Carolina Panthers NFL Season Preview: Can a rebuilding team actually contend?

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With the Carolina Panthers going through a transitional period, James Williamson assesses their current roster and their chances ahead of the 2020 NFL season.

The Carolina Panthers are going through a transitional period. After finishing fourth in the NFC South for the second time in four years, the Panthers decided to clean house. Gone are former MVP quarterback, Cam Newton, long-time starting tight end, Greg Olsen, future Hall of Fame defensive end, Julius Peppers, former defensive player of the year and all-pro linebacker, Luke Kuechly, and eight-year head coach, Ron Rivera. Several key players are returning for Carolina, which should help, but the Panthers have a long road ahead of themselves if they want to make the playoffs.

Former Baylor head coach, Matt Rhule, is now calling the shots in Carolina. He’s got himself a new QB, a lot of weapons returning on offense, and a whole bunch of new pieces to groom on the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers have the pieces to potentially contend, but it will be difficult in a loaded NFC South. A Wild Card berth isn’t impossible, but a top-ten draft pick seems like a much likelier future for this team.

Quarterback

The Panthers signed former Saints back-up QB, Teddy Bridgewater, to a three-year, $63 million contract to take over the team’s starting job. Bridgewater had success in limited starts last season, going 5-0 with a 9-1 touchdown to interception ratio. While the QB was productive in New Orleans last season, it’s safe to wonder what his ceiling is in Carolina. Bridgewater is an accurate QB, but rarely shows the arms strength necessary for pushing the ball down the field. He’s become known as more of a check down Charlie, mostly working in the short to intermediate part of the field, which could work well in the Panthers offense considering all of the weapons surrounding him.

The important question though is, can Bridgewater play and entire 16-game schedule. The quarterback is most well-known for the freak non-contact knee injury he suffered while playing for the Vikings. The QB nearly lost his leg and missed two full seasons before he was able to get back onto the field. Seeing him perform well for the Saints was one of the feel-good stories of last season, but that was only over a five-game stretch, can he do it for a full season? Bridgewater’s back-up has yet to be decided. Former third-round pick, Will Grier, and XFL star, PJ Walker, are currently duking it out in a QB competition. Grier struggled as a rookie but has shown some improvement in camp. Walker is Rhule’s former starting quarter back at Temple University, so the two have a long-standing connection. Walker is the more talented QB, but Rhule has admitted the competition will likely carry over into the regular season.

Running Back

Arguably the best running back alive, Christian McCaffrey is returning to the Panthers a much richer man after signing a four-year, $64 million deal this offseason. McCaffrey had himself a historic 2020 season, in which he rushed for 1,387 yards, while catching 116 passes for 1,005 yards with 19 total TDs, but can he do it again? History says, no. It’d be tough to have another

15 rushing TD season, so there will likely be some regression in terms of scoring output, but his yardage totals could reach similar marks. The Panthers offensive line went through some changes over the offseason, but McCaffrey is still the focal point on offense, and they will likely lean heavily on the back. Considering Teddy Bridgewater’s propensity for throwing the ball short, McCaffrey should still see a healthy amount of passes out of the backfield.

Backing up McCaffrey is running back, Mike Davis. Davis has been a journey man for most of his career, spending time with the Niners, Seahawks, and Bears over the past five seasons. The once promising college prospect has had a solid career to this point and operates mostly as a change of pace back, although he didn’t see much playing time last season in Chicago. Davis probably won’t see the field much, unless McCaffrey gets hurt. McCaffrey has yet to miss a game in his NFL career, but considering his workload over the past two seasons, 729 total touches, and his heavy workload in college, the injury bug could be looming.

Wide Receiver

This is by far the Panthers biggest position of strength. They return both of their starting receivers from a year ago, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, plus the addition of free agent, Robby Anderson. All three receivers have big play potential. Moore is a traditional, all-around play making wide receiver. He can make plays in the air and he can make plays before and after the catch, he’s a truly dynamic wide receiver. Going into his age-23 season, Moore could be in store for a breakout year. Robby Anderson is one of the league’s better deep threats at the wide receiver position. He comes into his first season in Carolina averaging 14.8 yards per catch over his four-year career. Samuel is more of a gadget player compared to the other two but offers his share of big play ability. He averaged 11.4 yards per reception last season, but his average depth of target was 14.6 yards, which could imply some bad QB play, giving Samuel some upside with Bridgewater.

The only question is if they have a quarterback who can get them the ball when they’re open. All three of the Panthers’ top receivers have the ability to make plays down the field, but Teddy Bridgewater rarely pushes the ball down the field. He averaged only 4.8 completed air yards per competition last season, which shows he was throwing the ball in front of the sticks a lot. Moore could thrive in this role as a productive YAC receiver, but the same can’t be said for the other two. If the Panthers want to get the most out of Anderson, they will need to throw the ball deep. Samuel has had himself a very quiet camp and many have speculated he could be a trade candidate, or worse, a cut down casualty.

Tight End

The Panthers tight end position could be bad this season. The team has a huge hole to fill after cutting long-time franchise tight end, Greg Olsen. In his place, Carolina projects to start Ian Thomas, a third-year player who has only played periodically whenever Olsen was injured. In his career, Thomas has 52 receptions for 469 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately, Thomas is picking up where Olsen left off and has already suffered a hyperextended toe in.

practice. He should be healthy in time for the regular season opener, but if not, Chris Manhertz would get the start. Manhertz is a former undrafted free agent who played basketball at Canisius College. Over five seasons, Manhertz has only six receptions and one TD. In fantasy football terms, barring a surprise breakout from Thomas, avoid the Panthers’ tight end position.

Defense

The Panthers made history this offseason as the first team in the common draft era to use all of their picks on defensive players. Of course, this doesn’t mean their defense will actually be any good. Last season, the Panther allowed the tenth most yards per game (374.5), the fourth most rushing yards per game (143.5), and the second most points per game (29.4). With the retirements of Julius Peppers and Luke Kuechly, this defense will be missing their defensive quarterback and veteran leadership.

The Panthers secondary was solid last season, and the addition of Eli Apple should help them maintain some type of status quo, but this defense will live and die by their rookie class. First round pick, Derrick Brown, is a huge addition to their defensive line and should help sure up the Panthers’ run defense, while providing some pass rushing ability. Other rookies like Yetur Gross-Matos and Jeremy Chin could work their way into starting roles by the end of the season. For the Panthers defense, developing their young draft picks will be the key to contention.

Win Record Prediction

Over/under: 5.5 wins (Draft Kings)

The Panthers have the pieces to field a competent team, but the playoffs will be a difficult goal to reach. Their offense has enough talent to give the team a solid floor, while the young players on defense, like Brian Burns, should be able to talk some major developmental steps. Life in the NFC South will make things very tough for the Panthers, however. The Saints, Falcons, and Buccaneers are all expected to have some of the best offenses in football, and the Panthers will have to face each twice. Outside of their own division, the Panthers have a fairly manageable schedule, although they will be facing a lot of solid offenses, which will be tough to overcome. The Panthers should be able to win about six to seven games this season.

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