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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Quick Updates: Morgan Retires, Peppers Dealing; Cornerback

Dan Morgan officially retired last week, citing issues with his Achilles consistent with rumors that said he could be done; it makes me wonder why, if anything, that the Saints signed him. He had no ability to pass a physical if he still wasn't able to rehab the way he needed, so it's interesting the Saints took such a chance on a player that was injured so consistently without passing him in a physical. I'm not stating that Fox's old friend Sean Payton took a chance that he could get info on Fox's defense, but it would make more sense to do that than to pull a guy you know can't make it through a year, has a current injury, and not give him a physical.

Morgan was already eulogized here, relating to his career, so not much else to say but that I'm glad he got out before he took any more head shots.


Julius Peppers is rumored to be back at the discussion table with Marty Hurney and cap guy Rob Rodgers. Peppers, a free agent in 2009, has held the significant interest of this blog since its inception in the hopes of finding resolution and noting the significance of the contract. His contract situation, as a franchise level defensive player, has been critical in the face of fast-rising defensive end costs. Meanwhile, the cost for putting the franchise tag for Peppers would cost them stiffly - the tag costs the average of the top 5% of contracts or a 20% raise from the previous year. That'd cost the team around $17.04 million.

The Rock Hill Herald states that "conditioning was clearly a component" of the troubles Peppers had, and regardless of what or why, he did look less strong and less quick. This setback in 2007 doesn't seem to bother the team, and doesn't seem to bother Peppers; the press suggested mono, of which Peppers denied, and another rumor suggests something more on the level of an infection that weakened him.

Meanwhile, a lot of fans have turned on Peppers, citing effort as the cause. Some have called for his trading or just letting him walk after the year.


The Panthers added Curtis Deloatch to the roster this week, giving another young experienced cornerback. Deloatch bounced on and off the roster last year before getting hurt and going on injured reserve. He's added to Dante Wesley, Patrick Dendy, and Ricardo Colclough vying for the 4th CB position.

One interesting note on the position as well: 2007 7th round pick CJ Wilson, immediately moved to safety after the draft, has been moved back to CB. The addition of veteran Terrence Holt may have facilitated it, and the hopeful healthiness of Nate Salley couldn't have hurt, but Charles Godfrey's drafting seemed to state that they're not looking to develop more safeties. Wilson gets 'saved' in a way that guys like Quentin Teal doesn't - Wilson's versatility helps give him a chance at the roster, where Teal can only play S at a position suddenly equally as deep.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Johnson Gets Mention

Granted, this is just in shorts, but Charles Johnson's gotten some mention lately. One internet source calls him the odds-on favorite to start at LDE. Of course, it's easy to be a young guy that looks good in OTAs. Johnson, a third round pick last year that got hyped up as high as a 1st pre-draft, was a junior when he declared for the draft and is realistically just now reaching physical maturity. He'll turn 22 July 10, actually.

But here's the thing - last time they were on the field, Tyler Brayton was still the guy starting. John Fox doesn't play young guys before they're ready. If Johnson overtakes the enigmatic Brayton at left end, great, but as of right now there's nothing more than rumors.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Word of Warning on Stewart

A lot of hope is pouring out of Jonathan Stewart right now. A ridiculous amount, really. Some of it's rational - he's a good player. There's also a lot of mystique right now - after all, he's a big back, which makes him limitless in many minds.

And there's Jon Beason. Another pick at a quasi-need position, Beason improved and led the defense without question last year. It immediately improved the opinion of this year's first round pick; it's not as if Deangelo Williams or Thomas Davis had disappointed. Both are integral parts of the team, but Beason excelled from the start.

The thing that brings this to mind is the return factor. It added a useful facet to his game at the pro level, which to many fans means he'll be on the field 65 snaps a game. Remember that Williams and Richard Marshall were both return specialists, accomplished at the college level, and that both were essentially failures at returning the football in Carolina. Despite being top 60 talents, and obviously having shown that they're good football players at the pro level, they're not excellent return men. I think it's premature to expect it of Stewart, even though he should undoubtedly help the rush offense.

The risk, of course, is also there. Young special teamers trying to make a name for themselves with cheap shots, the natural injury risk, they're going to be factors.

