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Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Graded Year In Review

This is delayed, and comes from the Fairmont Olympic in beautiful downtown Seattle from a laptop while watching playoff football. (edit - by the time I got this done, it's now the next Saturday - sorry). But, here goes:

Quarterbacking - D.
This year goes in four steps, offensively, because of quarterbacking. The Jake Delhomme period had competent quarterbacking, with his hottest start ever.
David Carr followed, looking efficient but ineffective, and then just ineffective. Vinny Testaverde was efficient and promising, and then wore down in his final two games. Then, Matt Moore stepped in, and the team took back the energy it had with Delhomme. No QB hit 1000 yards - first time in franchise history that four QBs started, first time one (two, actually) QB would start on the team after not being with the team in camp; no QB beat the 8 TDs that Delhomme had in three games.
Prognosis for 2008: Delhomme's risky surgery leaves doubt; Moore has earned being a backup, and Brett Basanez will fight for the 3rd job. The team should pickup a veteran, however. With any hope, David Carr is cut as soon as possible.

Running Back - C+
The running game improved significantly - 14th in the league from 28th. Deshaun Foster played most of the year as the starter, and ran hard inside; had he finished the year as a starter, the team would've had its first 1000 yard rusher since 2003. However, fumbles and a low yards/carry average hurt, and Deangelo Williams took over, making more plays and averaging 5 ypc v/s Foster's 3.5.
Prognosis for 2008: Williams is expected to start. Who will backup? Foster looked to lack the explosion he had in years' past, but can hit the hole well now; he does all the little things well but not for the expected $6 mil pricetag. Struggles may be a decline in ability for a 7th year back, which may earn him his release. Nick Goings is under contract, but spent last year on IR. Alex Haynes played late in the year. The team could look for a bigger back to replace Foster's inside runs.

Fullback - C+
Brad Hoover started all year, rushing and receiving for under 100 yards but blocking fairly well in the zone scheme. Nick Goings was injured early, and never replaced.
Prognosis for 2008: Hoover is a free agent. Goings isn't a starter. The team has flirted with having a true blocker in this scheme, but hasn't ever gone with one. In a competitive sense, it makes more sense to go buy a Tony Richardson or Dan Kreider before it makes sense to return Hoover, who would be going into his 9th season. Hoover could stay, if the price is right, and that would probably prompt the team to draft a young player: besides the rightly hype-laden Owen Schmitt of WVa, there's Peyton Hillis of Arkansas and Jerome Felton of small-school Furman.

Tight End - C+
Starter Jeff King caught more balls than TEs had in the past, adding production to offset problems at WR, but wasn't a consistent blocker. The team picked up Christian Fauria mid-year to remedy blocking, and Dante Rosario proved to possibly be better than King by the end of the year.
Prognosis for 2008: King, Rosario will be here; the team needs an able vet, but cap and needs at other spots will limit this to a roleplayer.

Wide Receiver - D
Steve Smith was up and down, based on QB issues; The 4th year guys (Drew Carter, Keary Colbert) weren't good enough; the rookies (Dwayne Jarrett, Ryne Robinson) barely saw the offense. It's not this group's fault that QBs weren't playing well, but the 4th-years were supposed to step up and failed.
Prognosis for 2008: A vet is needed; preferably a bigger player who works well in the slot. It's a good year for this type player - Ernest Wilford, Bryant Johnson; other alternatives include David Patten, Andre Davis. Smith and the two rookies return. The 4th year guys are both free agents.

Offensive Line - C-
Jordan Gross, while unspectacular, was the best lineman. Consistent inside pressure, and a struggling Travelle Wharton, held the pass blocking back, while none of the starters run blocked well. Jeremy Bridges was replaced in December, Ryan Kalil struggled when in, Justin Hartwig underwhelmed. Geoff Hangartner, the underpowered backup, put together one of the better performances, working his way on the field as a blocking TE and then into the lineup.
Prognosis for 2008:
Hangartner is RFA; so is Evan Mathis, the backup G/T the team may have given up on. Gross and Wharton are UFA. Mike Wahle isn't cuttable yet, but isn't dominating for his money. Hartwig and Bridges are cuttable. If the team didn't love Gross so much, it's suggestable that the team could start all over with Hangartner and Kalil fighting for the starting center and four new players around them. But that, and the cap, mean that Wahle stays, Gross will be paid dominant money for average work, and the team will build around that.

