Team-By-Team Offseason Analysis

Today: Carolina Panthers

Next: Chicago Bears

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer

Offseason Recap

Panthers Coach: John Fox (entering 3rd season with team)

Players Released

Kevin Donnalley, G (retired) Mike Caldwell, LB Todd Steussie, T

Free Agents Lost

Jeno James, G (Miami) Reggie Howard, CB (Miami) Deon Grant, S (Jacksonville) Jermaine Wiggins, TE (Minnesota) Kevin Dyson, WR (San Diego) Greg Favors, LB (Jacksonville) Terry Cousin, CB (N.Y. Giants)

Free Agents Added

Jessie Armstead, LB (Washington) Adam Meadows, T (Indianapolis) Atrell Hawkins, CB (Cincinnati) Rod Walker, DT (Green Bay) Brandon Short, LB (N.Y. Giants) Travis Claridge, G (Atlanta) Terrance Shaw, CB (Oakland) Donald Hayes, WR (Jacksonville)

Free Agents Re-Signed

Kris Mangum, TE Tutan Reyes, G Jason Kyle, LS Kavika Pittman, DE Melvin Tuten, T Matt Willig, T

Draft Picks

Rd. 1 (No. 28 overall) Chris Gamble, CB, Ohio State

2 (62) Keary Colbert, WR, USC

3 (94) Travelle Wharton, T/G, South Carolina

5 (163) Drew Carter, WR, Ohio State

6 (196) Sean Tufts, LB, Colorado

7 (232) Michael Gaines, TE, Central Florida

Analysis

The biggest offseason moves made by the defending NFC champions thus far have revolved around rebuilding the offensive line that opened holes for tailback Stephen Davis and safe-guarded quarterback Jake Delhomme last season. Only one member of the line -- center Jeff Mitchell -- will start next season in the same spot as last season.

Kevin Donnalley retired, and fellow guard Jeno James signed with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent. Veteran left tackle Todd Steussie was a salary-cap cut. The Panthers, though, seemingly have managed to upgrade the unit. Jordan Gross moves from right tackle, where he was perhaps the NFL's most productive rookie last year, to left tackle, where he will protect Delhomme's blind side. Adam Meadows was signed to play right tackle after being released as part of the Indianapolis Colts' salary-cap purge, and the Panthers picked up unrestricted free agent Travis Claridge from the Atlanta Falcons to take over at one guard spot. The other starting guard likely won't be determined until training camp.

Davis has taken plenty of hits over the years and might not be able to duplicate his 1,444 rushing yards, but some Panthers opponents fear his explosive backup, DeShaun Foster, even more. Delhomme should be able to build on his postseason heroics, and Carolina rewarded top receiver Steve Smith with a contract extension that kept him off the restricted free agent market. Panthers officials say they don't plan to release wideout Muhsin Muhammad in June, but that could happen anyway if Muhammad doesn't rework a contract that pays him $4.4 million next season and counts $6.45 million against the salary cap. The Panthers have protected themselves if they do release Muhammad, drafting two receivers -- USC's Keary Colbert in the second round and Ohio State's Drew Carter in the fifth round -- and signing Donald Hayes as a free agent.

The imposing defensive line returns intact and Coach John Fox dipped into his New York Giants past to bring aboard linebackers Jessie Armstead and Brandon Short via free agency. The Panthers also have showed some interest in another former Giant, free agent safety Jason Sehorn, who wants to play next season even after a disappointing 2003 season with the St. Louis Rams. The Panthers lost two cornerbacks, Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin, in free agency, but signed Atrell Hawkins and Terrance Shaw as free agents and used their first-round draft choice on Ohio State's Chris Gamble. The Panthers might not catch as many breaks and win as many close games as they did last season, but it appears they will be formidable again.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Subhed

The Chicago Bears inquired last week about Cleveland Browns quarterback Tim Couch, but the Green Bay Packers apparently remain the front-runner to complete a trade for him. The Packers have continued negotiations with Couch's agent, Tom Condon, fas a precursor to a prospective trade for the former top overall draft choice. Couch would back up Brett Favre in Green Bay.

