NFL Nation: Muhsin Muhammad

We continue our season previews and predictions with the Carolina Panthers.

You can see the Panthers’ preview page and predictions if you click here. Our expert panel gave the Panthers a couple of second-place votes, but the consensus is that they’ll finish third in the NFC South. That’s the same thing I predicted.

Here’s what I wrote about the Panthers:

Five things you need to know about the Panthers:

1. What sophomore slump? I can't understand why people even suggest that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton might have a sophomore slump. It simply isn't going to happen. Did you happen to notice what Newton did last season, when he was selected the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year? Newton set all sorts of records and, most important of all, he did it in a lockout year in which he couldn't work with his coaches until training camp. Newton has had an entire offseason program with his coaching staff, and he's a year older and wiser. There's no way he takes a step backward. If anything, he takes several steps forward.

2. Looking to break out: Aside from Muhsin Muhammad, the Panthers never have had a real complement to Steve Smith. But that's about to change. The Panthers firmly believe third-year pro Brandon LaFell is ready to be a solid No. 2 wide receiver. LaFell was held back as a rookie because former coach John Fox was opposed to the team's youth movement, and his offense didn't feature the passing game. The Panthers brought LaFell along slowly last season, but he showed some promise as the year went on. After seeing LaFell in the offseason program, they are convinced he's comfortable in the offensive system and ready for a breakout season.

3. The comebacks: Much has been made about defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis missing almost all of last season due to injuries. You can't understate the significance of that because those are three key players, and the defense fell apart without them. The fact that Beason and Edwards are back is reason enough to think Carolina's defense will be significantly improved. Edwards should give the Panthers the kind of run-stuffer the Panthers have lacked since the departure of Kris Jenkins, and Beason is the defense's leader. Davis is coming off his third torn ACL, and the Panthers are realistic with their expectations. If he can contribute as a situational player, that will be viewed as a bonus.

4. Backfield in motion: A lot of people seem to be worried about how the Panthers are going to use DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the same backfield. Let offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski figure that one out. Chudzinski previously coached Tolbert in San Diego and lobbied the Panthers to sign him as a free agent. General manager Marty Hurney listened, even though he had signed Wiilliams to a big contract last year and later would sign Stewart to a contract extension. Chudzinski, called "The Mad Scientist'' by his players, must have big plans for all three. The Panthers are listing Tolbert as a fullback, but they freely admit he'll get time at tailback. Are there enough carries to keep all three happy? Chudzinski must believe so, or else he would have been lobbying for more wide receivers or tight ends.

5. The next step: One of the best moves I saw this preseason was when coach Ron Rivera called out defensive end Charles Johnson. Rivera said Johnson has been doing what's required, but not anything extra. It's not difficult to figure out what that was all about. Rivera sees a player who's accounted for 20.5 sacks the past two seasons just getting by on natural ability. The Panthers had a guy like that once. His name was Julius Peppers, and he was sometimes very good, but never consistently great. The Panthers want Johnson to step up and be great.

NFC South breakout players

June, 12, 2012
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As we get ready for Tuesday night’s "SportsCenter" NFC South preview (ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET), let’s take a look at four players from around the division that I expect to have breakout seasons in 2012.

Atlanta running back Jacquizz Rodgers: He had a minimal impact as a rookie, but the normally-quiet Falcons have talked openly about Rodgers taking on a bigger role. Michael Turner still will be the main ball carrier, but the Falcons have said they want to limit his number of carries. That’s where Rodgers can fit in. He’s an entirely different type of runner than the powerful Turner. Rodgers is about speed and elusiveness, and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will try to utilize those skills as he attempts to add more explosiveness to Atlanta’s attack. Rodgers is at his best when running on the outside. He also has pass-catching skills and can make things happen in the open field. That’s why it’s a virtual certainty the Falcons won’t finish last in the league in screen passes attempted like they did the past two years. Rodgers has the perfect skills to make things happen on screen passes.

Carolina wide receiver Brandon LaFell: It seems like the Panthers have been trying to find a solid No. 2 receiver in the second round of the draft. They tried and failed miserably with Keary Colbert and Dwayne Jarrett. I blame much of that on former coach John Fox and his staff. They were conservative in every way -- from their offensive scheme to their hesitation in allowing young receivers much of a chance to do anything. But Fox only had LaFell for one season and it’s time for Ron Rivera and his staff to turn LaFell loose. He seemed to slowly gain trust from Rivera’s staff last year. If those coaches put even more trust in LaFell in 2012, they could be rewarded in a big way. In a lot of ways, LaFell is similar to Muhsin Muhammad, the only wide receiver that ever has worked successfully in tandem with No. 1 receiver Steve Smith. LaFell is big and strong and could provide a nice target over the middle for Cam Newton.

