The Carolina Panthers enter the 2021 season with some high expectations. In an evolving NFC South, some have playoff expectations for Matt Rhule and company, coming off a 5-11 campaign in the 2020 season. The Panthers come in ranked 22nd in these power rankings.
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David Tepper has never been afraid of making moves for the better of the team. In December of 2020, Tepper fired Marty Hurney as the team’s general manager and replaced him less than a month later with Scott Fitterer. Fitterer had served as Seattle’s Vice President of Football Operations before being hired in Carolina.
With Fitterer now at the helm, he, Rhule, and Tepper made the offseason around one big focal point. That focal point was the quarterback position. Cam Newton wasn’t the same player in 2019 with the Panthers, which led to his release. Before last year, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to a frontloaded three-year contract. Bridgewater had perhaps the best season of his career last year, completing almost 70 percent of his passes for over 3,700 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Ultimately, the Panthers wanted to go in a different direction at the quarterback position.
Trading for Sam Darnold
With the Jets having the second pick, Darnold‘s time had ended in New York. Carolina sent a sixth-round selection in the 2021 draft and second and fourth-round selections in the 2022 draft to the Jets to get Darnold. With Darnold at the helm, the Panthers did right by trading Bridgewater to a team that he could potentially start on. Carolina paid most of his remaining contract in the trade to the Broncos for a sixth-round pick in the 2021 draft. Bridgewater will have a chance to start as he goes to battle with Drew Lock for the starting job in Denver.
Free Agent Period
With the quarterback situation figured out, the Panthers moved on to the open market and saw Curtis Samuel make his way to Washington to reunite with Ron Rivera. A lot of signings made by Carolina were a lot of lower-level ones as the Panthers wanted to make the most of the draft. Now that quarterback was figured out, the biggest need on the roster was along the offensive line. In a loaded offensive line free agent class, Pat Elflein and Cameron Erving were the two linemen that the Panthers signed.
Another influence on the offseason was improving the front seven. Carolina added Morgan Fox, Haason Reddick, Denzel Perryman, and DaQuan Jones. All four appear to be in the market for a fair amount of starting snaps for the 2021 season.
Along with the seven names already mentioned, A.J. Bouye and David Moore could have the most impact of any of the free agents signed by Carolina. Carolina quickly picked Bouye up following his release from the Broncos. He will likely start at one of the cornerback spots. Moore will be either the third or fourth receiver to start the year. He was a sleeper for the Seahawks last year, but under Joe Brady, Moore could see a career season.
A Draft Full of Moving
A lot of uncertainty surrounded the Panthers before the draft. Carolina was a prime trade-down spot due to the addition of Darnold and now not needing a quarterback. Many thought the Patriots would potentially trade up with Carolina in days leading up to the draft, but that ultimately didn’t happen. With the eighth selection in the draft, the Panthers took Jaycee Horn, who will immediately start at one of the boundary cornerback spots. With so many big-bodied receivers in the NFC South, Horn can match up with them well, thanks to his size.
On day two, the Panthers traded down not once but twice in the second round. When they were on the clock with the 59th pick, a familiar face was available for Brady. When Brady was the pass-game coordinator at LSU during their dominant championship run, he had been familiar with Terrace Marshall Jr. who ended up being the selection. With their second pick on day two, the Panthers decided to address the offensive line woes by adding BYU’s Brady Christensen, who has a chance to start at left tackle from day one for Carolina. With their final selection on the second day, the Panthers continued to help Darnold out by getting him a versatile piece at the tight end position. Tommy Tremble is a raw pass-catcher but an outstanding blocker from the tight end spot who could compete for the starting tight end spot.
Continuing with the offensive help on day three, the Panthers added a running back to compete for snaps behind Christian McCaffrey by adding Chuba Hubbard. After using four consecutive selections on the offense, the Panthers turned their attention back to the defense for the next two picks by adding Daviyon Nixon and Keith Taylor. Both could get plenty of playing time in their rookie campaigns. Deonte Brown, Shi Smith, Thomas Fletcher, and Phil Hoskins rounded out the draft picks.
