Panthers D looks strong once again

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Five observations from Carolina Panthers training camp, gleaned from the team's Aug. 2-3 practices:

1. It all starts up front
Despite finishing out of the playoffs in 2006, Carolina still had a defense that ranked No. 7 overall in the league. That's the unit's best position since it finished ninth in 2002, coach John Fox's initial season with the franchise. One problem, though, was Carolina's minus-5 turnover/takeaway differential, which was the seventh-poorest in the league. Carolina registered only 22 takeaways, and only three teams had fewer than that. Whether the Panthers will improve in that critical area this season remains to be seen, but at least in the early stages of camp, the defense has been dominant at times. As always with the Panthers, everything starts with their front four, and it remains a powerful and versatile unit. In a Thursday afternoon full-contact goal-line drill that lasted 10 snaps, the defensive line not only penetrated into the backfield often but also flashed pursuit skills and took on blockers, permitting linebackers to make stops, as well. Left end Julius Peppers, who figures to land a monster contract extension soon, appears geared up for a huge season. Tackle Kris Jenkins, who skipped all the voluntary offseason workouts, reported in surprisingly good condition, relatively speaking. And right end Mike Rucker, who underwent knee surgery just back in January, seems to have made a remarkable recovery, although he is still working in just one practice daily. Keep an eye on second-year end Stanley McClover, a seventh-round pick in 2006 who has added nearly 20 pounds to his once lean frame. The former Auburn standout has some upfield explosiveness and should be a factor in pass-rush situations.

2. O-line once again healthy
In last year's season opener, the offensive line lost two starters, left tackle Travelle Wharton (anterior cruciate ligament) and center Justin Hartwig (groin), for the year, and it never really recovered. The departure of Wharton was especially critical because some coaches privately felt he was the Panthers' best lineman. It also forced Carolina to move right tackle Jordan Gross to the left side, where he simply isn't as effective. General manager Marty Hurney has worked hard to build depth and, although the Panthers would have to scramble if one of their tackles went down with an injury, they have assembled a lot of interior players now. Jeremy Bridges, who was signed off the street last year because of the injuries and started 14 games at right tackle, is now the right guard. Left guard Mike Wahle is one of the best in the league. Geoff Hangartner, who started 15 games at center in 2006 after Hartwig went down, and third-year guard Evan Mathis are reserves now. Center Ryan Kalil of Southern California was a steal in the second round, one of the top linemen overall in the 2006 draft class, but looks undersized.