New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins: The New Orleans defense had a lot of unflattering statistics last season, but this one might be the worst: neither starting safety had an interception. Yes, Jenkins and Roman Harper went through the entire season without coming up with an interception. Harper’s never been known for his pass-coverage skills. He plays the run like a linebacker and was a productive pass-rusher in the scheme used by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But the fact Jenkins went through an entire season without an interception was shocking. He has all the skills of a free safety that can be a true centerfielder, but he didn’t really have the chance to do that with Williams. Now that Steve Spagnuolo has taken over as coordinator, Jenkins should be allowed to sit back in coverage and use his intellect and physical skills to take advantage of mistakes by quarterbacks.

Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron: I’m going out on a limb and including a rookie as a breakout player. That’s because I’m very confident Barron will step in and have an instant impact. You don’t take a safety at No. 7 in the draft unless you’re pretty sure he’s going to be something like an Ed Reed or a Ronnie Lott. New Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano obviously has huge plans for Barron. A coach’s first draft pick is supposed to be a cornerstone of the team and Schiano has said the NFL’s transition to more passing in recent years has added value to quality safeties. Schiano has made it clear that Barron will be expected to play man coverage against wide receivers at times. But Barron’s biggest value could come in matching up with tight ends. In the NFC South, Barron will have to go against New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Carolina’s Greg Olsen and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez on a regular basis. A lot of linebackers and safeties have struggled against those guys. But Barron might have the right combination of size and speed to at least keep some tight ends in check.
This week, Chicago Bears receiver/kick returner Devin Hester advocated the pursuit of receiver Santana Moss, a fellow former University of Miami player who will be a free agent when the NFL completes negotiations on its new collective bargaining agreement.

Moss
Moss
Wednesday, Bears safety Chris Harris jumped aboard the idea as well.

Does it make sense?

On one hand, no. Adding Moss would give the Bears a fourth receiver who measured less than 6-feet tall at their respective scouting combines. Moss was 5-9 1/2 at the time, and as we noted this spring, here are the combine measurements for the Bears' current top receivers:
On the other hand, Moss set a career high last season with 93 receptions for the Washington Redskins and believes he has a number of productive seasons left. Smaller receivers have a long history of success in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme, and the Bears can always rely on tight end Greg Olsen for routes that capitalize on height.

This topic has been bouncing around for years. The Bears still seem scarred by the free agent acquisition of Muhsin Muhammad, which among other things convinced them not to re-sign free agent Bernard Berrian. I really can't tell you how aggressive the Bears will be, if at all, in adding a veteran receiver later this summer.

It would make sense for the Bears to pursue a player who brings a different skill set than their existing players. But Martz has a time-tested route tree that might be better suited for a player of Moss' skills. How's that for fence-sitting?

Andre Reed has strong Hall of Fame case

February, 2, 2011
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Andre ReedUS PRESSWIREFormer Bills receiver Andre Reed finished his career with 951 catches for 13,198 yards and 87 TDs.
Receptions come a lot cheaper these days.

The game has changed, and all you need for proof is a glance at Paul Warfield's career stats. He caught more than 50 passes once. He gained more than 1,000 yards once. In some of his Pro Bowl seasons, his numbers wouldn't have justified a roster spot in your 10-team fantasy league.

Yet Warfield is considered one the most dangerous receivers NFL history, a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"Our game is beginning to resemble baseball in which everyone is looking at numbers," Warfield said this week from his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "Numbers tell the story to a degree, but I like to look at one's full body of work.

"I'm from the old-school generation. You might be termed a wide receiver, but you should be a football player first."

Steve Largent is another example of how stats don't quantify a receiver's worth like they used to. Largent retired after the 1989 season as the NFL's all-time leading receiver with 819 catches. He, too, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Twenty-one years later, Largent ranks 20th in receptions behind such names as Derrick Mason, Torry Holt, Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad and fullback Larry Centers.

In 1985, only four players had caught 600 passes. The list is 55 players long now.

"It doesn't necessarily undermine a player's ability to get into the Hall of Fame because he had great stats or doesn't have great stats," Largent said Monday from his office in Washington D.C. "You're looking for a guy who was the total package."

With that in mind, you might consider Andre Reed's stats if you choose when deciding if he belongs in the Hall of Fame. They're sterling -- if a little outdated and discounted by time.

To both Largent and Warfield and other legendary receivers, Reed qualifies for Canton without even looking at the numbers.

"I saw the value Reed had to that team not only as a receiver, but also as a leader," Largent said. "There are some attributes you don't keep statistics of, but you become aware of as one player watching another play the game."

Reed is Largent's "total package" and Warfield's unequivocal embodiment of "football player."

"It's long overdue for Andre," Warfield said.

Reed is among the 15 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalists who will learn Saturday whether they will be included in this year's induction class.

The star Buffalo Bills receiver has been a finalist five times. There's a belief this year offers his best chance yet. In previous years, he has shared the ballot with at least one receiver who took precedence because they were icons (Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin) or had been waiting longer (Art Monk).

Reed could become the sixth Hall of Famer from a team that went to four straight Super Bowls but failed to win one.