- Overall – 79.21 (22nd)
- Offense – 79.92 (20th)
- Defense – 78.61 (20th)
- Coach and Culture – 81.25 (15th)
Quarterbacks – 75.5, 23rd (26 percent Overall, 39 percent Offense)
With Darnold at the helm, the Panthers now have two years to see what he has and if he’s the quarterback of the future. The Panthers did something the old regime the Jets had didn’t do, which was built around their franchise quarterback this offseason. Carolina has one of the best dual-threat running backs in the league, plenty of weapons for him, and a coaching staff that will make him feel comfortable and isn’t a complete liability, unlike Adam Gase. Darnold has shown a lot of potential, but the lackluster supporting cast around him in New York, along with the awful coaching, didn’t give him any favors at all. He could very well finish above this ranking, but also below it if it all comes crashing down in 2021 for the Panthers.
Behind Darnold, the Panthers have a lot of untapped potential at the quarterback spot. Former XFL MVP P.J. Walker is the backup to Darnold this year, and if Darnold were to go down, Walker could give them a chance to win games. Behind those two, Will Grier is still on the team, but the coaching staff doesn’t appear to have much faith in him since he was drafted in the third round a few seasons back.
Running Backs – 96, 1st (4 percent Overall, 5 percent Offense)
McCaffrey is one of the best running backs in the league. After posting a 1,000/1,000 season in 2019, McCaffrey only played three games for the Panthers last season. In those three games, McCaffrey touched the ball 76 times. He had 374 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns. McCaffrey is by far the best player on the Carolina roster and can turn games around all on his own. For fantasy football players, he is still one of the top choices of the board. He isn’t the best pure runner, but if McCaffrey gets a crease, he can take it to the house in an instant. Without him last year, the Carolina offense wasn’t the same, although Mike Davis produced for the offense but is no longer on the team.
Behind McCaffrey, there are plenty of young options for the Panthers to use. While Reggie Bonnafon and Trenton Cannon are veterans, the three young players on the remainder of the depth chart offer the most value to the Panthers. Hubbard would’ve been a potential first-round selection in the 2020 draft but returned to Oklahoma State for his senior year, which killed his draft stock. He fell to the fourth round, where the Panthers were more than happy to scoop him up to back up McCaffrey.
Rodney Smith played in seven games as an undrafted free agent last year and showed some promise. One name to watch out in the preseason is Spencer Brown, who went undrafted out of UAB. Brown was a sleeper by many on Draft Twitter. Some people even had him as a top-ten running back in the class.
Pass Catchers – 85.5, 14th (10 percent Overall, 16 percent Offense)
The Carolina receiving core has a lot of options and starts with one of the most underrated players in the NFL with D.J. Moore. The fourth-year pro has had over 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, but unfortunately, the touchdown totals haven’t been there for fantasy players as he only has had eight combined the last two years. With Darnold now at the helm, hopefully, those numbers go up. Thankfully, Darnold has a familiar face he can throw to this year with Robby Anderson. With Darnold in 2018 and 2019, Anderson had over 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. Anderson had his best season as a pro in 2020 in his first year in Carolina when he had his first 1,000-yard receiving campaign on 95 catches and three touchdowns.
Moore and Marshall will be the third and fourth receivers for Carolina this year. With Brady as the offensive coordinator, the Panthers will deploy many four-receiver sets most likely this year, and thankfully they have the personnel to do so. Moore had a great season last year as the third receiver for the Seahawks. He almost had 500 yards on 35 catches for six touchdowns. With Marshall at the helm, the Panthers can do just about anything with deploying their receivers. Marshall spent a lot of time in the slot during his time at LSU, but it is unknown who will spend the most time in the slot this year. DJ and David Moore could both be in the slot, but Brady will likely use all four in the slot.
Who Takes the Final Spots?
Smith was selected in the sixth round and could find some playing time in the slot and plays over Marshall in his rookie year as he is more refined in his route running. Smith has a clearer path to playing time than Marshall does in their rookie seasons. Brandon Zylstra, Omar Bayless, and Keith Kirkwood will likely be fighting for the last receiver spot.
The tight end group is a big competition between three players. Dan Arnold will likely start from day one due to his experience and sure hands. Along with that, Arnold is a solid blocker, but Tremble will get the nod in blocking situations as he is refined in that perspective. He will take some time to grow, but he is athletic enough to transition to the next level and find playing time over Arnold. Ian Thomas was once thought of as the successor to Greg Olsen but hasn’t shown he can do so. Stephen Sullivan is a blocking tight end from LSU that Brady was familiar with and will likely be fighting for the final tight end spot or a position on the practice squad.
