Panthers counting on injured starters

Return of several players on injured reserve list could be key to team's performance next season

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 8, 2012 

Fans hoping for the Panthers to make a big splash in free agency might want to forget about those Mario Williams and Cortland Finnegan fantasies.

The Panthers' philosophy under owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Marty Hurney has been to build through the draft, re-sign the team's own key free agents and fill in the gaps with lesser-known players.

In Ron Rivera's first year as head coach, there has been little to suggest that approach has changed.

Besides a top-10 pick in the April draft - Carolina will pick either 8th or 9th based on a coin flip with Miami - the Panthers hope the biggest additions this offseason are starters returning from the injured list.

The Panthers (6-10) set a dubious franchise record in 2011 by placing 18 players on injured reserve, which included seven starters - five on defense and two on offense.

While the Panthers' strong finish - they won four of their past six games - and rookie quarterback Cam Newton's record-setting season have created a sense of optimism heading into the offseason, veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross wants to check the status of several of the injured players before making any bold predictions for 2012.

"I've got to see us healthy. That's the problem," Gross said this week. "We've got (18) guys on IR. It's crazy. There are guys on our roster that shouldn't be on our roster because 18 guys are hurt. So wade through all them and see who's ready to play."

The Panthers' most critical injuries were to defensive starters. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards, signed to be the interior run-stuffer the team has lacked, tore his biceps at the first training camp practice in Spartanburg.

Linebackers Jon Beason (Achilles surgery) and Thomas Davis (a third ACL surgery on his right knee in less than two years) went down the first two weeks of the season. Rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain were lost to season-ending leg injuries after Week 13.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn went on IR in Week 16 with a hamstring injury that is not considered serious.

Beason, the three-time Pro Bowler who signed a huge extension in July making him the game's highest-paid middle linebacker, vows he will come back from the injury stronger than before.

Davis also signed an extension, although the Panthers built protection into the deal by guaranteeing it for only one year. Hurney said he would like to keep Davis, but was noncommittal on whether the Panthers would restructure his contract.

Rivera indicated the Panthers would look to add depth at the position as insurance in the event Beason and/or Davis are not back at full strength. Their recoveries are among the most critical issues of the offseason.

"The defense had really improved as the season's gone on, and you've got two guys sitting in the training room that are Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers," said right guard Geoff Hangartner. "I think that'll be big."

Offensively, the Panthers will get two starters back when right tackle Jeff Otah and receiver David Gettis return from IR. Otah has missed 31 of the past 35 games with knee issues, but said recently he feels good after resting the knee for three months.

Gettis, a deep threat who had a promising rookie season in 2010, tore the ACL in his left knee at training camp. Gettis recently began running again and plans to participate in the team's offseason activities.

"Everything's going according to schedule," Gettis said. "I'm just ready to get this offseason going and get back on the field for OTAs."

Veteran wideout Steve Smith pointed to Gettis to illustrate his point about the unforgiving nature of the NFL. Smith was not referring only to injuries.

Smith said there were players who left Bank of America Stadium on Monday who won't be back next season because of their lack of production.

Smith said Rivera has instilled more of a put-up-or-get-out philosophy than John Fox.

"I think they're going to plug some holes and not avoid some of the things that in the past has gone on. Just really attack it and say, 'Hey, we need to get better in these areas. And we're going to get better. And if you're not willing to work, you're not going to be here,' " Smith said.

"I respect coach Fox, but I also know sometimes (Fox was) running around it or sugar-coating it when there's a direct need," Smith added. "(Rivera) said, 'Hey, we're going to change. And if you don't change, you won't be with us.' "

Smith has guaranteed the Panthers will make the playoffs next season in Rivera's second year. Beason was even more enthusiastic, suggesting the Panthers could contend for a Super Bowl title in 2102.

"I don't like to make bold statements. I like to let my play back it up. But I'm definitely anxious to get back out with the guys," Beason said. "We have a lot of young guys coming off injuries. Next year is our year."

Gross, the Panthers' longest-tenured player besides Smith, was more cautiously optimistic - mainly because of the injury situation.

"I want to get a full deck of cards and see where we are next season," Gross said. "But I'm excited about what we can do."

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