Already enshrined are Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy. Wide receiver James Lofton also is in Canton, but he didn't play on all four Super Bowl teams, and is more closely associated with the Green Bay Packers.

"I was a part of something special, and I'll take that to my grave," said Reed, 47. "We were a family. But the Hall of Fame, I don't know how I would react. It would be a validation of your work and what you did.

"Hopefully on Saturday I can be in that fraternity with them, but every year it's a tough ballot."

The other finalists include running backs Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis, receivers Tim Brown and Cris Carter, tight end Shannon Sharpe, center Dermontti Dawson, tackle Willie Roaf, defensive ends Richard Dent, Charles Haley and Chris Doleman, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, cornerback Deion Sanders and NFL Films patriarch Ed Sabol.

The Hall of Fame's 44-member selection committee will decide Saturday. The group includes NFL writers, one representative per franchise, 11 at-large voters and one from the Pro Football Writers Association. The committee will pare the group of 15 finalists down to 10 and then to five. At that point, a vote will be held, with 80 percent agreement needed for induction.

Up to five modern-era candidates may be elected each year. First-time nominees Faulk and Sanders are virtual locks to get inducted. That leaves three spots available for Reed and the other finalists to get in.

Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan will make the case for Reed's induction. It's a compelling one.

"He certainly had a great career, one of the great clutch receivers," Warfield said. "He was consistent, one Jim Kelly could always go to and always find open in a situation where they're trying to make a big play. He's an all-encompassing receiver."

Reed was third on the NFL's all-time receptions list when he retired after the 2000 season with 951 catches, behind only Rice and Carter. Reed was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a superstar on a team that won four conference championships in a row.

"He was as dangerous a receiver as there is," former Bills quarterback Frank Reich said. "Versus press coverage, he was almost impossible to stop, coming off the ball. We always felt if they tried to play tight man on Andre it didn't matter who was guarding him. Any shutdown corner in the league in press coverage, Andre was going to beat him."

Reed was a force on the big stage. In 19 postseason games he had 85 receptions for 1,229 yards and nine touchdowns. He didn't score any Super Bowl touchdowns, but he did have 27 receptions for 323 yards.

In the Bills' epic comeback against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 postseason, he made eight catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns.

Reed is known as tremendously durable. He played 253 games, counting playoffs. He often darted into traffic to make plays in a crowd of defenders.

"No fear," Reich said.

Reed was one the greatest ever when it came to yards after the catch, second perhaps only to Rice.

[+] EnlargeAndre Reed
US PresswireAndre Reed, on playing for the Bills: "I was a part of something special, and I'll take that to my grave,"
"Most people that were on that team or played against us will remember how explosive he was in run-after-the-catch," said Reich, now Peyton Manning's position coach with the Indianapolis Colts. "He rivaled Jerry Rice in that category. Like Jerry Rice, his 40 time was good and probably not great. But there was nobody faster with the ball in his hands."

What put Reed's production in even greater context is a closer look at Buffalo's offense in the 1990s.

Many fans, even those who closely followed the Bills then, recall a prolific aerial attack. They remember Kelly running the no-huddle, K-Gun offense and slinging the ball all over the field to Reed and Lofton.

As Gaughan will point out again Saturday, the Bills ranked 17th in passing offense throughout Reed's career. In Reed's six prime seasons from 1988 through 1993, the Bills passed 51 percent of the time. By comparison, the Washington Redskins' famed "Hogs" offense passed 50 percent of the time when Monk was there.

Reed didn't have much receiving help either. He played with Lofton for four seasons, but Lofton was 33 years old when he joined Buffalo. In 1988, for instance, Reed's second and third receivers were Trumaine Johnson and Chris Burkett.

So far, the chief impediment for Reed's induction hasn't been his resume, but the other names on the ballot.

A wide receiver has been inducted each of the past four years, and in seven classes out of the past decade.

Gaughan noted there is room in Canton for at least two more receivers from the 1990s. A breakdown of membership shows seven receivers who predominantly played in the 1960s, four from 1970s, four from the 1980s and two from the 1990s.

Reed, Carter and Brown are the worthiest receiver candidates to join Rice and Irvin from that decade.

There's a velvet rope. This is Reed's fifth year as a finalist. Carter has been a finalist four times, Brown twice.

Reed apparently jockeyed to the head of the receiver line last year. In the selection process, Carter and Brown didn't make the top-10 stage, but Reed did.

That development has raised Reed's hopes for 2011.

"I'll be more nervous because of the way the voting went last year," Reed said. "I feel I'm more deserving of it. It was pretty close. The anticipation is enhanced this year."

But there are no guarantees. Several legendary receivers have waited longer than five years to get the Canton call. Don Maynard, John Stallworth and Monk got in on their eighth time as finalists. Lynn Swann was a finalist 14 times. The Seniors Committee was necessary to induct Bob Hayes 34 years after his last NFL game.

Reed admitted he has fantasized about the phone call too many times to count. He's even tried to research the moment.