McCaffrey is by far the best receiving back in the NFL, and it isn’t close. His 1,000/1,000 season wasn’t a fluke, and he almost did just that a few seasons ago as well. Of course, Darnold will benefit immensely, thanks to McCaffrey out of the backfield. Both Hubbard and Cannon can protect and catch the ball well as well.
Offensive Line – 75, 23rd (13 percent Overall, 19 percent Offense)
The offensive line drastically brings this grade down. Taylor Moton is a superstar right tackle who is going to play on the franchise tag this year. The Panthers would be wise to sign him to a long-term extension sooner rather than later as he is the only great starter on the offensive line. The only sure starter at any other position is Matt Paradis, who the Panthers gave a lofty contract to a few seasons ago. Other than those two, the other three spots are up for grabs for the Panthers.
Who Starts at Left Tackle and Both Guard Spots?
At left tackle, it comes down to Christensen, Erving, and Greg Little. Little was once a high draft pick that hasn’t worked out so far, and Erving has never lived up to his potential. Christensen will likely start, but there will be a lot of growing pains, and Darnold could once again be seeing ghosts early and often during the 2021 campaign. The Panthers handed out a large contract to Elflein, meaning he will likely start at left guard, while John Miller starts at right guard. Dennis Daley, Brown, and David Moore will be waiting in the wings for one or both of Elflein or Miller to struggle and step up to the plate and snag one of the starting jobs.
The offensive line as a whole isn’t good. Erving is at most a sixth man and swing tackle. Little could potentially start at one of the guard spots, but with the money the Panthers handed Elflein, that is doubtful. Carolina could have done better in focusing on the offensive line during the offseason and will be the top priority during the 2022 offseason.
Run Defense – 84, 12th (2 percent Overall, 5 percent Defense)
An area of concern for Carolina last year was their run defense, and they addressed that in the offseason. The addition of Jones as the second defensive tackle next to Derrick Brown is a welcomed addition that is an underrated one. Brown struggled during his rookie season last year with all of the unusual circumstances. Bravvion Roy and Nixon will rotate a lot of the time for Jones. Roy had some solid flashes last season, and Nixon was a draft darling of some in the draft community. Nixon was a great run defender during his time in Iowa and could be the future second defensive tackle next to Brown. Caraun Reid and Hoskins will battle for the final spot, but that spot should go to Reid as he is the more experienced player of the two, but the team could also keep both if they prefer.
On the edge, Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos aren’t the best run defenders, but they could both develop in this regard from 2020 to 2021. Burns would have to bulk up some more to be a better run defender, which gives up some explosiveness in his pass-rushing. Fox isn’t much of a run defender and will likely be a pure pass-rush specialist in Carolina. Marquis Haynes and Christian Miller aren’t anything special against the run.
The addition of Perryman gives the Panthers a run-stuffing middle linebacker that is a great veteran that is instinctive against the run. Last year, he was injured but was also playing in a rotation with other linebackers to keep him healthy. He is an upgrade, but the fact that he played fewer snaps last year and still got injured is a big concern. Shaq Thompson is a better coverage player than run-defender but is certainly no slouch against the run. Reddick and Jermaine Carter will likely rotate at the third linebacker spot.
Frankie Luvu, Julian Stanford, and Paddy Fisher will battle for snaps and roster spots this year. The Panthers use a lot of 3-3-5 under Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Carolina has enough personnel upfront to use the edge rushers at the second level instead of the first, which lets Carolina use one less off-ball linebacker. The Panthers mix on a lot of 4-3 as well.
Pass Rush – 79.5, 21st (12 percent Overall, 25 percent Defense)
Burns is one of the best young pass-rushers in the league. He was one of the best pass-rushers towards the end of the season last year, and expectations are sky-high for the third-year pro. He is a potential defensive player of the year candidate this year, and the league is very high on the young player. Gross-Matos is hoping for a lot of growth in his second year this season and is the complete opposite of Burns as Gross-Matos uses more power than speed. Burns had nine sacks last year alone, and Efe Obada, who the team didn’t re-sign, finished second.
