Former Texans quarterback David Carr will be watching from the sideline as the Texans take on the Panthers Sunday.
After an impressive home win to open the season, the Texans travel to Charlotte, N.C., to take on the Carolina Panthers. A top contender in the NFC, Carolina also opened their season on a high note with a win over St. Louis. The Texans must put their good feelings from their first victory aside as they now prepare to face one of the most talented defenses in the NFL.
After a disappointing 2006 season, Carolina head coach John Fox spent the offseason tinkering with the roster and his coaching staff in an effort to return to playoff contention. Most notably, offensive coordinator Dan Henning was replaced by former Cleveland offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson. A former Bill Belichick assistant, Davidson has been given high remarks for his innovative offensive schemes.
The Panthers should contend with New Orleans in the NFC South and if they play up to their talent level, may find themselves in Glendale, Ariz., in Super Bowl XLII.
Without question, the most important player on offense for the Panthers is wide receiver Steve Smith. One of the most explosive players in the league, Smith eclipsed the 1,100- yard receiving mark for the third time in four seasons in 2006. Anytime he touches the ball, Smith is a threat to take it to the end zone.
After releasing Keyshawn Johnson in the offseason, Carolina must find a second option behind Smith. For the time being, veteran Keary Colbert holds the position, but Drew Carter and 2007 second-round pick Dwayne Jarrett are right on his heels. Jarrett, the former All-American from USC, is a big target (6-4, 219) over the middle with amazing hands.
At quarterback, Jake Delhomme looks to improve on his disappointing 2006 campaign. Missing three games due to injury, Delhomme threw for 2,805 yards with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Though he enters this season firmly entrenched as the starter, Carolina signed former Texan David Carr as an insurance policy. Carr's 75 career starts provide the Panthers with an experienced backup who can step in immediately should Delhomme go down.
The biggest improvements should be seen in the running game. Davidson has implemented the zone-blocking scheme, which is a better fit for the Carolina running backs personnel. DeShaun Foster begins the season as starter, coming off a season in which he rushed for 897 yards and three touchdowns. Foster's backup, second-year man DeAngelo Williams, will also see plenty of action this season. Williams is probably the more explosive of the two, but Foster will see more of the carries as long as he continues to produce. Veteran Nick Goings will be the back on third down situations.
The new zone-blocking scheme should also improve play along the offensive line. Left tackle Trevelle Wharton and center Justin Hartwig both return this season after missing the majority of 2006 due to injury. Rookie Ryan Kalil, drafted as a center, enters this season as the starting right guard. Kalil will look for help from right tackle Jordan Gross as he adjusts to the pro game. Left guard Mike Wahle rounds out the group of starters. Backup Geoff Hangartner, who gained valuable starting experience last season with all the injuries to the unit, returns as the most reliable reserve.
At tight end, longtime veteran Kris Mangum retired, meaning 2006 fifth-round pick Jeff King inherits the starting job. This will be the first starting opportunity for the Virginia Tech alum. There is little NFL experience in the rest of unit as rookie Dante Rosario will serve as King's backup.
Carolina's stellar defensive line headlines one of the top defenses in the league. Defensive end Julius Peppers strikes fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. One of the most dominant pass rushers in the game, Peppers is coming off his third consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. Peppers' counterpart is Pro Bowler Mike Rucker. Rucker recorded 34 tackles and five sacks last season, though he did suffer a major knee injury. Carolina drafted defensive end Charles Johnson from the University of Georgia in the third round of this year's draft to provide another pass rusher off the edge.
At the tackle positions, Pro Bowler Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu anchor the middle. The line struggled mightily last season when Jenkins went down with an injury. Kindal Moorehead and Damoine Lewis will figure into the rotation as reserves.
The linebacker corps received a boost when middle linebacker Dan Morgan decided to return this season. Morgan is a terrific player, but has been plagued by numerous concussions in his career, including one that caused him to miss the final 15 games last season. Should Morgan go down, rookie first-rounder Jon Beason will step in as starter. Another former first-round pick, Thomas Davis, will start on the strong side. Davis, a converted safety, has elite speed for his position, but needs to improve upon his angles in pursuit if he is to be successful. The versatile Na'il Diggs will start along the weak side, though he has struggled with injuries over the past few seasons.
The secondary received shocking news when starting free safety Mike Minter suddenly retired early in training camp. Former 49er Deke Cooper will step in to fill Minter's big void. Another offseason acquisition, strong safety Chris Harris, steps into a starting role. Harris recorded 54 tackles and two interceptions last season with Chicago. Second-year safety Nate Salley and free agent pickup Marquand Manuel are the backups.
At cornerback, Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas look to overcome sub-par 2006 seasons. Gamble is still one of the top cover corners in the league while Lucas provides good support on his side of the field. Right on their heels as the top backup is Richard Marshall, who turned in a fabulous rookie season last year with 82 tackles, three interceptions and a sack.
Long-time Panther veteran John Kasay returns for his 13th season with the team. Last season, the reliable Kasay nailed 24 of 27 field goal attempts and still possesses one of the strongest legs in the game.
At punter, Jason Baker returns for his second season with the team. Last year, Baker averaged 45.7 yards per attempt.
Handling double duty on punt and kickoff returns is rookie wide receiver Ryne Robinson. The fourth-round pick out of Miami (OH) ranks second all-time in NCAA history with 1,677 punt return yards, with seven of his returns for touchdowns.
What to Watch For
- The play of Jake Delhomme must improve if he is to remain the starter. Carolina signed David Carr to be the backup, but Carr actually has more starts in his career than Delhomme. Should Delhomme struggle, don't be surprised to see head coach John Fox pull the trigger and insert Carr as the starting quarterback.
- Carolina needs defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and defensive end Mike Rucker to remain healthy and play most of the season. The defense struggled in their absence last season, especially against the run. When fully healthy, this is one of the most destructive defenses in the league.