"I've talked to a bunch of Hall of Famers who say when they get the call they're at a loss for words," said Reed, who plays a lot of golf and sells his own line of barbeque sauce in the San Diego area. "They don't know how to react.

"I'll just have to wait and see."

And hopefully not have to wait some more.

NFC South training camp preview

July, 23, 2010
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The good news for the New Orleans Saints is they are defending Super Bowl champions. The bad news is that’s not a great spot to be in in the NFC South.

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.

The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.

We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are confident defensive end John Abraham still has something left in the tank.
For the past couple of years, the 32-year-old defensive end has been one of those guys who doesn’t practice all the time because the Falcons go out of their way to keep him healthy and fresh. That plan isn’t likely to change this season, but the Falcons will be keeping a very close eye on Abraham in camp.

His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.

Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?

A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.

Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.

Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?

Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.

Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.

Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?

The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.

The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.

HOTTEST SEATS

Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.

Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.

Darren Sharper
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIIf Darren Sharper isn't 100 percent healthy, he might not be the starter for the Saints.
Saints: Darren Sharper. The safety had a brilliant 2009 season. Sharper instantly became a fan favorite, but his lock on the starting job at free safety isn’t nearly as secure as many people think. Sharper is 34 and coming off knee surgery. We don’t even know if he physically will be able to do much during training camp. The Saints have moved Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick a year ago, from cornerback to safety. A lot of fans view Sharper as the Drew Brees of the defense, but I’m not so sure the coaching staff ever has seen it that way, and the Saints didn’t break the bank to re-sign Sharper in the offseason. If he’s 100 percent healthy, Sharper could stay in the starting lineup. Anything less and the Saints won’t hesitate to go with Jenkins.

Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.

SECRET WEAPON

Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.

BEST POSITION BATTLE

It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.

The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.

But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.

Best Panthers Team Ever: 2003

June, 28, 2010
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Notable players: RB Stephen Davis, QB Jake Delhomme, WR Steve Smith, WR Muhsin Muhammad, DE Julius Peppers, DT Kris Jenkins, LB Dan Morgan.

Analysis: When owner Jerry Richardson talked about how the life had been drained from his franchise during a disastrous 1-15 season in 2001 under coach George Seifert, he couldn’t have expected how dramatic the turnaround would be. Nobody saw the Panthers going to the Super Bowl within two years, but that’s exactly what happened with first-time head coach John Fox.

[+] EnlargeStephen Davis
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesStephen Davis rushed for a career-high 1,444 yards in 2003.
In 2002, Fox’s team showed some promise, but there was no real reason to think the Panthers were ready for an incredible run. They had the makings of a very good defensive line, but nobody really knew how much Davis had left when the Panthers brought him in and nobody had a clue what Delhomme, who had spent his career on the bench in New Orleans, might bring.

Rodney Peete opened the season as the starting quarterback and that lasted all of two quarters before Delhomme came on to rally the Panthers and take over the job. With Davis carrying the offense and the defensive line dominating, Delhomme continued to show a knack for leading comebacks.

The Panthers caught lightning in a bottle and also rode the emotion of preseason news that linebackers coach and former team captain Sam Mills and starting linebacker Mark Fields each had cancer. Carolina finished the regular season 11-5 and won its first NFC South championship.

A playoff victory at home against Dallas wasn’t a big surprise, but the Panthers stunned just about everyone by going on the road and winning at St. Louis (in double overtime) and completely dominating the Eagles on a frigid night in Philadelphia.

That put the Panthers into the Super Bowl against New England. A touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with one minute, eight seconds remaining tied the score. But Carolina’s chances of pulling the upset faded as John Kasay followed up by kicking the ball out of bounds to give New England good field position. The Patriots kicked the game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining.

Most impressive win: It’s tough to top the image of Steve Smith scoring a touchdown on the first play of the second overtime in St. Louis, but players and coaches will tell you the key moment of the season came in Week 2 at Tampa against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs scored a late touchdown and needed only to kick the extra point to win the game. The Panthers blocked the kick, forced overtime and won 12-9.

Research room: This team was known as the “Cardiac Cats." The reason was simple. The Panthers won seven games in the last two minutes or in overtime.

Honorable mention

1996: In only the second year of the franchise’s existence, coach Dom Capers, quarterback Kerry Collins and a great defense took the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. A home playoff victory against Dallas provided a truly monumental moment for an expansion team and the city of Charlotte.

2005: Fox’s 2004 team underachieved, but the 2005 team overachieved more than any in franchise history. Give the credit to Smith for carrying the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle. Injuries to the running backs kept the Panthers from running like Fox wanted to, but Smith and Delhomme had a special chemistry that year.

2008: A 12-4 record, an NFC South crown and a first-round bye added up to absolutely nothing. In what easily is the most disappointing game in franchise history, Arizona came into Bank of America Stadium and routed the Panthers 33-13. Starting with that game, the normally reliable Delhomme began turning the ball over so frequently that he played his way out of Charlotte.

