BLUE-CHIP PLAYERS are irreplaceable.
NFL teams spend millions scouting and paying for true difference-makers.
Despite their 4-5 record, the Carolina Panthers entered this season with more blue-chippers than most teams.
The Panthers struggled early, losing their first three games, but finally have hit their stride the past three weeks to climb back into contention for a playoff spot.
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The Panthers are one of seven NFC teams with 4-5 or 5-4 records, all with hopes of landing a wild-card berth.
Even with a demanding schedule, Carolina is playing well enough to be taken seriously in the race. They've recently beaten Arizona (6-3) and Atlanta (5-4) and given New Orleans (9-0) a fight to the end.
The Panthers' big problem, however, is they're no longer fully stocked with their blue-chippers, losing linebacker Thomas Davis (knee) and left tackle Jordan Gross (broken ankle) to season-ending injuries the past two games.
It's hard to find a linebacker as fast, aggressive and well-suited for Carolina's scheme as Davis, who appeared headed to his first Pro Bowl.
Gross is an elite blocker, both in the run and pass games. He's in the prime of his career, making All-Pro last season.
By our count, losing Davis and Gross means a 28.6 percent reduction in the Panthers' blue-chippers. We define blue-chippers as ultra-gifted players with first-round talent who are starting and playing at a level among the best in the league at their positions.
We believe the Panthers still have five who are healthy: receiver Steve Smith, running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Julius Peppers, middle linebacker Jon Beason and right tackle Jeff Otah.
Further adding to the injury problem is the fact that Peppers apparently has a broken bone in his right hand that limited him to playing only in passing situations during Sunday's 28-19 victory against Atlanta.
Coach John Fox hasn't said how long Peppers is likely to be affected by the injury, but Carolina hardly can stand for it to be a long-term issue.
Even though the Panthers are closer than they've been all season to being a hot team, they're also fast becoming a depleted team.
Certainly, injuries are a part of football, but these are the kinds of injuries that hurt the most.
The Panthers can ill afford to lose any more of their very best players.
Panthers notes. The Panthers said Gross had successful surgery on his ankle Sunday night. He's expected to be placed on injured reserve. Team officials were said to be deciding Monday whether to fill his roster spot by signing an outside free agent or by promoting someone from the practice squad.
Because the Panthers play the Dolphins on Thursday, they had to turn in an injury report Monday despite not practicing. Only Gross was listed as definitely out of the game. It was estimated that four players wouldn't have practiced: fullback Brad Hoover (ankle), safety Charles Godfrey (ankle), defensive end Charles Johnson (pectoral) and running back Jonathan Stewart (Achilles).