I was, pre-draft, against drafting a back, and I still am. I saw people yearning for that lightning rod, that star that'll make the Disney-movie turn around, and they got that player. I like that we got a top notch football player, though, and dedicated ourselves toward a part of the team that needed it. I'm not against the pick or the player, and it's not about the pre-draft position. The end result is that Stewart doesn't singlehandedly solve all concerns.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Power Combination: Straight-Line Approach Succeeds

John Fox's success in Carolina separates him from his predecessors, and one reason why is the lack of a power struggle, as cited in this Pat Yasinskas article. Fox doesn't have ultimate control, and ultimade control unraveled both Dom Capers' and George Seifert's tenures.

Capers famously pulled the boneheaded moves of cutting Kerry Collins and sinking tons of money into Doug Evans and Sean Gilbert - and one of the most horrendous drafts known to the team. Collins, by then damaged goods, is a player that a guy like former GM Bill Polian could've marketed and sold off to the highest bidder (even though Polian himself couldn't draft his way out of a paper bag here). Collins had, after all, thrown for 1000 yards already; with an 8 TD to 5 INT ratio, the 4 game losing streak was unfortunate, but he'd shown he could still play (and in the new offense).

Meanwhile, the Evans signing was groundbreakingly expensive, and it followed with the Sean Gilbert fiasco. After spending so much to get a stiff DB in Evans, only to turn it into a meager third round pick for Tyrone Poole (when having him as a nickel did make sense), Capers spent huge to get Gilbert, a former terrorizing one-gap DT who'd gotten soft. Not only was it the largest contract ever signed (to this day, I believe it spans the same time and value that Julius Peppers' contract did, five years and two coaches later), it cost two first round picks. Capers pigheadedly didn't just surrender one first rounder - the 1998 pick. He surrendered two future picks, 1999 and 2000. And then turned around to draft yet another undersized one-gap DT in Jason Peter, who not only was a misfit for the 3-4 and a bust, but ended up using cocaine. Add in three more defensive line picks, and Capers was able to put 3 first rounders, two third rounders, and a 7th rounder into a 3 man line in a single year. Those five players combined for 21 sacks total, and only Gilbert made it past 2001 (he made it through 2002). And the 1998 DL helped the team finish 30th in yards.

Seifert, of course, would be better than that, right? Not so much. Unenamored by the idea of being a GM and coach, he saw it as a good opportunity nonetheless; it was a good organization, and he could retool it. He got his parts in, built a great offense, and then set aside to build a great defense. Which never came, a shame considering how brittle and fragile the offense had been. Saddled with high priced corners, Seifert added to the mess by signing Jimmy Hitchcock and drafting a project corner to play free safety in Rashard Anderson, following it up by another FS in Deon Grant (who would go on to be a solid player, a few years after breaking his hip that year). The oddball thing was spending huge to get really, really, really old (Chuck Smith was over 30 and had a bad knee; Eric Swann was, you guessed it, over 30 and had a bad knee; Reggie White was almost 40 and had already retired). A ton of excitement followed, and then the season started to awful results. While the output was a rise from rock bottom to 12th in defensive points, it finished a spot lower in yards while watching the offense break down, wth nothing other than money lost, no depth, and no future.

But, with all fairness to both gentlemen, let's give a large share of the blame to Jerry Richardson himself. Both Capers and Seifert were well respected men (it was hard to find a more respected coach in the market than Seifert at the time) and it was Richardson's idea to push both of them into total control. The moves that JR forced on Capers (GM, and notably pushing him into the West Coast Offense despite it being a horrid fit for Capers' style) were the reasons he hired Seifert (a defensive coach with the aptitude to run a total team, and with a heavy WCO background). The moves that forced Seifert to a new direction (the 2001 house cleaning) were in large part set in action by Richardson to pave the way for Fox. My own sources state that the Smith and White signings were keyed by Richardson himself (the Smith signing still made sense pre-microfracture, and Smith was going against team orders to receive the surgery), meaning there were heavy finger prints on the disastrous 1998 through 2001 seasons.

And why? It goes back to Polian. A guy that Mike McCormack found nearly impossible, and that JR himself barely tolerated toward the end, Polian showed that you could buy success if you had the right plan. But controlling a coach and a GM was too much for JR, and too much for McCormack; a less strong GM-coach tandem with ideals leaves occasion for the occasional tweak. For his own credit, JR has been very much hands-off. One could speculate that JR's hands have been on a few moves - Keyshawn Johnson still doesn't make sense coming from Fox or Hurney - but he's let the current duo have their own say.

