As the Carolina Panthers celebrate their 15th birthday as an NFL franchise today, here's a look at the top 15 players in team history:
1 STEVE SMITH, WIDE RECEIVER: Quarterback Jake Delhomme calls him a rocket because of his speed and game-breaking ability. Smith is easily the most explosive offensive player in team history. He holds the team record with 47 career touchdowns – 39 on pass receptions, two rushing, two on kickoff returns, and four via punt returns.
2 JULIUS PEPPERS, DEFENSIVE END: Selected No. 2 overall in the 2002 draft, Peppers has been the centerpiece for the defense throughout the John Fox coaching era. He is probably the most athletically gifted defensive end in the NFL today. Though he's had times when he seemed to disappear, especially last season, he holds team records for career sacks (60) and forced fumbles (21).
3 SAM MILLS, LINEBACKER: No player more embodies the type of player and person Panthers' management wants on the roster. Mills played in the franchise's first three seasons and is the only player in the Panthers' hall of honor, with a bronze statue erected in his likeness outside the stadium. He died of cancer in 2005 while serving as the team's linebackers coach.
4 WESLEY WALLS, TIGHT END: Many Panthers fans long for the day when the team has a star tight end again. Walls set a standard that will be difficult to match. A four-time Pro Bowler, he was a cowboy-style competitor who had a knack for scoring (44 touchdown receptions).
5 MUHSIN MUHAMMAD, WIDE RECEIVER: It's fitting that he was able to return to Carolina this season after spending the past three years with the Chicago Bears. Muhammad, picked by the Panthers in the second round of the 1996 draft, is the most physical receiver in team history. He holds club records for pass receptions (610), receiving yards (8,220), touchdown catches (46), and 100-yard receiving games (28).
6 JAKE DELHOMME, QUARTERBACK: He had never been an NFL starter before arriving in 2003 and leading the Panthers to a Super Bowl. He is one of the most irreplaceable players the team ever has had. He holds team records for passing yards (15,488), touchdown passes (104), and 300-yard passing games (9).
7 KEVIN GREENE, DEFENSIVE END: The NFL's all-time sacks leader among linebackers played three seasons here (1996, '98-'99), totaling 41 1/2 of his 160 career sacks with the Panthers.
8 KRIS JENKINS, DEFENSIVE TACKLE: There may not have been a better defensive tackle in the NFL than Jenkins in 2002 and '03. He dominated those two seasons, was injured the next two years, then returned to make his third Pro Bowl in 2006 when injuries eliminated candidates on other teams. A bit of a malcontent, he wore out his welcome and was traded to the New York Jets on Feb. 29.
9 STEPHEN DAVIS, RUNNING BACK: He had the best season ever by a Carolina runner (1,444 yards) in 2003 and helped lead the team to the Super Bowl. He had four of the franchise's top eight single-game rushing performances, but joined the team late in his career and was slowed by injuries after '03.
10 MIKE RUCKER, DEFENSIVE END: A model citizen and player, Rucker had nine or more sacks for four consecutive seasons (2001-04) and ranks second in team history behind Peppers with 55 1/2 career sacks. He retired after last season.
11 JORDAN GROSS, OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Now called “The Franchise” by teammates, Gross is clearly the best offensive linemen in team history. He has started all but one game in 5 1/2 seasons and has excelled playing left and right tackle.
12 JOHN KASAY, KICKER: The lone remaining member of the original 1995 team, Kasay has been the Panthers' kicker for all but two seasons when he was sidelined by injuries. He has made nine game-winning field goals for Carolina and is the team leader in games played (179) and points scored (1,208).
13 DAN MORGAN, LINEBACKER: Concussions and other injuries cut short the promising career of a middle linebacker who, when healthy, was one of the NFL's best. He still has more starts (59) than any Carolina linebacker, and his 452 tackles rank third in team history. He was superb in Super Bowl XXXVIII, recording 25 tackles in the Panthers' 32-29 loss to New England.
14 MIKE MINTER, SAFETY: It's somewhat surprising that he never made the Pro Bowl. He was a model of consistency, leadership and class, ranking as the team's career leader in tackles (953), consecutive games started (91), fumble recoveries (9) and interceptions returned for touchdowns (4).
15 MICHAEL BATES, KICK RETURNER: Though he played special teams, Bates was an elite kickoff returner. He was selected to the Pro Bowl five times (1996-2000), returned five kickoffs for touchdowns and had a 25.7-yard career average on kickoff returns. No other Panthers player has matched that average since he left.
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