Steve Smith breaks arm

June, 21, 2010
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Yes, it’s true. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who has a flare for the unusual, suffered a broken arm while playing flag football at his youth camp over the weekend. Here’s the story I just sent to our news side:

Smith
Smith
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith suffered a broken left arm playing flag football at his annual youth camp over the weekend, the team said Monday. Smith underwent surgery Sunday night and isn’t expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

“Steve has talked to me and he feels terrible about it,’’ general manager Marty Hurney said. “Now, his focus is on the rehabilitating process and getting back as quickly as he can.’’

The team said it’s uncertain when Smith will be fully healthy.

Smith, 31, suffered a broken left forearm late last season and missed the final game. All indications are that injury was fully healed. The Panthers finished their offseason workouts last week and Smith began his camp Thursday. Smith has been Carolina’s top receiver through much of his career. With Muhsin Muhammad’s recent retirement, Smith is Carolina’s only established receiver.

The Panthers are hoping Dwayne Jarrett can emerge this season, but they also used early draft picks on receivers Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards.

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Muhsin Muhammad to hang it up

June, 10, 2010
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In just a few hours, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad is going to announce his retirement from the National Football League.

Muhammad
There won't be instant talk about Muhammad as a potential member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and that's appropriate because his career wasn't quite at that level. But Muhammad put together one of the most solid careers in the short history of the Carolina Panthers.

He was drafted by the team in 1996, struggled early on, but developed into a very dependable receiver. He took a three-year sojourn when Chicago threw him a bunch of money as a free agent. But Muhammad, 37, returned to the Panthers in 2008 and was a starter the past two seasons.

The Panthers didn't offer Muhammad a contract this offseason as they decided to go with a youth movement. But they'll give him a proper sendoff this afternoon with a ceremony at Bank of America Stadium.

Muhammad's legacy isn't spectacular, but it's very good. He was a great blocker for a wide receiver. He wasn't particularly fast, but he ran good routes and had good hands. Most of all, he's been the only receiver Carolina has ever had who peacefully co-existed with the mercurial Steve Smith. That alone was an accomplishment, and a lot of people within the organization will tell you Muhammad was a positive influence on Smith.

Smith is a guy who actually could be a potential Hall of Famer. If that ever happens, Muhammad will have helped pave the way.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can Dwayne Jarrett emerge as a successful No. 2 wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers?

[+] EnlargeDwayne Jarrett
AP Photo/Rick HavnerDwayne Jarrett hasn't lived up to expectations in Carolina so far.
It seems that question gets asked every year. But the answer really could be different this year. Jarrett’s been a bust since the Panthers used a second-round pick on him in 2007.

But let’s keep a couple of things in mind. Jarrett is still only 23 years old and came out of USC early. Carolina coach John Fox has a long history of not placing a lot of trust in the hands of young wide receivers.

But that could change in Jarrett’s fourth year in this offense. He should know the system by now and he really is the most logical candidate to start opposite Steve Smith. Yes, it’s true the Panthers used early-round picks on Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, but it’s tough to see Fox trusting either of them enough to put them directly in the starting lineup.

Jarrett may get the first shot simply because of his experience and the Panthers still would not have him on the roster if they didn’t think there was some upside. At 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, Jarrett is a logical choice to take over the starting job vacated by Muhsin Muhammad. Like Muhammad, Jarrett is big enough to be an effective blocker in the running game and a possession target for quarterbacks Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen.

Jarrett’s never had more than 17 catches in a season, but there are some football people in Carolina who believe he can be a quality No. 2 if he’s given a chance to play the role.

AFC East's biggest bust outs

May, 7, 2010
5/07/10
4:15
PM ET
In honor of the Oakland Raiders dumping quarterback JaMarcus Russell three years after they drafted him No. 1 overall, I've put together a list of each AFC East team's biggest busts.

These are my picks, and they’re open for debate. Add your picks in the comments section below.

Kenneth Sims
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesNew England drafted Kenneth Sims with the first overall pick in 1982.
Buffalo Bills

1. Walt Patulski, defensive end (first overall, 1972): Who? Exactly the point. He played four uninspiring years for the Bills and one more for the St. Louis Cardinals.

2. Mike Williams, tackle (fourth overall, 2002): A good case can be made for Williams to be at the top of this list. He spent four mediocre seasons at right tackle, not even making it over to the blindside.

3. Tony Hunter, tight end (12th overall, 1983): In arguably the greatest first round in NFL draft history, the Bills managed to find a dud two slots ahead of the pick they used on Jim Kelly. Hunter lasted two seasons in Buffalo, starting 12 games and catching 69 passes.

4. Terry Miller, running back (fifth overall, 1978): It's tough to replace O.J. Simpson, but the Bills thought they had their man with Miller. He rushed for 1,060 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. Over his next -- and final -- three seasons combined, he rushed for 523 yards and one touchdown.

5. Perry Tuttle, receiver (19th overall, 1982): In two seasons with the Bills, he managed four starts and 24 receptions. Taken one slot after him was Mike Quick.