Defensive End - D
5.5 sacks from starters, 1 sack from backups. Starting OLBs gave this same production, so certainly the ends weren't up to the task. If you know what's going on with Julius Peppers, you know more than I do. I only have guesses and hopes. Mike Rucker was solid, consistent, and non-impactive, and backups Charles Johnson and Stanley McClover did nothing relevant.
Prognosis for 2008:
Rucker was the only DL to start all 16 games, and one of three defenders to start the whole year. He had more sacks than Peppers, more tackles, and more QB pressures. This may be more of a reflection of Peppers than Rucker, but Rucker had one of his normal years. The problem? With or without Peppers, the Panthers need more, and may not be able to wait for the youth to give it. The team likely needs an impact player ASAP, and resolution of Peppers' contract status in one way or another.

Defensive Tackle - C
Kris Jenkins failed to dominate despite being thinner and more ready than 2006; Maake Kemoeatu again had issues holding the point of attack at times, and Damione Lewis continued to lack the explosion seen in the first half of 2006. Still, Lewis closed on the team lead in sacks, Jenkins brought some pressure (2.5 sacks and 13 pressures, 3rd best on team in each), and the trio helped the team close to 4th best in yards/carry against the run. The overall number wasn't as good, based on awful time of posession, but the averages are good, and that's a good sign.
Prognosis for 2008: Lewis and Kendal Moorehead are free agents. Kemoeatu isn't cheap enough to cut yet, but isn't earning his money because of issues with leverage. Jenkins suggested a trade already for 2008 after having to endure trade rumors in 2007 - if Jenkins went, the team would be starting completely over.
Still, the team will try to keep that quartet together, or at least will keep the starters; they could draft a player, but a high one would only happen if Sedrick Ellis fell, or if a top one-gap prospect was there in the 2nd. The team could spend on Ryan Sims or WIlliam Joseph as backups, furthering the reclamation project style backup issue, or go with a young backup like Ian Scott.

Linebacker - A
Thomas Davis became a playmaker, and Jon Beason emerged as an NFC star. Beason's 160 tackles were 2nd in the NFC, and the most in team history for a single season (previously held by Michael Barrow, 156). Na'il Diggs had his best year. The trio was good against the run, and remarkably solid in pass defense. Diggs tied for first in sacks, Davis for third. To put in some negatives- after showing a strong preseason as a run stopper at WLB, James Anderson was awful as a MLB and Adam Seward wasn't healthy enough to make a difference as depth early.
Prognosis for 2008: With Diggs recently signed, the trio comes back for 2008 and beyond. The team should start looking at an extension for the dynamic Davis, who has two years left. Seward, an RFA, is a good backup and a special teams ace; Anderson and Tim Shaw are under contract; ST players Brandon Jamison and Donte Curry probably come to camp. Dan Morgan wants to come back, but hopefully Diggs' signing means they won't put forth the effort with Morgan again.

Cornerback - B-.
Panthers' corner play was solid all year, but unspectacular. The team lacked in INTs, and dropped from last year's stellar 3rd down marks, but held solid despite a complete lack of pass rush. The position was led statistically by Richard Marshall, who only started four games to Lucas' 16 and Chris Gamble's 12, but had more tackles, INTs. Marshall, specifically, also led the team in special teams tackles, and added one sack, two forced fumbles, and co-led the team in interceptions (3). Gamble (1) and Lucas (2) could only equal Marshall's mark, and the team needed more overall. The group also had fewer defensed passes than last year (Lucas 11, Marshall 8, Gamble 6).
Prognosis for 2008: The trio should come back, and the team may bring back Dante Wesley. However, is Gamble worth starting? If not, is he too talented to be a backup? None of the corners had a "bad" year, so should the team unload one, namely the 4 year veteran that'll be a free agent after 2008? It would be easier to find a cheap veteran nickel corner (Hank Poteat, Drayton Florence, Sammy Davis) and shop Gamble for a bigger need, than to easily fill all of our big needs.

