When the Carolina Panthers reached the Super Bowl after the 2003 regular season, they looked like they had the game's next great defensive line, with pass-rushing ends Julius Peppers and Mike Minter flanking stalwart tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. Jenkins appeared to be the best interior defensive lineman in the sport.

But that, along with everything else, crumbled for Carolina last season as the Panthers continued the run of Super Bowl losers following up with a losing season. Jenkins got hurt. Minter was a non-factor, and the defense was less than imposing. Now the unit must deal with the loss of linebacker Mark Fields, who is sitting out the season because of a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease. He made the Pro Bowl last season after sitting out the Panthers' Super Bowl season.

Still, the defense should be solid, particularly if Jenkins is healthy again. Carolina bolstered its secondary by signing free agent cornerback Ken Lucas to a six-year, $36 million contract in the offseason. He is penciled in to start alongside Chris Gamble, a first-round draft pick last year, while Ricky Manning Jr. becomes the club's third cornerback. The Panthers got one of the draft's top defensive players by selecting Georgia's Thomas Davis with the 14th overall choice. He can play safety or linebacker and is capable of making an immediate impact at either position.

If the Panthers can get back to their 2003 formula of controlling games with their defense and running attack, they can be a top contender in the NFC again. Running back Stephen Davis is trying to return from microfracture knee surgery. If he can't make it all the way back, Carolina has DeShaun Foster as an alternative. Quarterback Jake Delhomme works behind an offensive line strengthened by the signing of free agent Mike Wahle. Steve Smith tries to reclaim his spot as the team's top wide receiver after missing all of last season because of a broken leg, with former Redskin Rod Gardner and second-year pro Keary Colbert around as complementary receivers as the Panthers look to compensate for the production lost when they released Muhsin Muhammad.

Defensive end Julius Peppers bolsters line.Running back Stephen Davis, above, is trying to come back from microfracture knee surgery, but DeShaun Foster remains an alternative.