mike Minter should be able to handle any receiving corps.
Rookie Thomas Davis could end up at safety, but now that Mark Fields is sitting out the season, Davis will likely be pushed into the strong side linebacker spot. Wherever he ends up, coaches think Davis will be a huge playmaker.
Gamble (punts) and Smart (kickoffs) will handle the return game, but the training camp focus will be on punter, which opened up after the talented but tormented Todd Sauerbrun was released. Jason Baker, Tom Rouen and Steve Cheek will all get a shot at the job. John Kasay remains one of the league's best kickers.
The Panthers will finish 10-6 and second in the NFC South.