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December 29, 2005

Be realistic about free-agent RB prospects

Before imaginations get running wild, get one thing straight. Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James and Jamal Lewis won’t join the Carolina Panthers next season. Yea, wishful thinking is nice, but let’s be realistic. The Panthers aren’t going to have a lot of salary cap room for 2006 and Alexander (Seattle), James (Indianapolis) and Lewis (Baltimore) would come with hefty price tags. Besides, there’s a good chance each could end up back with his current team and never hit the free-agent market.

With Stephen Davis clearly not in the Panthers’ future (at least not as a feature back), and DeShaun Foster still trying to prove he can handle the role, the Panthers have to make a huge decision after the season. In an offense built on the running game, the feature back might be as important as the quarterback. This decision can’t be taken lightly.

The Panthers also have Eric Shelton, a second-round draft pick this year, coming back from injury. He’ll factor into the mix, but the Panthers can’t count on Shelton yet. There aren’t any sure things (see the list of potential free agent running backs below), so what the Panthers need are options.

Although Foster hasn’t been great, he’s as good as the rest of the mid-level potential free agents. The Panthers might decide to stick with what they know and re-sign Foster, who can become a free agent in March. Several high-ranking members of the organization really liked Michael Bennett when he came out in the draft. But Bennett basically has been Foster in a Minnesota Vikings uniform. Baltimore’s Chester Taylor is going to be in the same price range as Foster and he might be a better fit in Carolina’s offense.

There’s also the possibility the Panthers could ignore the free agent class and draft a runner to pair with Shelton.

Here’s a list of the potential restricted and unrestricted free agent running backs for 2006:

2006 NFL Free Agents Running Backs

Player - Type - 2005 Team

Ahman Green- UFA - Packers

Anthony Thomas - UFA - Saints

Antowain Smith - UFA - Saints

Arlen Harris - RFA - Rams

Artose Pinner - RFA - Lions

Aveion Cason - UFA - Rams

Chad Morton - UFA - Giants

Chester Taylor - UFA - Ravens

David Allen - RFA - Rams

DeShaun Foster - UFA - Panthers

Edgerrin James - UFA - Colts

J.R. Redmond - UFA - Cardinals

Jamal Lewis - UFA - Ravens

James Jackson - UFA - Cardinals

Jonathan Wells - UFA - Texans

Kenny Watson - UFA - Bengals

LaBrandon Toefield - RFA - Jaguars

Lamar Gordon - UFA - Eagles

Maurice Morris - UFA - Seahawks

Michael Bennett - UFA - Vikings

Mike Cloud - UFA - Patriots

Moe Williams - UFA - Vikings

Musa Smith - RFA - Ravens

Najeh Davenport - UFA - Packers

Omar Easy - UFA - Raiders

Reno Mahe - RFA - Eagles

Rock Cartwright - UFA - Redskins

Ron Dayne - UFA - Broncos

Shaun Alexander - UFA - Seahawks

Shawn Bryson - UFA - Lions

Steve Bush - UFA - 49ers

Tony Fisher - UFA - Packers

Travis Minor - UFA - Dolphins

Verron Haynes - UFA - Steelers

Posted by Observer Sports on December 29, 2005 at 06:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)

December 28, 2005

Ricky Proehl's final season?

Odds and ends for the final week of the regular season.

- Receiver Ricky Proehl's introduction with the starters before the Panthers' game against Dallas on Saturday sure had the look of a symbolic gesture. Proehl, who was coaxed out of retiring before this season, said he's made no decision about his future. Proehl said he was told by coach John Fox before the game that he would be introduced. Consider that a pretty strong sign that this is Proehl's final season.

- When the Panthers defeated the Falcons in Charlotte on Dec. 4, it was a huge win. It stopped a five-game Atlanta winning streak in games started by quarterback Michael Vick. The Panthers let out a huge sigh of relief when that happened.

   But they've got some other challenges to overcome when they face Atlanta on Sunday. The Falcons have won nine of the past 11 meetings and the Panthers have won only once in Atlanta. That was in 1997.

- If you've followed the Panthers this season, you've seen a lot of Sam Rosen and Bill Maas. You'll see (and hear) the Fox television tandem again Sunday as they call yet another Panthers game.

- Former Panthers radio voice Bill Rosinski will call Carolina's game for the second straight week on Westwood One. The broadcast isn't available on regular radio in the Carolinas, but can be found on satellite radio.

- Despite their disappointing season, the Falcons (8-7) have a couple of things to play for. They have a chance for the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. They also have a chance to break the team record for rushing yards in a season. They need 152 yards to top the 2,672 yards they rushed for last season. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL to rush for 100 yards in every game.

Posted by Observer Sports on December 28, 2005 at 11:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

December 23, 2005

Gardner didn't live up to talk

For most weeks this season, the media who regularly cover the Carolina Panthers tried to guess when wide receiver Rod Gardner would go off.

Gardner, thought by many fans to be a savior when he was acquired in a trade with Washington on the eve of training camp, rarely played for the Panthers. Although his body language often suggested he was steaming mad, Gardner always was diplomatic with his words.