Luckily, it's paid off. Giving a power base enough time to build something (and, in the last two years, rebuild) has been a big step forward for this franchise. This is how you build a team - you make smart decisions, you get the right players in the draft, and you put together a strong football team. Fox and Hurney have deviated and made some desperate moves (hey, you know what would be a great idea? Let Kris Jenkins get fat coming off injury and sign a guy just as fat and still play a one-gap defense in front of a MLB we should've already cut!), but they haven't killed their team or their chances. We'll see how far out there the 2009 draft pick situation hurts them, but for now if they can get through 2008 they'll have the ability to deal with the situation instead of reading about it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stewart The Kick Returner?

At the Charlotte Touchdown Club luncheon today (5/14), John Fox praised a portion of Jonathan Stewart's game that most have overlooked - kick returning.

Yes, it's odd to draft a player top 15 and have him return kicks. It's an odd marriage that, in Cam Cameron fashion, you don't want to overplay. You don't want to be the guy defending a pick because he can help out in special teams. Stewart did, however, excel at it in school including as a starting player; he is a primary KR, but doesn't return punts, so he doesn't necessarily void out the need for Ryne Robinson.

Carolina finished 31st in KR last year, barely edging out rock bottom with an improving Robinson in the last few games. Robinson was a guy who the team took last year as a return man, noting he was an excellent punt returner and only an average kick returner; he struggled at both but was unable to get much going at KR (he finished 12th in raw yards at PR, 17th at KR, but rated low at both). They had previously signed Ricardo Colclough, a backup corner and return man, to fight for the position. Stewart, an expert KR in college, had become an afterthought on special teams until Fox mentioned him.

So, what's it mean?

Carolina has never hesitated to use high picks that can compete in various phases. Chris Gamble did some returning, as did Richard Marshall; Steve Smith was a Pro Bowl receiver still running down punts for a time, and Williams was a kick returner as well before last year. Stewart wasn't drafted to return kicks, but for a year or two, he may be able to improve that spot for the team.

It also probably means that Deangelo Williams is going to be the starter. He'll know the offense, he has two years experience, and the starting back has always been the elder for Fox's two back system. Williams has more burst for 3rd down, and will probably give up a few more early carries in a series to Stewart, who will also return kicks if comfortable. Robinson, provided he continues to grow as a receiver, will be the 4th WR and will return punts.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Curtis Whitley Dead at 39

Former Panthers center Curtis Whitley, a Clemson alum, has passed away. No immediate causes given yet, but it's somewhat expected to be related to substance abuse.

Whitley was one of the original Panthers and a building block. Initially, the starting line included Whitley at center, former 9ers reserve Harry Boatswain at guard, former Chief Derrick Graham was penciled in at LT, and people thought that Randy Baldwin or Vernon Turner would be the starting RB (remember being shocked that Derrick Moore wouldn't return?). Graham would start less games than Mark Dennis, a former Dolphin afterthought. Frank Garcia and Matt Elliott would be two centers starting at guard, and Matt Campbell was still technically a TE. Whitley ended up being the most solid part of that line, along with Brockermeyer as building blocks.

An alcohol related suspension in October 1996 took him out of the lineup, and then inevitably out of the Carolinas. Garcia moved inside, having been replaced by Elliott at LG for the arrival of supposed RT solution Greg Skrepenak at guard. Garcia wouldn't leave center again (with exception of the 1998 injury debacle at C) until after 2000, and would stay with Campbell and Brockermeyer as the heart of a really mediocre line.

Total Up To Four
As the age of the franchise hits 15 (if you count awarding of the franchise) or 13 (years on the field), you're seeing players that have played extensive careers sadly walk away as career Panthers. More and more concerning, however, includes a total of four Panthers to die in this last decade, an oddity for a young team. Joining Fred Lane, Sam Mills, and Reggie White is now Whitley, the least successful and storied of the group. Mortality befalls everyone, and athletes are no different, but it's just odd to think of players you saw within the last five or ten years dying off.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Two DT Added; Changes In Scheme Overblown

The Panthers added Darwin Walker and Ian Scott, two of the four DTs that I stated may be pre-draft signings. Turns out, they were put on hold for post-draft contracts, and for good reason. While I disagreed with most on the state of DT (the view: Lewis and/or Kemoeatu aren't good enough to start, therefore we need a starter; my view: they are our starters, we just need depth), I'm glad that they didn't reach for a DT or DE.

