It's hard to know what to expect from a Carolina team that started the 2009 season with high expectations, only to stumble out of the gate before turning their season around and finishing the year with a respectable 8-8 record. The emergence of QB Matt Moore could signal a return to their winning ways, which allowed them to win twelve games and reach the first round of the playoffs in 2008.
They have some dangerous players on their roster, but not much depth. As such, I think they will be at a disadvantage when these two teams meet at Bank of America Stadium.
More details on this match-up after the jump...
Carolina has entered a bit of a rebuilding phase, and as such they've focused the bulk of their efforts on the draft. Surprisingly enough, they were able to land a potential franchise quarterback despite not picking until the second round in the 2010 NFL Draft. Notre Dame alum Jimmy Clausen went to the Panthers as the 48th overall selection. Questions about his leadership ability caused him to slide down many teams' draft boards, but he certainly has enough physical talent to succeed in the NFL.
Clausen was not the only quarterback selected by Carolina in this year's draft, the team also picked QB Tony Pike in the 6th round. Although Pike seems destined for the practice squad this year, due to his late graduation date, he could develop into a capable signal caller down the road.
Technically speaking, Pike was the third quarterback selected by the club, with 3rd round pick Armanti Edwards being the second. However, the talented Edwards is expected to see the bulk of his playing time at wide receiver or in the Wildcat formation.
2nd round pick Brandon LaFell, has a frame reminiscent of longtime Panther Muhsin Muhamad. If he plays up to his potential he could develop into a solid number two receiver behind Steve Smith.
On the defensive side of the ball, LB Eric Norwood could have an immediate impact as a pass rush specialist. The 4th round pick lacks prototypical size, but he was a very productive player throughout his collegiate career.
The Panthers lost several key players this off-season. Most notable is the departure of Julius Peppers. Peppers was drafted in the first round by Carolina in the 2002 NFL Draft. During his eight year tenure with the Panthers he recorded an impressive 81 sacks. The five time Pro Bowler and two time All-Pro will continue his career with the Chicago Bears, and has left a gaping hole along Carolina's defensive front.
Another long time Panther, Jake Delhomme, now finds himself with another team. After a disappointing 2009, in which it looked as if his time as a starting NFL quarterback was up, he finds himself in Cleveland. After signing a two year $12.4 Million contract this off-season, Delhomme is expected to earn the starting nod over Seneca Wallace.
Questions and Answers
Will Matt Moore retain the starting quarterback job?
Moore played well during the five last games of 2009, amassing 1,053 passing yards and a 98.5 quarterback rating. While his yardage totals won't blow anyone away, he was very efficient throwing for eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also completed over 60% of his passes. Despite Moore's success, Jimmy Clausen was brought in to push him for the starting job. It seems likely that Moore will start the season under center, but how long will he keep his job if he gets off to a slow start? The Panthers are a very run oriented team, but don't be surprise if Clausen cuts into Moore's playing time as the season progresses.
Who will get pressure on the passer?
Tyler Brayton is a proven commodity at defensive end, and you can pencil him in for about five sacks this season. Everette Brown showed flashes during his rookie campaign, but the team will need him to dramatically increase his sack totals in 2010 if he's going to replace Julius Peppers' production from the defensive end spot. The young Brown should also get some help from rookie linebacker Eric Norwood.
How long will John Fox remain the head coach in Carolina?
Fox was on the hot seat for much of last season after the Panthers followed up an embarrassing postseason loss to the Cardinals with an opening day blowout courtesy of Philadelphia. The team's late season turnaround and the emergence of Matt Moore at the quarterback position may have saved his job for now, but what will happen if the Panthers get off to another slow start in 2010? Only owner Jerry Richardson knows the answer to that question.
Even on the road, this seems like the 49ers' game to lose. San Francisco's defense should be able to shutdown Carolina's offense, and they'll put up enough points to win this match-up.
The Panthers have a very solid running game, featuring the one-two punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Unfortunately for them, the 49ers are very stout against opposing rushing attacks. They only allowed an average of 97 rushing yards a game last season, good for 6th in the league.
Outside of their running game and Steve Smith, Carolina does not have much to offer on offense. I expect San Francisco will be able to outscore a rebuilding Panthers squad and pick up a victory on the road.