Brown outproduced the expectations many had for him from a pass-rush standpoint. Fox will likely be the second defensive tackle over Jones on pass-rushing situations, but Jones could get some time from the pass-rush standpoint. Reddick comes off his best season as a pro and fits into the 3-3-5/4-3 defense that Carolina is implementing well and will be deployed in a variety of different ways. Haynes finished with four sacks last season and will be part of the rotation as well.
Carolina has many players to deploy in many different ways, and we haven’t even mentioned Nixon or Miller yet. Rhule and Snow will have to find ways to keep players fresh and get the most out of the unit.
Linebackers – 76.5, 23rd (5 percent Overall, 13 percent Defense)
Thompson isn’t as good of a run defender as he is against the pass, but he had a down year last year and should get back to himself this year. Perryman is a bit of an unknown considering his health, which could cause a rotation of Carter, Reddick, and of course, Jeremy Chinn. The linebacker room is solid.
Secondary – 78.5, 19th (13 percent Overall, 27 percent Defense)
Jackson has been a great cornerback, and the Panthers gave him a running partner with Horn as their first selection in the draft. Bouye will fit as the third cornerback. Troy Pride could be the slot cornerback if the Panthers don’t want to use one of the first three as the nickel cornerback. Rashaan Melvin was added in free agency and might not even make the team now. Stantley Thomas-Oliver, Myles Hartsfield, and Taylor will fight for playing time during the 2021 season. The biggest question here is how the first four and mainly the top three interact and the starter in the slot.
Chinn is a very interesting player to watch and had an excellent rookie season. He plays in a variety of different roles as a strong safety or bandit linebacker for the Panthers. There is still a lot of development for him, but Chinn is one of the most fascinating players in the league. The biggest weakness on the defense could be the free safety position, as Tre Boston isn’t employed. Juston Burris currently projects as the starting free safety, and the depth behind him isn’t great. Sam Franklin and Kenny Robinson are the other two fighting for that spot. Delano Hill is strictly a strong safety as well.
The Panthers got beat over the top a lot last season and look susceptible to the deep pass again this year with no free starting-caliber safety currently on the roster.
Coach and Culture – 81.25, 15th (15 percent Overall, 21 percent Offense, 30 percent Defense)
Brady won’t be the offensive coordinator for the Panthers in 2022 and will likely be the head coach for another team next year. For now, he is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league, and the offensive personnel the Panthers have makes the offense a scary one to look at, other than the offensive line. Carolina is on the verge of being a top-half offense if Darnold can show some of the flashes he did during his time in New York. There are still many young pieces offensively, but there is so much potential to be had.
With Rhule and Snow, the defense is going to perform better than it should. Overall, the defense is very young and is relying on a lot of development from players in key positions. The cornerback trio is great, and the young duo of Chinn and Burns gives the overall defense a lot of hope, but some of the question marks, specifically at free safety, bring the defensive grade down. There are multiple moving pieces defensively, but the Panther defense should manage to stay near the middle of the league.
The Panthers are banking on a lot of youth and development, which makes for an exciting team. Rhule and company won more games than many people thought with one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, including without their best player for 13 games.
The Panthers have an easy start to the schedule with games against the Jets, Saints, Texans, Cowboys, and Eagles to start the season. After that, things ramp up a bit with games against the Vikings, Giants, Falcons, and Patriots. The schedule is still easy towards the later part of the season, but with such a young team, there are bound to be losses somewhere along the way in many close games. Before their late bye week, the Panthers play the Cardinals, Football Team, and Dolphins before heading into their Week 13 bye. To round out the season, the Panthers have two games against the Bucs, a game against both the Saints and Falcons and a difficult game against Buffalo on the road.
According to Odds Shark, the Panthers have an over/under of 7.5 wins. While this is a bit difficult to predict, and if I had to say, there should be no bet here, but the over is a good play with how energized the team is and how they performed better than last year than expectations with a far worse roster. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Panthers were on the doorstep, or perhaps even in the playoffs.
Season Prediction: 6-11
*NOTE* Some teams higher in the rankings will have worse records than others. The rankings aren’t based upon the record but the overall talent of the roster.