After his release last week, Gardner was picked up by the Green Bay Packers off waivers. It seemed like a pretty safe bet Gardner would finally have some harsh words for the Panthers.

But, once again, Gardner didn’t come close to expectations.

"I thought they wanted me to come in and play right now and fight for a starting job,’’ Gardner told reporters in Green Bay earlier this week. "But once training camp hit and everything was going well, I didn’t see the transition being made and I didn’t think they gave me the opportunity I needed.

"So at that point in time, I just tried to make it through the year, stay positive and hope something would come through. Towards the end of the year, coach John Fox, he’s a good guy, but at the same time I felt I wasn’t what they needed and it was a waste of time for me being there.’’

By the way, the knock on Gardner was he never learned Carolina’s offense. Don’t look for him to suddenly grasp Green Bay’s offense and make an impact in the final two weeks of the season.

Posted by Observer Sports on December 23, 2005 at 09:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

December 21, 2005

Colbert's numbers tell a story

The Carolina Panthers can talk all they want about how Keary Colbert’s meager receiving numbers aren’t a concern. But maybe they should re-examine things and look at one important statistic.

Colbert has 19 catches in the 10 games the Panthers have won. He also has both of his touchdowns in victories. In the four they’ve lost, Colbert has a total of four catches. That’s a pretty significant difference.

Here’s one other interesting statistic. Of Colbert’s 23 catches, 15 (including both touchdowns) have come at home.

BY THE NUMBERS: It’s tough to judge offensive linemen by statistics, but with a little help from STATS, we did. Here’s how Carolina’s five starters have fared this season in sacks allowed and penalties:

LT Travelle Wharton, 6.5 sacks allowed, four penalties

LG Mike Wahle, 0.75 sacks allowed, two penalties

C Jeff Mitchell, 0.75 sacks allowed, two penalties

RG Tutan Reyes, 1 sack allowed, two penalties

RT Jordan Gross, 5.5 sacks allowed, three penalties

STUFFERS: Defensive end Julius Peppers is best known as a pass rusher, but he’s developed into a pretty effective run stopper, too. According to STATS, Peppers is the Panthers’ leader when it comes to stuffs (tackling a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage on a running play). Here’s a look at the number of stuffs by each of Carolina’s four starting members of the defensive front:

LDE Julius Peppers 4.5

LDT Brentson Buckner 4

RDT Jordan Carstens 2

RDE Mike Rucker 3.5

Posted by Observer Sports on December 21, 2005 at 09:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

December 19, 2005

Fox changes practice schedule

    Although Panthers coach John Fox is a creature of habit, he changed the team’s schedule because of the short week. With the Panthers hosting Dallas on Saturday, Fox gave the players the day off Monday and the coach did not hold his regular news conference. Players will return to work Tuesday, which normally is a day off, and approach it with the same type of full practice usually reserved for Wednesdays. The rest of the week’s schedule also will be pushed forward a day.

Posted by Observer Sports on December 19, 2005 at 03:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Smith leads fan voting for Pro Bowl

  Wide receiver Steve Smith was the only member of the Panthers to lead his position in balloting for the NFC Pro Bowl squad, which recently was completed.

Smith received 752,723 votes. Fan voting makes up one-third of the final vote, with coaches and players accounting for the rest. The Pro Bowl rosters will be announced Wednesday.

Posted by Observer Sports on December 19, 2005 at 03:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 16, 2005

Which Panthers will make Pro Bowl?

When it comes to talking about which Panthers should make the Pro Bowl, it's a lot like talking about the Panthers wide receivers.

There's Steve Smith. And there's everybody else.

The Pro Bowl rosters will be announced Wednesday and Smith is a lock to make the NFC squad. Heck, Smith might even be the league's Most Valuable Player. If he doesn't get a trip to Hawaii, Congress should put Paul Tagliabue in Mark McGwire's chair.

But after Smith, nothing is certain. The Panthers have one of the best records in the conference and that means they're likely to get a fair amount of Pro Bowl berths. But who else goes is anybody's guess.

Defensive end Julius Peppers went to the Pro Bowl last season. His 7.5 sacks don't put him among the league leaders, but he's made some spectacular plays and his name recognition is pretty high.

Defensive end Mike Rucker has the same amount of sacks as Peppers, but if any Carolina defensive lineman will make the all-star team it probably will be Peppers.

Cornerback Ken Lucas should be in the Pro Bowl. He was the best free agent signing in the entire NFL this year. He's already the best cornerback in franchise history and his presence has elevated Chris Gamble to No. 2, while making safeties Mike Minter and Marlon McCree better.

Linebacker Dan Morgan went to his first Pro Bowl last year and a return trip isn't out of the question. Chicago's Brian Urlacher probably will start in the middle, but Morgan's a worthy candidate for a backup job.

