| Peppers looks ready to rebound from his shocking 2007 sack drop-off.
|Grant Halverson/Getty Images|
7 at San Diego
21 at Minnesota
5 KANSAS CITY
12 at Tampa Bay
19 NEW ORLEANS
9 at Oakland
23 at Atlanta
30 at Green Bay
8 TAMPA BAY(M)
21 at N.Y. Giants
28 at New Orleans
Jordan Gross, Tackle: He began his career as a right tackle in 2003, moved to the left in '04 and has gone back and forth each year since. With the arrival of rookie tackle Jeff Otah, who's huge but not quick enough for the left side, Gross is on the move again. "I look at it like it's made me a better all-around player," he says. "If I'd stayed on one side, football would ? be easy street."
The performance of a familiar power trio -- Delhomme, Smith, Peppers -- will determine whether this team rocks.
After one long morning practice at camp in Spartanburg, S.C., Jake Delhomme
was given the rest of the day off. But the quarterback was feeling so frisky
that he played scout-team outside linebacker in the afternoon workouts, bouncing
around like a colt rather than a 33-year-old in his 11th season. At the snap
he'd barrel past the left tackle toward backup passer Matt Moore, doing his best
Shawne Merriman imitation.
"I've had my time off," says Delhomme, who's coming back from ligament
surgery in his throwing elbow last October. "I can't tell you how great it feels
to be back out here."
Carolina acquired exciting new players while he was away. Jeff Otah, the
mountainous first-round pick from Pitt, has been installed as the starting right
tackle. Another first-rounder, 235-pound power running back Jonathan Stewart
from Oregon will share running duties with shifty veteran DeAngelo Williams.
Third-round pick Charles Godfrey was designated the starting free safety from
Day One of camp. But the three players who are most important to the team's
playoff hopes are three of the longest-tenured Panthers, and all enter the
season as question marks.
• Steve Smith turned Camp Harmony turned into Camp Turmoil when he
coldcocked cornerback Ken Lucas during an Aug. 1 practice. Suspended for
the first two games of the season by coach John Fox, the eighth-year wideout
turned sullen and withdrawn, and he became something of a pariah. "I had to talk
guys down from going after him," says linebacker Jon Beason. It helped when
Lucas publicly forgave Smith and the incident was addressed in team meetings.
"There's some magic going on behind the scenes," says wideout Muhsin Muhammad, a
free-agent signee from the Bears. "When the season's over, you'll look back and
see this was a blessing in disguise." It's hard to imagine drawing something
positive from the loss of your best offensive weapon at the start of the season
because of a tantrum.
• Julius Peppers, one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, with
13 sacks in 2006, had only 2 1/2 in 2007, which is one reason Carolina had
just 23 total. Theories abound: 1) Peppers was in a funk over stalled
negotiations for a new contract (which never got done); 2) he was the victim of
constant double- and triple teams; 3) something was wrong with him physically.
While Peppers wasn't talking during camp, Fox subscribes to that last theory,
saying, "He got a virus in camp last year, missed time, lost weight and didn't
seem as quick." Peppers bulked up in the off-season and looks stronger in the
upper body. "I've been blocking him since I came into the league," says
sixth-year tackle Jordan Gross, "and this is the best I've ever seen him." In
the first preseason game Peppers strip-sacked Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi on the
first series, forcing a fumble. On the second series he pressured Sorgi into an
interception. He had another sack and a forced fumble in the third exhibition
game. This should be a big year for Peppers, who moves to the speed-rushing
right side to cut down on chip blocks from tight ends and backs.
• For three years, whenever Delhomme used his right arm -- to brush his
teeth, carry groceries, throw a football -- it hurt. Then, in Week 3 last
year, he felt a pop and a burn in the elbow while throwing a pass; he had
completely torn his ulnar collateral ligament. Ten months later he says he's
throwing pain-free for the first time since 2004. "The past couple of years," he
says, "if I rolled right and had two deep comebacks, I'd always choose the one
to the right because I knew how much it'd hurt to throw across the field. This
summer I haven't had one time where I've even felt anything wrong, and I've been
cutting it loose." Carolina needs the old Delhomme back, the one who averaged
3,509 passing yards and had 25 more touchdowns than interceptions from 2003
It's simple: If Smith, Peppers and Delhomme have big years, so will the
Panthers. -- Peter King