Panthers think core is strong ahead of draft

Published 5:27 pm Saturday, April 25, 2009

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — The biggest moves the Carolina Panthers have made this offseason have been placing the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers and re-signing quarterback Jake Delhomme and left tackle Jordan Gross to lucrative, long-term deals.
Now with no first-round pick, the Panthers aren’t expected to make much of a splash in this weekend’s draft, either.
The lack of offseason activity doesn’t bother coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney. They’re content in following what they believe has been a successful plan.
The confidence in their current group was evident Thursday, when the Panthers committed $20 million in guaranteed money to the 34-year-old Delhomme. A lightning rod for fans, Delhomme is either loved or hated.
His detractors jump at his six turnovers in the NFC divisional playoff loss to Arizona. Fox and Hurney point at his 54-33 record as a starter in the regular season and playoffs in the past six seasons. Carolina is 6-10 without him.
With Delhomme and Gross, who got a six-year deal worth more than $30 million in the first three seasons, under contract, the Panthers are set to return all 11 starters on offense. Last year’s unit thrived under running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and receiver Steve Smith — all former draft picks.
On defense, Fox and Hurney hardly caved to Peppers going public that he wanted out of Carolina. They went ahead and offered him a one-year, $16.7 million deal under the franchise tag. And while the Panthers aren’t ruling out a trade that could net a first-round pick before the draft begins Saturday afternoon, Hurney has insisted they expect Peppers to return — as awkward as that might be.
Without a trade, the Panthers will be the last team to draft a player Saturday when they use their second-round pick, 59th overall.
The Panthers need help on both lines and in the secondary, but again, there’s little panic.
By trading this year’s selection to Philadelphia during last year’s draft, the Panthers were able to select Otah 19th overall. He immediately became the starter at right tackle, and opened up numerous holes for Stewart, the 13th overall selection last year.
If Peppers returns, the Panthers will have 10 starters back on defense. The only one missing is cornerback Ken Lucas, who was released in a salary-cap move, and may have lost his job to No. 3 cornerback Richard Marshall anyway.
Still, the Panthers are dangerously thin on the defensive line and need help in the secondary from a unit that tailed off dramatically at the end of last season. They also lost three key backups on the offensive line.
With only five picks this weekend, the Panthers will need to choose wisely to create depth. But the Panthers believe they don’t need to make major moves to overhaul the roster.
After all, the Panthers went 12-4 last year before imploding in the playoffs.