Christian McCaffrey and the Panthers embark on a complete rebuild under new head coach Matt Rhule
In many ways, the 2020 Carolina Panthers will look a whole lot like the franchise's very first team.
That was in 1995, when the Panthers fielded an expansion team in which everything was new. That's what this year will feel like, as the Panthers have a new head coach (Matt Rhule, replacing Ron Rivera), a new quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater, in for Cam Newton) and very few of their iconic players left.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly surprised everyone by retiring in early 2020. Tight end Greg Olsen was released and signed with Seattle. The Panthers tried to trade Newton, failed and ultimately released him.
The undisputed face of the franchise is now running back Christian McCaffrey, one of the few recognizable players on a team that blew nearly everything up after losing its final eight games of 2019 to finish 5–11. Carolina tried to rebuild the offense via free agency and then the defense via the draft, where the Panthers chose seven defensive players and none on offense — the first time that has happened since the common draft era began in 1967.
Newton quarterbacked the Panthers from 2011-19 but was injury-prone during his final two seasons. Bridgewater, 27, is not nearly the runner that Newton was in his prime, but his accuracy may be better, and he went 5–0 starting for New Orleans in 2019. The Panthers wanted him in part because new offensive coordinator Joe Brady overlapped with Bridgewater for a year with the New Orleans Saints and was impressed with Bridgewater's work habits.
A word about Brady: He's only 30, and the Panthers gave him big money to lure him from LSU. Brady loved to get five guys out into the pass pattern in college, and his creativity will be fun to watch this season as the Panthers are giving him a blank slate.
The Panthers' likely second-string quarterback, P.J. Walker, comes from the XFL and before that was Rhule's quarterback at Temple. He's athletic but small (5'11"). Will Grier, Carolina’s third-round pick in 2019, was very ineffective in two starts last season.
Bridgewater's best weapon will be McCaffrey, currently the NFL's best running back, a fantasy football godsend and a guy who could start at wide receiver for many NFL teams, too. Throwing a swing pass to McCaffrey was the team's best offense last season, but it would be wise not to use him quite as much in 2020 given the $64 million long-term deal (it runs through the 2025 season) he just signed that made him the NFL's highest-paid running back.
DJ Moore is the team's No. 1 receiver — a YAC specialist who had 1,175 receiving yards in 2019. Robby Anderson was Carolina's most expensive free-agent signing besides Bridgewater and should add some speed and productivity to the No. 2 spot. Curtis Samuel was inconsistent in 2019 and will likely be demoted to the No. 3 role, where perhaps his speed will be more noticeable against other teams' No. 3 cornerbacks. At tight end, Carolina needs Ian Thomas — who is athletic but has had a problem with drops — to step up in Olsen's absence.
The offensive line, which was generally poor in 2019, didn't get enough help in the offseason. It has a new left tackle in Russell Okung, but to get him required trading the Panthers' best O-lineman for most of the past several years — guard Trai Turner — to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Center Matt Paradis gets paid a lot but had a disappointing 2019 and allows pressure up the middle far too often. Taylor Moton is a bright spot and will probably play right tackle again. The guard spots are up for grabs. Dennis Daley and Greg Little were underwhelming as rookies but will have a chance for playing time. New free agent John Miller may start. O-line is a place where an undrafted free agent or two will likely make the team.
Carolina will switch back to a base 4-3 defense under Rhule and new defensive coordinator Phil Snow, whom Rhule brought with him from Baylor. The Panthers defense has an obvious Job One: Learn how to stop the run again. In 2019, Carolina gave up a staggering 31 rushing touchdowns, which not only was the most in the NFL but also was the most since the 2008 Detroit Lions (who went 0-16) — and that was with Kuechly.
The Panthers' defensive front could have a "KK and the Kids" vibe: defensive tackle Kawann "KK" Short returns from injury, and No. 1 draft pick Derrick Brown will likely start alongside him on the inside. Second-year defensive end Brian Burns (7.5 sacks in 2019), rookie DE Yetur Gross-Matos and rookie DT Bravvion Roy (another former Baylor Bear) should all see extensive playing time. Rhule says he is "very, very high" on Efe Obada, who will continue to see more playing time on the outside. Free-agent signee Stephen Weatherly may start after being a reserve on a good defense in Minnesota.
At linebacker, Kuechly leaves an enormous hole. Carolina re-upped with outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, who could be on the verge of emerging as a star. Veteran Tahir Whitehead won't be nearly as explosive as Kuechly but is a heady player who can at least get the youngsters lined up. Jermaine Carter Jr. will probably have the edge at the third linebacker spot, although in many cases the Panthers will play a 4-2-5 alignment, given the pass-first offenses of the NFC South. The nickel cornerback could be third-round pick Jeremy Chinn, a hybrid player who comes in as a safety but was drafted in part to cover tight ends over the middle.
The defensive secondary has been largely remade. Speedy cornerback Donte Jackson returns, Eli Apple was signed in free agency, and the Panthers opted for ballhawk safety Tre Boston over run-stopper Eric Reid, who was released. So there will be at least two new starters. Juston Burris will likely be one at safety, while rookie Troy Pride Jr. — a fourth-round pick with speed similar to Jackson's — will have a great shot at the other corner due to the departure of high-priced free agent James Bradberry to the New York Giants.
There will be a battle for placekicker, as 11-year veteran Graham Gano — who has missed 20 games to injury in the past two years — tries to hold off Joey Slye. Slye has a very big leg, made a franchise-record eight field goals of 50 or more yards in 2019 and is a much cheaper option than Gano. But Slye also struggles with accuracy sometimes and missed seven field goals in 2019.
Punter will be more straightforward, as lefty Michael Palardy returns after a solid 2019. Pharoh Cooper will likely handle both punt and kickoff returns, a place where Carolina has struggled. Cooper was a Pro Bowl returner with the Rams in 2017.
Rhule got a seven-year contract from Panthers owner David Tepper, and no one is really expecting him to win a lot in his first year. It's all about the "process," Rhule is fond of saying, even though he knows people cringe at the word because "it sounds so boring." At both Temple and Baylor — Rhule's two successful college reclamation projects — it took until Year Three before Rhule got things going the way he wanted. Tepper has acknowledged that Rome wasn't built in a day.
The Panthers are in a transitional situation in 2020, likely to finish at the bottom of the NFC South again but with enough weapons on offense to make games interesting. Don't be surprised if the Panthers end up in a number of 34–31 shootouts. Still, this is a team that is at least a year away, and maybe two, from serious playoff contention.