CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -At least the football Jake Delhomme is throwing is the right color.
The Carolina Panthers quarterback successfully upgraded to a brown Nerf ball this week that is slightly heavier than the blue-and-green ball he started with a week ago. The work with the kid's ball is limited to about 20 10-yard throws four days a week.
Nearly four months after ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow, Delhomme is still far away from slinging a real ball between two defensive backs with a mammoth defensive lineman chasing him.
Yet Delhomme couldn't be happier. For the first time in almost three years, he is pain-free.
``It feels great,'' Delhomme said after a rehab session this week. ``Honestly, I feel absolutely great. I have no pain whatsoever.''
Delhomme is trying to become the highest-profile quarterback to return from what is often called Tommy John surgery.
thigh moved to his elbow to replace a failed ligament. Delhomme also had a painful bone spur removed and a torn muscle repaired in his elbow during the surgery Oct. 18.
For three months, Delhomme couldn't do anything but watch the Panthers finish a miserable season without him. About three weeks ago he started some weightlifting with dumbbells. Then last week he got to throw the lightweight ball while on a ``pitch count'' monitored by trainer Ryan Vermillion.
``Everything is going great,'' said Delhomme, who turned 33 last month. ``It's going pretty darn smooth, I must say.''
The past three years were rocky. Delhomme first started getting pain in his elbow during the 2005 season. He noticed it kept taking longer to warm up. It would get worse late in the season when he played in cold weather.
In the last two years, Delhomme had to limit himself in training camp.
``I'll be honest with you, I was kind of just going year to year,'' Delhomme said. ``My arm was starting to hurt more and more and I knew it wasn't going to get any better.''
Still, Delhomme got off to the best start of his career last fall. He had eight touchdown passes and one interception midway through Week 3 when Atlanta defensive end John Abraham came crashing down his elbow.
urgery less than a month later - something Delhomme thinks will prolong his career.
``You hear so many guys when they come back from a (knee ligament tear), they come back stronger,'' Delhomme said. ``Well, it's because you've done everything possible to get that leg stronger. You're working not only big muscles, but the little muscles around it and everything is firing. Hopefully that will be the case.''
Delhomme's value to the Panthers couldn't be higher after the disaster that followed his injury. Backup David Carr was ineffective. Carolina then turned to 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde before settling on undrafted rookie Matt Moore.
The three QBs combined for nine touchdown passes, one more than Delhomme had in 2 1/2 games.
Delhomme hopes to start throwing a real football in a couple of months. He insists he's in no rush.
``The reason I say that, it's February. The Pro Bowl just finished a few hours ago,'' Delhomme said. ``We have so much time. It's fun for me. From where I was at after the surgery to where we I'm at now, we're progressing daily. It's fun. It's a totally different offseason for me. It's actually refreshing for me.''
Delhomme talked with passion about Carolina erasing the memories of its 7-9 season. Delhomme expects many changes and believes he'll be ready for the start of training camp in late July.
``Without a doubt, but I don't want to be naive,'' Delhomme said. ``Who's to say my arm won't hurt a little bit in camp? Will it be the normal soreness from camp? Will it be the ligament and all that? I truly believe it won't.''
Notes: RB DeShaun Foster's days in Carolina could be numbered. Releasing Foster - who has never rushed for more than 897 yards in six fumble-plagued, injury-filled seasons - would clear up $4.75 million in salary-cap space. The Panthers are also entertaining any trade offers for Foster, who split time with DeAngelo Williams last season. ... Bonus figures were not available, but T Travelle Wharton's six-year deal with Carolina signed Thursday includes $21.6 million in base salary.

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