Subhed

The New York Giants were left still looking for a veteran quarterback to back up and mentor top draft pick Eli Manning when Neil O'Donnell informed the club on Monday that he wouldn't reconsider his retirement to play for the team. The Giants worked out free agent Damon Huard even before releasing Kerry Collins last week, and free agent Jeff Blake has expressed interest. But the Giants probably will wait until June to make an addition, meaning that Kurt Warner and Vinny Testaverde are possibilities.

Warner told NBC that the St. Louis Rams have given him permission to speak to other teams, pending his likely release next month, and he regards the Giants, Bears and San Francisco 49ers among his possible destinations . . . .

The Oakland Raiders appear to be Collins's best chance for landing with a team for which he would have a chance to start next season. The Raiders still have concerns about Rich Gannon's health and don't seem fully satisfied with backup Marques Tuiasosopo. Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells has said he doesn't envision signing Collins. The Cowboys perhaps will add Testaverde in June following his expected release by the New York Jets. Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick has said he's committed to Kyle Boller as his starter and believes that Collins probably will have a better opportunity elsewhere. The Arizona Cardinals could be a possibility for Collins, but Coach Dennis Green has said that Josh McCown is his starter.

Subhed

A USC athletic department spokesman said that the school is prepared to petition the NCAA to attempt to have wide receiver Mike Williams's eligibility restored if Williams is unable to enter the NFL this summer.

Williams and former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett were kept out of the April 24-25 NFL draft when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit granted the league's request for a stay of the February ruling by a federal judge that temporarily made Clarett and other college sophomores (like Williams) and freshmen and high school players eligible for the draft. The players remained ineligible when two U.S. Supreme Court justices denied Clarett's application for emergency relief to have the stay lifted.

Now the parties are waiting for the three-judge panel of the appeals court that granted the stay to rule on the NFL's appeal of the Feb. 5 decision by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin. But the judges said when they issued the stay that the NFL had a likelihood of success on the merits of its appeal.

Williams's agent, Michael Azzarelli, declined to say what Williams would do if the appeals court overrules Scheindlin, an outcome that likely would keep Williams and Clarett out of the NFL for another year.

"Until we get that ruling, there's nothing we can do," Azzarelli said in a telephone interview. "If they affirm the lower court ruling, the deal is over with. If they overturn it, we'll move forward . . . . I don't want to say at this point what we'd do because that only invites speculation."

The NFL has promised to schedule a supplemental draft to allow Clarett, Williams and other affected players to enter the league if the appeals court upholds Scheindlin's decision.

Azzarelli previously has said that legal action against the NFL would be likely if Williams is kept out of the league by court decisions in the Clarett case. He has said that Williams's NFL eligibility should be considered separately from Clarett's because Williams entered the draft only after the league set a new deadline for previously ineligible players to do so in the aftermath of Scheindlin's ruling. NFL officials have said they will keep Williams out of the league along with Clarett if they're legally able to do so because they warned Williams before he entered the draft that they would attempt to overturn Scheindlin's decision and would rule Williams ineligible if they were able to reverse the court decision.

Williams filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York before the draft, seeking an injunction to be included in the draft, but withdrew the suit just before the draft.

If Scheindlin's decision is overturned by the three-judge panel, Clarett could appeal to the full, 12-judge appeals court or to the Supreme Court.

Williams and Clarett currently are barred from returning to college football under NCAA eligibility rules, having entered the draft and signed with agents. But a school can petition the NCAA to try to have a player's eligibility restored. The case would go to an NCAA committee that oversees such matters.

Williams and Clarett would be eligible, under NFL rules, to enter the 2005 draft. NFL rules say that a player must be three years removed from high school to be eligible for the draft. Scheindlin struck down that rule, saying that it violated federal antitrust laws. But the NFL maintains in its appeal that Scheindlin erred, contending that its draft-eligibility rule should be exempt from antitrust scrutiny because it resulted from collective bargaining between the league and the NFL Players Association.