Miami Dolphins

1. Eric Kumerow, defensive end (16th overall, 1988): Three seasons, zero starts, five sacks.

2. Billy Milner, tackle (25th overall, 1995): He lasted two NFL seasons, starting nine games at right tackle as a rookie. In his second season, the Dolphins traded him to the St. Louis Rams for Troy Drayton. The Rams cut Milner, who retired.

3. Sammie Smith, running back (ninth overall, 1989): He showed promise here and there, rushing for 831 yards and eight touchdowns in his second season. But he was hated by Dolfans for his costly fumbles.

4. Jason Allen, defensive back (16th overall, 2006): He has made a dozen career starts and contributes most of his time to special teams.

5. Yatil Green, receiver (15th overall, 1997): I nearly listed Ted Ginn here, but he added value as a return specialist and actually won a game for the Dolphins last year. Green's career lasted eight games.

New England Patriots

1. Kenneth Sims, defensive end (first overall, 1982): Sims played a full season just once in his eight seasons and played three games or fewer three times. He recorded 17 sacks

2. Eugene Chung, offensive lineman (13th overall, 1992): Chung started 14 games as a rookie and all 16 as a sophomore, but that was all. Chung played three games in 1994 and was gone.

3. Chris Singleton, linebacker, and Ray Agnew, defensive tackle (eighth and 10th overall, 1990): I couldn't pick one without the other. The Pats traded the third overall pick to the Seattle Seahawks for these two. The Seahawks took future Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy. In between Singleton and Agnew, the Dolphins drafted potential Hall of Fame tackle Richmond Webb.

4. Hart Lee Dykes, receiver (16th overall, 1989): Two seasons, 18 starts, 83 receptions, seven touchdowns, out of football.

5. Andy Katzenmoyer, linebacker (28th overall, 1999): A neck injury was at issue, but he left the team without permission and was cut after his second season. He made 14 starts.

New York Jets

1. Blair Thomas, running back (second overall, 1990): Over four seasons with the Jets, he rushed for five touchdowns.

2. Johnny "Lam" Jones, receiver (second overall, 1980): He finished his career with 138 receptions for 2,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. Art Monk might've been the better choice.

3. Dave Cadigan, guard (eighth overall, 1988): He spent six seasons with the Jets, but he totaled 13 starts through his first three seasons. The Minnesota Vikings found Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel with the 19th pick.

4. Reggie Rembert, receiver (28th overall, 1990): A triple whiff. The Jets couldn't sign Rembert and were forced to deal him. They sent him to the Cincinnati Bengals for offensive lineman Scott Jones and linebacker Joe Kelly. Rembert finished his career with 36 catches and one touchdown.

5. Alex Van Dyke, receiver (31st overall, 1996): I considered Vernon Gholston here, but went with Van Dyke based on his 26 career catches and three receivers taken soon after him. Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammad and Bobby Engram did OK.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Besides Steve Smith, who is going to catch passes for the Carolina Panthers?

Seems we ask that same question every year, or at least every year since Muhsin Muhammad left the Panthers the first time. The Panthers have turned to guys such as Keyshawn Johnson, Keary Colbert, Drew Carter and Dwayne Jarrett and none have really worked out. Muhammad, in his second stint with Carolina, did all you could ask of an aging receiver, but still didn’t produce like a true No. 2 and wasn’t able to take defensive attention away from Smith.

[+] EnlargeBrandon LaFell
Skip Williams/Icon SMIRookie Brandon LaFell could help take some pressure off of Steve Smith.
But we’ve got a fresh set of names to look at now and there’s at least hope on the horizon. Will draft picks Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards be the combination that does what all the others couldn’t?

We won’t know for sure until the fall, but there are at least reasons for optimism. LaFell comes with good size and speed and he was productive in a program that wasn’t a passing machine on offense. Colbert and Jarrett were very productive in college too, but that might have had more to do with the fact they were playing for an offensive factory at USC than with their abilities.

Edwards was a quarterback at Appalachian State, but the Panthers plan to use him as a slot receiver. That might suggest that it may take some time for Edwards to learn a new position. Plus, the Panthers' history under John Fox shows a trend of going very slowly with young wide receivers.

But it looks like all that’s about to change, and LaFell and Edwards could get a chance at big playing time right from the start. The mere fact the Panthers used an early pick on a slot receiver means they’re serious about doing more with that position. That is long overdue and it will bring the Panthers in step with the rest of the NFL.

The days of bringing rookie receivers along at a painfully slow pace in Carolina may be over. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney know they have to win now and they drafted these two guys with the idea of playing them sooner than later. Besides, there aren’t any other real options on the roster. Jarrett’s still around, but he really hasn’t shown much of anything.

Smith is screaming for help and he just might get it. One other thing to keep in mind, and this is highly significant, is the change at quarterback. Jake Delhomme locked onto Smith way too much and used him as a crutch. That hurt all of the other receivers.