Walker, who apparently turned down a deal with Carolina earlier in the offseason, takes a one year deal now so he can play anywhere. As an Eagle, he was a terror, but as a Bear he was injured and inconsistent.

He'll be on the field on third down, and more if he can earn it, but given his money issues and his agent's continual pursuing of the best dollar around, Walker will probably be gone again next year. Walker was in Buffalo only in theory - he was traded there but didn't report. I'm OK with his money grubbing, because I believe next year we'll have a much better idea of our current quartet has worked and who needs to stay. If Walker earns a start, we pay him, but in the meantime we need a mercenary for a year to try to get this line back to form.

Scott, as a run stopper, is another Eagle and Bear; his pedigree is less flashy than Walker's, but he has experience and ability. Chances are, these two will be given the first shots at the backup jobs, and they'll find a way to keep Nick Hayden, assuming each of them earn that ability.

Minicamp Update 1: Defensive Alignment

Fairly exciting news out of minicamp out of our defense includes the idea that every one of our DL spots have been reshuffled (meaning, of course, that all 9 line spots on offense and defense are new starters in either position or team). Key in that is Julius Peppers to right end, where he'll be on the blind side. Peppers was effective in the role late in 2006 in Mike Rucker's absence, and it should allow him to more

On the other side, the bulky and less talented ends will anchor the run and try to get a little rush in: Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson fit in there. There's not much rush here right now, though Johnson may have developed in the offseason. In the middle, it looks like Maake Kemoeatu is taking Kris Jenkins' spot in the lineup instead of his own, and Damione Lewis becomes the left tackle starter.

Over-blowing the Nose

One thing being consistently stated in minicamp is that Kemoeatu is now a nosetackle. While some correctly state that this would remain a one-gap, 1970s Steelers/1990s Buccaneers style NT, people tend to think this will be a two gap, 3-4 style NT.

Here's the deal: Kris Jenkins often played against the center. Remember him jumping offsides? He did that more at a NT style alignment than anywhere else. Jenkins almost always lined up on the weakside shoulder of the C, or same on LG, and shot that gap. It didn't make him "the NT" or the other player an under-tackle. The two DTs were just DTs, and that's all they'll be now, too. It really doesn't make a difference.

Kemoeatu was a backup NT in Baltimore, but when he started, it was in Rex Ryan's defense, not Mike Nolan's. Ryan got him on the field, where he was in an even-front 4-3.

Minicamp Update #2:

Starters of note:
Muhsin Muhammad (DJ Hackett was behind Steve Smith)
Dante Rosario (King 2nd)
Ryan Kalil (Hangartner backing)
Keydrick Vincent (at RG: Fonoti was 2nd, and Milford Brown backed Wharton)
Jeremy Bridges (at RT: since Otah was out).
Charles Godfrey (at FS: with Holt behind him; Salley was backing SS)

Godfrey's being penciled in at FS from the first moment is a critical change. This is the first time since Chris Gamble that a rookie DB came into camp with a job he didn't have to earn; we'll see whether that holds, but he's more talented than his competition, and the incumbent remains unsigned (which shouldn't change, though hopefully Deke does get a job somewhere).

Bridges going back to OT is interesting, but without Otah in a helmet it's hard to say whether that's permanent, and whether Otah is penciled in or has to fight for it.

Also, with Evan Mathis not making the two-deep even with Otah out, it's worth continuing to wonder why they put RFA money into him. He makes more than the two backups at G, and now they have both Otah and Schwartz at guard to develop. So why pay Mathis roughly a million to be a camp body?

Muhammad's first-string insertion isn't a surprise to the team, but seems to be for media and fans. The hype on DJ Hackett is finally receding from critical mass, but the more important thing to remember is how much the team values Muhammad on every down, not just passing downs, and that Hackett is very much the opposite: a guy only useful on passing downs.

Rosario's is a surprise to me: He's the better player, but he's not a better blocker. And when "the other guy" is Jeff King, it's hard to be a worse blocker. But, he's a more explosive player with more athleticism, and maybe he'll improve the blocking.