Panthers ready for the unexpected|Youthful team hard to predict

Published 12:27 pm Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — So many signs in Carolina seemingly point to cost-cutting.
Over 30? Making decent money? Chances are you were cut, traded or allowed to walk via free agency by the Panthers in the offseason. Nine starters from last year are gone, leaving 31-year-old Steve Smith as the oldest position player.
Even the folks left over have little security. Coach John Fox is in the last year of his contract. So is starting quarterback Matt Moore, running back DeAngelo Williams, cornerback Richard Marshall and numerous other veterans.
A year before a potential work stoppage, the team owned by the co-chairman of the NFL committee responsible for labor negotiations is suddenly the league’s third-youngest team without stalwarts Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad.
But suggest to general manager Marty Hurney — himself with an uncertain contract situation — that the Panthers are shedding payroll ahead of a potential new NFL salary structure and he bristles.
‘‘We’ve said it over and over and over again: We made a decision to have young players,’’ Hurney said Thursday. ‘‘You have to make tough decisions. That’s the decision we made. We’ll see if our young players are ready.’’
That will define whether owner Jerry Richardson’s Panthers can rebound from last season’s disappointing 8-8 record and contend in the competitive NFC South.
It will also determine if Fox, entering his ninth season, will be fired or become one of the NFL’s top coaching free agents.
‘‘We feel comfortable with the guys we have,’’ Fox insisted. ‘‘Obviously, we all liked and miss Jake. But there are other guys — Muhsin Muhammad, Brad Hoover, a lot of guys — that have been a big part of this organization for some time. Now we’ve just got a younger bunch.’’
It starts with the 26-year-old Moore, the laid back Californian who was promoted to starting quarterback after the Panthers released Delhomme, their seven-year starter. That wasn’t cost-cutting — the Panthers still owe Delhomme $12.7 million in guaranteed money — but a move made necessary by Delhomme’s 18 interceptions in a miserable 2009 season.
Moore went 4-1 to close the year after Delhomme was injured. But all eight of his NFL starts have come when the Panthers have been virtually eliminated from playoff contention.
Moore’s grip on the starting job appeared perilous when Carolina drafted Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame in the second round. But Moore has been far superior in camp, displaying a strong arm and good decision making.
If Moore stays healthy, the Panthers may let the promising Clausen play spectator as a rookie.
‘‘His demeanor is excellent,’’ Hurney said of Moore. ‘‘He’s got a calm confidence about him that is contagious to players. I think players respect him and he enjoys playing the game. He’s got a lot of leadership qualities.’’
Moore will have one of the NFL’s top targets in four-time Pro Bowl pick Steve Smith, whose recovery from a broken left forearm suffered in an offseason flag football game is on schedule for him to be ready for Week 1.
But Carolina is still trying to find a No. 2 receiver to replace Muhammad, who wasn’t re-signed and later retired. Dwayne Jarrett and rookie Brandon LaFell appear to be the top candidates in a weak group.
The best bet for Moore may be to not throw much at all.
‘‘He hands the ball off well,’’ Williams joked.
Jonathan Stewart and Williams, the first teammates in NFL history to each rush for over 1,100 yards in the same season, give Carolina one of the league’s best backfield tandems. And they run behind one of the top offensive lines.
With Hoover released, the Panthers are turning to second-year pro Tony Fiammetta at fullback to open a path for the backs. Tight end Jeff King, another player in the final year of his deal, provides solid blocking and another target for Moore.
The defense needs more work. After paying their five-time Pro Bowl pick Peppers $18.2 million last season, the Panthers didn’t use the franchise tag again. Peppers quickly signed a free-agent deal with Chicago.
The Panthers also released starting defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu, leaving a logjam of players competing for starting jobs on what’s become one of the most anonymous defensive lines in the league.
‘‘Yes, Julius is an incredible player, and you take him from any defense and it’s going to be a setback,’’ defensive tackle Louis Leonard said. ‘‘But we’ve got a lot of young guys and guys trying to prove themselves.’’
A possible season-ending knee injury to weakside linebacker Thomas Davis means untested Dan Connor will start at middle linebacker, with two-time Pro Bowl pick Jon Beason moving to Davis’ spot. James Anderson replaces the released Na’il Diggs at strongside linebacker.
Safety Chris Harris was traded to Chicago and replaced by speedy, second-year pro Sherrod Martin, who represents a theme for Carolina.
‘‘We thought we needed to upgrade our overall team speed,’’ Hurney said. ‘‘A lot of the time that comes with youth.’’
Another theme is small salaries and short-term deals. Fox seemed to part from the company line in May when he said they made the Harris trade because ‘‘we’ve got a budget.’’
Hurney, whose own deal expired in June, wasn’t willing to go there. But it’s still jarring when you consider the turnover from the 2008 team that went 12-4.
‘‘We had some young guys that we acquired through the draft and other means that we thought were ready to step in,’’ Hurney said. ‘‘It was time to give them that chance to step up and fill some roles.
‘‘Hopefully, that’s what’s going to happen. I think through training camp we have seen flashes and seen some of that ability.’’