CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -The Carolina Panthers were long known for having a ferocious defensive line and an average back seven. That reputation lived on even as the front four's production noticeably slipped in recent years.
Now, after Mike Rucker's retirement and the offseason trade that sent Kris Jenkins to the New York Jets, reshaping the defensive line is one of Carolina's top priorities in this weekend's draft.
The Panthers recovered from their miserable 1-15 season in 2001 to reach the Super Bowl two years later behind a disruptive line that was the envy of the NFL. Julius Peppers and Rucker combined for 22, 19 and 23 sacks over a three-year span, while Jenkins helped bottle up the middle.
But the Panthers have missed the playoffs the past two seasons in part because of a nearly invisible and aging defensive line. Carolina had 23 sacks last year, second fewest in the league. Only 14 came from defensive linemen, including a career-low 2 1/2 from Peppers.
So after spending the past few years upgrading at linebacker and in the secondary, the Panthers have been busy blowing up their line this offseason.
Jenkins was sent packing after clashing with management over his weight and his contract. Rucker's emotional farewell Tuesday, while not unexpected, signaled the beginning of Carolina's youth movement. While his production had dipped, Rucker started 107 of 112 games over the past seven seasons.
``I've coached that position for a long time,'' defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said. ``It's rare for a guy, particularly at that position, to stay in one place.''
Rucker's departure almost certainly means the Panthers will address defensive end with one or more of their 10 picks in the draft.
The backup defensive ends returning from last year are Charles Johnson, who played in three games, and Stanley McClover, who had 12 tackles in 11 games. The Panthers signed Tyler Brayton last month, but he had only six sacks in five seasons with Oakland.
Speedy Derrick Harvey of Florida, who excelled at stopping the run and pass in college, could be the choice if he's still around when the Panthers use the 13th pick in the first round.
``We don't feel like we'll be out to lunch by any stretch if we don't get a defensive end,'' coach John Fox said. ``But if there's a guy there that we think can be better and we have highly rated right, wrong or indifferent, that's a potential.''
The Panthers plan to move Damione Lewis, a backup last season, to Jenkins' old spot at defensive tackle next to Maake Kemoeatu. But there is little depth after that. Last year's backup, Kindal Moorehead, wasn't re-signed and is now in Atlanta.
``I think we're probably thin in numbers, not necessarily in ability,'' Fox said. ``The two top guys we have there we feel good about and they've played a lot for us. There's no question that we'll be looking at that position, whether it be in the draft or in college free agency. And free agency isn't over yet.''
Fox then brought up how they were able to trade for Chris Harris in training camp last year. He became the anchor at strong safety and a symbol of how the Panthers' defense has evolved.
With Harris now signed to a long-term deal, and with Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall three starting caliber cornerbacks, the Panthers are in good shape in the secondary.
With Jon Beason coming off a tremendous rookie season teamed with Thomas Davis and free-agent pickup Landon Johnson, the Panthers look solid at linebacker.
It's the defensive line that's full of holes and questions.

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