The Carolina Panthers have been one of the most disturbingly consistent teams in the NFL over the past three years. The Panthers' win totals in 2019, 2020 and 2021? Five, five and five. That doesn't sit well with owner David Tepper, whose teams have gone 22-43 since he bought the franchise in 2018. Tepper kept head coach Matt Rhule around for 2022, even though the former college coaching star has gone only 10-23 in his first two NFL seasons. But the team must show substantial improvement in 2022 if Rhule is going to make it to Year 4.
The Panthers struggled tremendously on the offensive line and at quarterback last season. The line has been thoroughly overhauled. But after a brief experiment with Cam Newton 2.0 and a disastrous year with Sam Darnold, Carolina appears to be turning to the quarterback who was drafted two spots before him: Baker Mayfield. Neither 2018 draftees has totally clicked, hence why they were both traded after just a few years. But Carolina hopes the new and improved offensive line will help whichever QB ends up starting. An injury-free season for running back Christian McCaffrey would, too.
Darnold won his first three starts at Carolina in 2021 and then saw it all go south. McCaffrey got hurt again, the offensive line started 13 different combinations due to injuries and Darnold couldn't get out of his own head. Plus, the QB sustained a shoulder injury, which meant the Panthers tried to recapture the magic with Newton. That started with fireworks but quickly morphed into a series of bad losses, as Carolina, once 5-5, ended the season with seven straight defeats. Much of that was due to an often-embarrassing offense, which ended the year ranked 30th in yards and 29th in points.
Carolina tried hard to win the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes in the offseason but lost to Cleveland. Four months later — and after trading into the third round to draft Ole Miss' Matt Corral — that led to the Panthers trading a conditional fourth-rounder for Mayfield. Carolina is trusting that big-time arm talent remains for Mayfield or Darnold and the rest can be fixed by new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
Much of the offense's success will depend on McCaffrey, the dynamic, injury-prone running back who has missed 23 of the Panthers' past 33 games. McCaffrey alone changes everything about this offense — suddenly third downs are much easier to pick up and touchdowns easier to score. But his body has broken down the past two seasons, which means backup running back Chuba Hubbard — who had a respectable rookie year — will continue to get a significant amount of work.
Wide receiver DJ Moore, the team's most reliable pass-catching threat, has gone over 1,100 yards receiving in each of the past three seasons and is one of the NFL's best at running after the catch. Robbie Anderson is a deep threat who regressed in 2021 and has something to prove, as does second-year receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., whose rookie year was thoroughly unimpressive. The Panthers keep hoping for a breakout year from block-first tight end Ian Thomas, while second-year pro Tommy Tremble can make the occasional big play.
The offensive line will definitely be better. Returners Taylor Moton and Brady Christensen are supplemented by free-agent additions Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett (who started for the Rams) and first-round draft pick Ikem Ekwonu.
The Carolina defense is good enough that if the offense ever gets it together, the Panthers will become playoff contenders. Carolina's defense saw massive improvement in 2021, as it jumped to No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed per game, trailing only Buffalo. Much of that defense is back, led by a young core of Pro Bowl defensive end Brian Burns, safety Jeremy Chinn and cornerback Donte "Action" Jackson, who signed a lucrative offseason extension. Burns is the team's best pass rusher but will see more double-teams this season due to the departure of edge rusher Haason Reddick to Philadelphia for big money. Yetur Gross-Matos has shown flashes and could be in line for a breakout year at the other defensive end spot.
Veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson is a tackling machine and one of the team's leaders. Chinn, a dazzling hybrid who could conceivably start at linebacker but will stay at free safety, makes tackles over all the field.
Defensive coordinator Phil Snow is Rhule's security blanket and one of the most respected coaches on a staff that added two former NFL head coaches this year (McAdoo and new secondary coach Steve Wilks, who was one of the Panthers' defensive coordinators under Ron Rivera). Rhule will try to get more out of linebacker Frankie Luvu, defensive tackle Derrick Brown and cornerback Jaycee Horn, who should be a difference-maker after missing nearly the entire 2021 season with a broken foot. Luvu was an impact player in limited time last season, while Brown — Carolina's first-round draft pick in 2020 — had enough of a sophomore slump in 2021 that he was briefly benched for poor performance.
The Panthers remain high on Horn — he was the only player on a "no-trade" list for Carolina's front office at one point in the offseason — even though the son of NFL receiver Joe Horn has barely been on the field yet.
Where are the potential weak spots? The Panthers look relatively thin at linebacker and will need someone to emerge there, like veteran Damien Wilson or fourth-round draft pick Brandon Smith. Carolina's pass rush will need to find a second consistent threat besides Burns. Burns had nine sacks last season — he's still hunting for his first double-digit sack year — but no other returning Panther defender had more than 3.5 in 2021.
Kicker Zane Gonzalez came on in midseason of 2021 and was impressive enough that Carolina signed him to a new contract. Gonzalez hit 91 percent of his attempts (20-of-22) and was the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week twice. He doesn't have the booming leg of former kicker Joey Slye, but so far he's been more accurate.
New punter Johnny Hekker will be an upgrade after the Panthers used three players at the position in 2021. Hekker was the NFL's All-Decade Punter for the 2010s and averages 46.7 yards per punt over his career. A former high school quarterback, he's also adept at the fake punt, having gone 14-for-23 in the NFL as a passer.
The Panthers' fastest special teams acquisition in the offseason was 34-year-old Andre Roberts, who despite his age still has some burst and has been an All-Pro kick returner in three of the past four seasons. Roberts, who had a 101-yard kickoff return for a TD last year while with the Chargers, is expected to return both kickoffs and punts.
A trio of five-win seasons will place you firmly under the radar. But this is far from a terrible roster. McCaffrey was the NFL's best back in 2019, and he will still be only 26 when Week 1 rolls around. If healthy, he probably increases the Panthers' win total by two per season all on his own.
Quarterback remains the biggest question mark. In his last two seasons — 2020 with the New York Jets and 2021 with Carolina — Darnold has a total of 18 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions. At some point, it stops being about the fact he's been on some bad teams and starts being about the fact he makes some horrible decisions under pressure. Even Mayfield had nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his final six games with the Browns. But if the offensive line really is improved and protects the quarterback, and if McCaffrey stays healthy, then the defense and special teams are good enough to keep Carolina in every game.
The Panthers could contend for a record around .500 if they just start scoring more. Once they finally solve the quarterback quandary, the Panthers will look a whole lot better.