Safety - B+.
Chris Harris, despite some early struggles, came in and owned the strong safety spot from day one. Two regrets - he would've been better if we would've made this move when we should've, and he never got to play next to Mike Minter. Harris would've benefitted to know Minter, and had some dirty hits this season. Nonetheless, he was a rare player in turnovers - one INT, but a franchise-history-best 8 forced fumbles. FS Deke Cooper led the team with 3 INT, but had no defensed passes, and was a non-factor.
Prognosis for 2008: The team needs a better FS. Draft is the consensus amongst the people pushing an opinion, and Kenny Phillips' name gets pushed there, but the more logical solution is in free agency - Eugene Wilson of the Pats, or Gibril Wilson of the Giants. Another option is to push Richard Marshall to FS to let him cover more ground, and acquire another corner.

Special Teams - C
As noted above, Richard Marshall led the team in tackles here, followed by rookie Tim Shaw, who was active in 14 games. Nick Goings, new ST captain, went out early in the season with a concussion, and replacement Donte Curry had 11 tackles in just 7 games. Adam Seward came back in week 7 to add 11 tackles as well.
John Kasay had a top notch year kicking, making all 27 PATs and 24-28 FGs (including the one that the wind stole against Seattle). Jason Baker regressed, but is still one of the top punters in the NFC, and held touchbacks to a minimum. The pair failed to do well on kickoffs, and the team hired Rhys Lloyd for the season finale to kick off, signaling a look toward other optiosn.
Prognosis for 2008: Seward, Marshall, Shaw will return; Goings should. The specialists should all return, unless something happens with Kasay, and the team would do well to bring back Curry to cover kicks.

Coaching Overall
John Fox took criticism for not going to players like Moore and Williams earlier, and possibly correctly. He took criticism for very conservative gameplans again. But his players kept playing for him, and took on some stout teams with pride after being young and aimless early in the year.
Coordinators: New OC Jeff Davidson called some incredible games, and a few stinkers. The 3rd-and-2 sweeps aren't something you call unless you know you can convert them; the screen game took forever to come to play. Still, the opening Indy drive was a gem, the audibles worked while Delhomme was healthy, and most of the problems Davidson inherited weren't fixed, but weren't of his causing. Promoting OL coach Dave Magazu may not have been the right move.
DC Mike Trgovac did a good job with a defense that had no rush - but takes a part of the blame for having no rush. Blitzing didn't work, so calls were up and down.
STs coordinator Danny Crossman has no reason to be on this staff at this point.

Front Office Overall
Marty Hurney crowed about getting 21-of-22 in camp, showing disregard for attempting to improve the team, and then proceeded to cut a few. Cutting Keyshawn Johnson was unfortunate, especially because the youth didn't step up. That makes the decision to get Dwayne Jarrett, KJ's replacement, less useful as well - if you keep Johnson, Jarrett is a guy you're developing. If you lose him, Jarrett has to be ready. He wasn't, so you could've kept Johnson and reached for a safety. The team lost at WR as noted, lost at TE, and didn't improve the OL. It didn't anticipate the changes at safety, despite putting Mike Minter on notice and claiming they'd add two safeties, and had to scramble to make the Harris move.

Nonetheless, the Harris move worked; so did the trade down to get Beason, who ended up being better than all but one LB taken ahead of him (at 9, Willis). The pair revitalized the defense, and it was in need. But the remaining draft looks high on promise and low in production; the 2007 free agent session was a bust (Carr made the team, though apparently unfortunately; Dave Ball didn't make the team, and the only other guy worth naming was Kenyatta Walker, who came in during camp and left during camp). The front office must keep up the drafting without losing sight of a number of free agents needed to bolster this team.
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