A trade with Denver brought Jeff Lewis, who the team is banking on becoming its quarterback of the new millenium. Lewis, who missed the entire '98 season with a knee injury, will probably sit for a year behind incumbent Steve Beuerlein. Buerlein's 88.2 passer rating is astounding when you consider he played behind one of the worst OL's in the league and he had little help from the ground game. Free agent Steve Bono, a former Siefert understudy, should provide adequate backup help for at least a season or two.
Fred Lane had a disappointing season before giving way to Tshimanga Biakabutuka. It appears as though the new coaching staff will hand Biakabutuka the starting job and let him run with it. The team spent a high first round pick on the former Michigan star and Seifert believes he never got a fair shot. FB William Floyd, who enjoyed the best years of his career under new coach George Seifert, had a disappointing season both running and catching the football. Look for Carolina to take a back in the middle rounds, where they could find a sleeper to spell Biakabutuka.
With Rocket Ismail taking off for Dallas, Muhsin Muhammad assumes an even greater role in the offense. Muhammad, who has been labeled a "soft" player, used his size and strength to his advantage this season by turning some routine, quick timing-patterns into substantial gains. Mark Carrier, who will turn 34 prior to next season, has slowed down significantly and doesn't figure to be more than a No. 4 or No. 5 next season. The Panthers must hope rookie speedster Donald Hayes, whose hands are suspect, develops into a player next season. The Panthers must replenish their depth through the draft.
This could potentially be one of the team's greatest strengths. Wesley Walls was nicked up for much of the season but still managed to catch 49 passes for over 500 yards. Reserve Luther Broughton looked great in the pre-season and then quietly faded once the games began to count. Either Broughton or Walls-clone Kris Mangum must develop into a sufficient blocker in order for Carolina to run two-TE sets-a staple of the West Coast system in the red zone.
This unit was one of the least productive in the league and took a major hit when LT Blake Brockermeyer signed with the Bears. One glaring weakness was at RT, where Norberto Davidds-Garrido was clearly in way over his head as a starter and is nothing more than a backup. RG Anthony Redmon (UFA), who stepped in for injured Corbin Lacina at mid-season, and backup C Brian Stoltenberg (RFA) are both fighters and should return cheaply. Lacina became expendable in the expansion draft because of Redmon's strong finish and his high cap figure. Starting LG Matt Campbell and C Frank Garcia will each have knees scoped this off-season to clean out cartilage. The Panthers have tried acquiring offensive linemen via free agency in the past with little success so expect this to be a major focus in the draft.
The team expected big contributions from veteran DE Shawn King and rookies DE Chuck Wiley and DT Mitch Marrow but all three spent the entire season on IR. King signed with the Colts at the beginning of free agency. RDE Sean Gilbert showed good toughness by playing part of the season with a cast on his right hand, which limited his effectiveness as a pass rusher, yet he still finished with six sacks. The Panthers desperately need '98 first-round pick Jason Peter, who was arrested this past off-season, to begin concentrating on his craft.
Kevin Greene was the lone guy that produced even marginally, by registering 15 sacks-nearly half the team's total. Greg Lloyd played the run well but his big-play capability was non-existent, as he registered just one sack. ILB Michael Barrow was the team's top defensive performer all season. The move back inside allowed Barrow to utilize versatility as a pass rusher and instinctive run defender. Aggressive ILB Jeff Brady hasn't drawn much interest in the free agent market and the signing of San Diego's Steve Tovar should end his stay in Carolina. FA signees Ray Farmer (PHI) and Donta Jones (PIT) should greatly bolster this unit.
When CB Doug Evans was lost at mid-season the team felt its lack of depth. Evans, who typically plays great physical press coverage, was asked to play more zone and soft man coverage and he didn't seem to adapt well. With Evans out, Eric Davis was paired on the opponent's top receiver each week and he fought hard all season. Reserve CB's Steve Lofton, who started in Evans' absence, and Lenny McGill will probably be supplanted by Green Bay's Rod Mullen and St. Louis' Mike Scurlock. This team is in dire need of safety help, where talent and size are both sorely missing. FS Brent Alexander is good in run support (102 tackles) but lacks the speed to cover.
Ever-dependable PK John Kasay struggled through the toughest season of his 8-year career. Kasay converted only 19-of-26 attempts and failed to seal games when they were on the line (San Francisco). P Ken Walter doesn't have the biggest leg but he improved his hang-time this season and his net average benefited from strong coverage units. Michael Bates, who has made past Pro Bowls as a return specialist, was named as the NFC's cover man this season, furthering establishing himself as one of the team's most underrated weapons.