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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 Suspended for the first two games of the season by coach John Fox, the eighth-year wideout turned sullen and withdrawn, and he became something of a pariah.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 through '05.
It's simple: If
Smith, Peppers and Delhomme have big years,
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JOHN FOX (51--45 in NFL), seventh season with Panthers