This may sound a little outrageous because his season has been very up and down. But quarterback Jake Delhomme is a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate. Seriously, name three NFC quarterbacks that are better and remember Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper are injured and Brett Favre's not having a good year. Matt Hasselbeck and Michael Vick probably make the team ahead of Delhomme. But there's room for three quarterbacks and Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell are the only other viable options.

The Panthers moved Jordan Gross back to right tackle from the left side in hopes that he would be a Pro Bowl-type player. Maybe Gross hasn't been dominant, but he's been solid and that gives him an outside shot at making the roster.

If Lucas is the best free agent signing in the league, Mike Wahle ranks in the top five. Wahle doesn't play a glamour position, but it's hard to find a better guard. He was often overshadowed by former teammate Marco Rivera in Green Bay, but this could be Wahle's chance to finally get to the Pro Bowl.

Posted by Observer Sports on December 16, 2005 at 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

December 14, 2005

Would Jones have helped passing game?

WHAT IF? While looking back at a preseason magazine, I spotted something interesting.

It’s easy to forget, but, at one point the Panthers had a player who could have helped the passing game: tight end Freddie Jones.

With wide receiver Steve Smith as the team’s only offensive weapon, that brings up some "what-ifs?"

What if Jones hadn’t retired in training camp? No, it’s too much to believe offensive coordinator Dan Henning would have turned Jones into Shannon Sharpe because tight ends are supposed to be primarily blockers in this offense.

But Jones had been one of the better receiving tight ends for much of his career, and it would have been interesting to see what role he would have played for the Panthers. He had the potential to give the Panthers a receiving threat beyond Smith.

CARTER’S FUTURE. Speaking of receiving threats who haven’t done anything this season, remember Drew Carter? He was one of the stars of the preseason, but the Panthers haven’t used him. At this point, they should start getting him some experience because it’s pretty likely Ricky Proehl will retire after the season, and Rod Gardner obviously doesn’t fit into the future plans. Heck, Gardner doesn’t even fit into the current plans.

Why not at least give Carter the few snaps Gardner has been getting? It makes too much sense. Besides, coach John Fox and Dan Henning aren’t going to do anything radical with the team in a playoff race. But the fact is, beyond starters Steve Smith and Keary Colbert, Carter is the receiver on the current roster with the best chance of being around next season.

A WEINKE AND A SMILE. One of the more interesting behind-the-scenes sights this year has been the demeanor of backup quarterback Chris Weinke.

Ever since he came in for an injured Jake Delhomme in October against Detroit and helped the Panthers win, there’s been a noticeable difference in Weinke. In past years, Weinke usually stayed out of the locker room. When he was around, he wasn’t the friendliest guy.

All that’s changed since Detroit. Weinke suddenly has become very relaxed and friendly. He’s been almost playful with reporters, joking with them and calling them by name.

The change could be due to any number of things, but it’s a pretty safe bet this is a case of a man who has his confidence back and believes that, after the season, he’s going to get a shot to play somewhere.

Posted by Observer Sports on December 14, 2005 at 09:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 12, 2005

An aggressive response ... or not

It was interesting, but hardly enlightening, to watch Panthers coach John Fox respond Monday to receiver Ricky Proehl’s comments Sunday.

After a 20-10 loss to Tampa Bay, in which Carolina’s offense did little until the final minutes, Proehl said the Panthers need to be more aggressive on offense. The implication was Proehl thought the Panthers should have thrown more often.

"What I wonder is is what aggressive with the play calling means,’’ Fox said. "Does that mean passing is more aggressive than running? Is that what they were referring to?’’

It was pretty clear Proehl thought so. It was something Fox wasn't comfortable talking about. But he certainly didn’t sound like a coach who is about to install the run-and-shoot offense before Sunday’s game against the Saints.

"I think (the Bucs) ran the ball 35 times,’’ Fox said. "Maybe they had the right idea.’’

Posted by Observer Sports on December 12, 2005 at 02:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

December 08, 2005

Time to start Foster

It’s December and all that, but the Panthers need to stop being so generous.

The whole charade of starting Stephen Davis no longer is necessary and it certainly isn’t productive. It’s been clear for three weeks now that DeShaun Foster is the feature running back.

Still, though, the Panthers list Davis first on the depth chart. Yea, Davis is a great guy and deserves every bit of respect possible because he’s been such a big contributor and locker room leader in the past.

But Davis is aware he’s no longer the feature back. He also has been around long enough to know the NFL is a cold, hard business. Heck, you could even make a case the Panthers are embarrassing Davis by starting him and promptly yanking him.

Starting him last week against Atlanta didn’t do any good. He gained five yards while carrying four times on the first two drives. Foster took over late in the game and gained 131 yards on 24 carries. Davis carried only one time the rest of the game.

Davis still should get a few carries scattered throughout the game, and he should get the carries near the goal line. But it’s time to start Foster and let him run with the opportunity.

DEFENSIVE DIVISION: All four teams in the NFC South rank in the top 14 in the NFL in total defense. The Bucs are second and the Panthers are fourth. The Saints are 11th and Atlanta ranks 14th.

Posted by Observer Sports on December 8, 2005 at 04:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)