The Carolina Panthers are deep into a rebuilding process, with their blueprints, bricks and mortar spread all over a messy job site in Charlotte.
That’s what happens when you go 5–11 two years in a row. Since owner David Tepper bought the team in 2018, the Panthers have changed their head coach, general manager and starting quarterback (twice) while going 17–31.
That’s not what Tepper had in mind, and the billionaire has turned over much of the organization in search of a winning formula.
This year’s team features another new quarterback in Sam Darnold, who replaces Teddy Bridgewater, who replaced Cam Newton. The Panthers traded three draft picks for Darnold in April and hope the former New York Jet can find a groove that eluded him in three years at New York, where he went 13–25 as a starter.
The return of running back Christian McCaffrey from injury should help things along, as should the emergence of a young defensive core led by end Brian Burns and do-it-all defender Jeremy Chinn.
Despite a contract that was difficult to get out of, the Panthers decided to move on at quarterback, trading Bridgewater away for only a sixth-round pick on the eve of the 2021 NFL Draft. Darnold, who will only be 24 when the 2021 season begins, will be the Panthers’ most studied player this season. Carolina traded for him in large part because of what head coach Matt Rhule calls “arm talent,” plus a belief that the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft never had the best chance to show off his skills with the woeful Jets and that a change of scenery is just what the doctor ordered. Darnold’s near 1:1 TD/interception ratio in New York will have to be significantly improved as offensive coordinator Joe Brady tries to keep Darnold from “seeing ghosts.”
Wide receiver Robby Anderson was a favorite target for Darnold early in the quarterback’s Jets career, and the quarterback will be glad to be reunited with Anderson and see him streaking down the sideline. Both Anderson and run-after-the-catch specialist DJ Moore had 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Panthers in 2020, and together they form one of the more underrated starting WR pairs in the NFL.
Rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. and former Seattle wideout David Moore will give Darnold a couple more targets in the slot, each with big-play ability as they try to replace the productive Curtis Samuel.
Carolina has never really figured out what to do at tight end in the post-Greg Olsen era, but free agent Dan Arnold will at least have a chance to be productive in the passing game. Rookie Tommy Tremble will begin as a blocking specialist in short-yardage situations. Ian Thomas, who has athletic gifts but has struggled with drops, will probably start.
McCaffrey, when he’s healthy, is arguably the NFL’s most elusive back and needs to touch the ball 20-25 times per game. He scored six touchdowns last season in only three games and is a fantasy football stud. But McCaffrey missed the other 13 games in 2020 with a variety of injuries and will be intent on showing durability this season. Speedy rookie Chuba Hubbard will spell McCaffrey.
The offensive line, as usual, is the biggest question mark. So yet another overhaul has taken place in the offseason. Right tackle Taylor Moton is the best offensive lineman and agreed to a four-year, $72 million contract extension ($43 million guaranteed) in mid-July, beating the deadline for franchise-tagged players. Center Matt Paradis is the aging leader of an iffy group that will likely start a mishmash of veteran free agents (Cameron Erving, Pat Elflein and John Miller) and possibly third-round draft choice Brady Christensen, who started 38 games at left tackle at BYU. Tackle Greg Little, an injury-riddled disappointment so far, will get one more chance.
Carolina has begun to assemble a unit that may not scare anyone yet but at least will draw a modicum of respect in 2021. The Panthers are basing the defense around a nucleus of young players — Carolina led the NFL in 2020 in tackles made by rookies (287).
The Panthers hope their newest rookie defensive standout will be press cornerback Jaycee Horn, the No. 8 overall pick of the 2021 draft and the son of former 12-year NFL wide receiver Joe Horn.
Horn is likely slated to start from Day One opposite the speedy Donte Jackson at corner. In an NFC South filled with great QBs and wideouts, the Panthers may finally have enough talent in the secondary to play man-to-man instead of the soft zone they played so often in 2020. Carolina hopes to get off the field more on third down; it allowed a 49.2 percent conversion rate on third down in 2020, which was 31st in the NFL.
Hybrid linebacker/safety Chinn was a revelation in 2020, finishing second to Washington’s Chase Young in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Chinn scored two defensive scoop-and-score touchdowns only 10 seconds apart in his most memorable game as a rookie and will be used more often as a safety this season as the Panthers try to keep the wear and tear on one of their best players to a more manageable level. Like Chinn, defensive tackle Derrick Brown made various all-rookie teams in 2020 and is another strong building block. Brown’s specialty is run defense, and he’s going to get better.
Defensive end Brian Burns, he of the “Spider-Man” sack celebration, is another standout edge rusher. He’s had 16.5 total sacks his first two seasons but has yet to break into double digits for a season, a personal goal. He has improved dramatically against the run.
Burns should be helped in his sack quest this season by the addition of edge rusher Haason Reddick, who had 12.5 sacks for Arizona in 2020. At 235 pounds, Reddick, who played with Anderson for Rhule at Temple, is undersized but effective. Yetur Gross-Matos also had some good moments last year as a rookie and will have a chance to start.
At middle linebacker, the Panthers are still trying to figure out how to replace Luke Kuechly. Denzel Perryman will be the latest to try; he’s fast but injury-prone. Weakside linebacker Shaq Thompson is the defensive leader and cleans up a lot of mistakes.
The rest of the defense needs work, as the Panthers try to fill gaps with one-year contract players or youngsters who haven’t proven themselves yet. But defensive coordinator Phil Snow, Rhule’s longtime collaborator, has the head coach’s total trust to figure it out.
Placekicker Joey Slye has a strong leg but he struggled during training camp and in the preseason and lost the job to Ryan Santoso, who the Panthers acquired from the Giants. Punter Joseph Charlton is good at not kicking the ball into the end zone, with only three touchbacks in all of 2020. Carolina made the unusual move of drafting a long snapper in the sixth round, as former Alabama snapper Thomas Fletcher will try to displace longtime Panthers long snapper J.J. Jansen. Rookie Shi Smith’s first opportunity to contribute will likely be as a returner.
Much depends on McCaffrey’s successful return. When No. 22 is healthy and running all over the field, the Panthers are a far different team.
But even more depends on Darnold, whom the Panthers traded for after losing out in the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes and now have a serious monetary investment in the 2022 season. If Darnold is able to avoid the big turnover and push the Panthers to a couple of fourth-quarter wins, this has the look of a team that could finish 9–8 or maybe 10–7 and try to compete for a wild-card berth in the difficult NFC South. If Darnold falters and/or McCaffrey gets hurt again, the Panthers will likely stumble to their fourth straight losing season. Carolina’s roster is undeniably better, and it had a fine 2021 draft, but the building project may still be a year from completion.