The defense has a chance because the front four could turn into one of the league's better units, if—and here come the ifs—No. 1 draft pick Kevin Carter develops at right end, Sean Gilbert on the other side stays healthy, and cat-quick but under-sized (6'1", 270 pounds) D'Marco Farr doesn't wear down. We will attack more, says the new coordinator, Willie Shaw, of his defensive unit, but new coordinators always say that. The thing is, who are you attacking with?
Did you happen to notice that the Carolina Panthers gave up only 62 points in five exhibition games? Yeah, I know, preseason stats are for fools, but 12.4 points a game is still impressive for new kids on the block. And that number may be more significant in this case because the Panther coach is Dom Capers, who spent the last two seasons coordinating the monster defense of the Steelers.
Did you also happen to notice that the young offensive line showed some real quality? "I've got a rookie left guard named Andrew Peterson [a fifth-round draft pick] that no one's ever heard of," says line coach Jim McNally, who coached Anthony Munoz in Cincinnati, "and a free agent named Brandon Hayes and a left tackle named Blake Brockermeyer [a No. 1 pick] who are exciting players. You watch. We're going to have a good unit."
Which is crucial because the running game is iffy—Randy Baldwin, best known as a return man, is Carolina's No. 1 back—and Frank Reich, a free-agent signee, is 33 years old. "People warned me about playing behind an expansion-team line, about all the hits I'd take," says Reich, who backed up Jim Kelly in Buffalo. "But it was never a factor in my decision. I wanted a chance to play."
Carolina signed an NFL-high 17 unrestricted free agents. It had 11 draft choices, which general manager Bill Polian parlayed into three first-rounders. The Panthers will have 11 more next year. Four victories, which would be a record for an expansion team, is a strong possibility.