Delhomme is gone and Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen will be the quarterback. They’ll still want to get the ball to Smith, but he no longer is going to be the only option in the passing game.
Several times in the past, I’ve shared with you the positional personality profiles done by Dr. Arnold J. Mandell back in 1973 and specifically focused on his assessment of wide receivers.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Kim Klement/US PresswireCarolina will have to draft a receiver who can work with Smith.
With Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers fans mad that their teams never even pursued Brandon Marshall or Santonio Holmes, I think it’s time to look at Mandell’s work once more. For background purposes, Mandell did these profiles while working as a team psychiatrist for the San Diego Chargers and coach Harland Savard.

"The wide receiver is a very special human being," Mandell wrote. "He shares many features with actors and movie stars. He is narcissistic and vain and basically a loner."

Here are a couple more excerpts from the Mandell profiles on wide receivers:
"They love to be the center of attention. They need to be noticed. They have an imperviousness in that they don't seem to mind criticism about being like that. All players want the respect of fellow players. Showing off usually is not an admired characteristic by most players, but by wide receivers it is very admired."

"They are interested in looking pretty, being pretty. They are elegant, interpersonally isolated. Wide receivers don't group, they don't mob out. They are actors, uninflected about showing off, individualists, quite interested in their own welfare, their own appearance."

Think about it a bit. Mandell’s profiles on all the positions were pretty accurate, but I think he put it in the upper deck with wide receivers. Marshall, Holmes,Chad Ochocinco, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Keyshawn Johnson -– they all fit the profile. As a general rule, you can say the more a guy fits this profile, the better he is as a wide receiver. Of all the wide receivers I’ve ever covered, I’d say former Carolina player Keary Colbert came the furthest from fitting the profile. Colbert wasn’t full of himself and he wasn’t hyper-competitive. Those may be among the reasons he never fulfilled his potential.

Yeah, you can say that guys like Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison succeeded without fitting the profile. But that’s not really true. Rice and Harrison might not have been all that flamboyant, but people who played with them or coached them will tell you they had a controlled selfishness about them.

Receivers are a very rare breed. As the Panthers and the Bucs look at drafting receivers next week, I think personalities will play into it. Obviously, their focus is on talent, but they have to find the right kind of receiver to fit in nicely. Carolina needs a guy who can co-exist with Smith. Tampa Bay needs a guy whose ego can fit in a locker room with tight end Kellen Winslow.

It’s a balancing act. Almost every wide receiver comes with some sort of baggage. You’ve got to take all that into consideration and determine which one you really need on your team.

Reminds me of a story from long ago. My high school baseball coach, the late and great Paul Fearick, had a strange dislike for guys who were on the wrestling team. In his own way, Fearick viewed them the same way Mandell described wide receivers.

When Fearick saw a sophomore, who also happened to be on the wrestling team, goofing off in practice one day, he erupted.

“Schubert, I don’t need you,’’ Fearick screamed. “You wrestlers are all crazy. I had a wrestler last year. But the guy could hit and he could play the field. We needed him. You? We can do just as well without you.’’

Turned out Fearick was setting some ground rules. He needed Eric Schubert, who pitched a few big games for us after we had some injuries late in the year and he became Fearick’s ace the next two years. Fearick, although not really thrilled about it, was willing to endure some quirks to get what he needed.

When it comes to wide receivers, the Bucs and Panthers have to ask themselves which ones they really need and how much they’re willing to turn their heads to all the other things that come with any given receiver.
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Muhsin Muhammad, wide receiver, free agent. A lot of Carolina fans think one of the best players in franchise history will re-sign with the team. It’s a nice thought, but it’s probably not going to happen at a time when loyalty, which the Panthers have preached about so much, has disappeared. They cut Jake Delhomme, Brad Hoover and others because they were old.

Muhammad’s going to be 37 in May. He was somewhat productive last season and the Panthers have no other proven receivers on their roster beyond Steve Smith. Muhammad’s a good locker room guy, wants to stay in Carolina and probably would sign there for a very reasonable rate. But I wouldn’t anticipate any offer from the Panthers. That would be a complete reversal of all they’ve done this offseason. They’re intent on getting younger, and will be looking for wide receivers in the draft and maybe a young and cheap receiver in what’s left of free agency.

Muhammad probably will get signed by someone after the draft because he still wants to play and probably still has the skills to contribute somewhere. But it won’t be in Carolina.

Rising

Tampa Bay’s chances of getting one of the top-two defensive tackles in the draft. By all accounts, quarterback Sam Bradford had a great workout this week. That improves the chances of the St. Louis Rams taking him with the No. 1 overall pick. If that happens, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy won’t go No. 1 and at least one of them will be available at No. 3.

You can argue all you want about which defensive tackle would be a better fit for the Bucs, and there are strong cases for each of them. But if one of them is available at No. 3, the Bucs are in a no-lose situation. Either way, they’ll get a quality defensive tackle, which would be a major upgrade over what they currently have.
A friend of mine from Charlotte just called and asked me what I thought about the “fire sale’’ the Panthers are having today.

[+] EnlargeJake Delhomme
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireJake Delhomme is one of several veterans the Panthers cut ties with recently.
I’m going to tell you the same thing I told him. This is not a fire sale. Call the release of Jake Delhomme, Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis, Na’il Diggs and Landon Johnson and the fact Julius Peppers and (maybe) Muhsin Muhammad are walking out the door as free agents a lot of things. But don’t call it a fire sale.

A true fire sale is when you’re getting rid of good players in their prime. Aside from Peppers, none of these guys is in his prime. Delhomme was old and, after his dismal play last season, this decision shouldn’t seem as shocking as many are making it out to be. Muhammad’s also old, but I’m not totally ruling out the possibility of him re-signing with the Panthers.

Kemoeatu, Lewis, Diggs and Johnson? They were role players, who were at the back end of their contracts. They were due salaries that were higher than their actual value.

The Panthers still have their core -- Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Jordan Gross, Chris Gamble, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in place -- and that’s not a bad core to work with. Besides, some of those guys are coming up on long-term contracts.

If the Panthers start getting rid of those guys, then you’ve got a real fire sale on your hands. But these were pretty basic football decisions (although the Peppers situation was much more complicated). The Panthers have some young guys like Dan Connor, Everette Brown and Charles Johnson that they have high hopes for and that they want to get on the field.

I also believe owner Jerry Richardson has a hand in all this. In part, I think this is a message to players about the uncertain labor situation. Like many owners, Richardson, is worried about the possibility of a lockout in 2011. In an uncapped year, Richardson is slashing costs. These moves aren’t much different than what the Panthers would do in a capped year.

Richardson is showing the rest of his players the oil/water/money well, while not dry, isn’t flowing freely these days.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
10:36
AM ET
Atlanta Falcons

Potential unrestricted free agents: CB Brian Williams, WR Marty Booker, QB Chris Redman.

Potential restricted free agents: RB Jason Snelling, RB Jerious Norwood, P Michael Koenen, CB Brent Grimes, OL Quinn Ojinnaka, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: General manager Thomas Dimitroff repeatedly has used the phrase “fiscally responsible’’ when talking about the approach to free agency. In other words, the Falcons aren’t going to go on some wild spending spree. This organization prefers to build through the draft. But history has shown the Falcons aren’t afraid to make a strategic strike or two in free agency. They have a huge need at defensive end and that’s a tough spot to get guaranteed production from when you’ve got the No. 19 overall pick in the draft. The Falcons aren’t likely to target elite free-agent DE Julius Peppers, but you could see them make a move for another pass-rusher.

Carolina Panthers

Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Julius Peppers, WR Muhsin Muhammad, QB Josh McCown, QB A.J. Feeley.

Potential restricted free agents: LB Thomas Davis, QB Matt Moore, TE Jeff King, CB Richard Marshall, DT Louis Leonard, LB James Anderson, DT Tank Tyler, CB C.J. Wilson.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: Owner Jerry Richardson is very concerned about the uncertain labor situation and that may keep him from spending big money in free agency. The Panthers avoided a $20 million hit by not placing the franchise tag on Peppers, but that doesn’t mean all of that money is going to be used in free agency. The Panthers traditionally are a team that builds through the draft and they didn’t sign a single UFA last year. But look for at least a few smaller moves because coach John Fox has to win this year and needs to improve this roster, especially on the defensive line, at wide receiver and perhaps at quarterback.

New Orleans Saints

Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Mark Brunell, S Darren Sharper, TE Dan Campbell, TE Darnell Dinkins, DT Kendrick Clancy, LB Scott Fujita, S Pierson Prioleau, LS Jason Kyle.

Potential restricted free agents: G Jahri Evans, RB Mike Bell, RB Pierre Thomas, WR Lance Moore, TE David Thomas, T Jermon Bushrod, S Roman Harper, S Usama Young, DT Remi Ayodele, DT Anthony Hargrove, T Zach Strief, S Chris Reis, WR Courtney Roby, LB Marvin Mitchell.

Franchise player: None

What to expect: As a final-four team the Saints aren’t allowed to sign any unrestricted free agents unless they lose one of their own at a similar price tag. That’s likely to keep the Saints from being big players in free agency. But the good news is they don’t have a lot of dramatic needs. They will have to keep a protective eye on some of their restricted free agents, who may draw interest from other teams.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Antonio Bryant, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, S Will Allen, LB Angelo Crowell, S Jermaine Phillips.

Potential restricted free agents: RB Cadillac Williams, LB Barrett Ruud, T Donald Penn, WR Maurice Stovall, T Jeremy Trueblood.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Bucs haven’t spent a lot of money in free agency in recent years and they’ve been sending out signals this year won’t be much different. They’re focused on the 10 draft picks they hold. But the Bucs could pull a small surprise or two. They’ve got a restless fan base and more needs than those draft picks can handle. A couple of signings in free agency could energize the fan base and help the rebuilding process. The Bucs really need a No. 1 wide receiver and they’re not truly positioned to get that in the draft.

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