2021 NFL Team Previews: Carolina Panthers

2021 NFL Team Previews: Carolina Panthers

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers were competitive in coach Matt Rhule's first season but often fell short at the end of games. With a healthy Christian McCaffrey and the acquisition of Sam Darnold, Carolina hopes to have more firepower and make a legitimate playoff push in Rhule's second campaign.

Offseason Moves

Key Acquisitions

Gets a fresh start after a frustrating three years with limited support.

Projected starter who enjoyed a breakthrough 2020 in Arizona.

Confident rookie is expected to emerge as a top option early on.

Tall, athletic target with notable experience under OC Joe Brady.

Talented back who could develop into a viable understudy.

Key Losses

Dealt after serviceable but underwhelming lone season with the team.

Joins NFC South foe after filling in admirably for Christian McCaffrey.

Versatile threat leaves after his most productive campaign as a pro.

A Look Under the Hood

Head Coach: Matt Rhule (Year 2)

Offensive Coordinator: Joe Brady (Year 2) - Spread/West Coast Offense

Defensive Coordinator: Phil Snow (Year 2) - 4-3 scheme

2021 Vegas Projected Wins: 7.5 (T-22nd)

   

2020 Record: 5-11

2020 Points Scored: 350 (24th)

2020 Points Allowed: 402 (18th)

2020 Point Differential: -52 (23rd)

2020 Run-Play Rate: 41.0 percent (18th)

2020 Offensive Snaps: 993 (T-25th)

2020 PFF O-Line Ranking: No. 18

Full 2020 Team Stats

   

Projected 2021 Depth Chart

QB: Sam Darnold / P.J. Walker / Will Grier

RB: Christian McCaffrey / Chuba Hubbard / Rodney Smith / Reggie Bonnafon

FB: Mikey Daniel / Mason Stokke

WR1: Robby Anderson / Terrace Marshall

WR2: DJ Moore / Brandon Zylstra

WR3: David Moore / Shi Smith

TE: Dan Arnold / Ian Thomas / Tommy Tremble

O-Line: LT Cameron Erving / LG Pat Elflein / C Matt Paradis / RG John Miller / RT Taylor Moton  (RotoWire Rank: No. 32)

Kicker: Joey Slye

Full 2021 Depth Chart

Top Storylines

Another New QB in the Queen City

Upon being named Panthers coach in January 2020, Matt Rhule made the tough decision two months later to move on from franchise icon Cam Newton. To replace him at quarterback, Carolina signed Teddy Bridgewater from the division-rival Saints. Despite not being a full-time starter since 2015, Bridgewater initially performed well, throwing multiple touchdown passes in five of his first 10 games. But his play tailed off to close the campaign (just two such scores in his last five).

In search of a potential long-term option, new GM Scott Fitterer pulled the trigger on a trade for Sam Darnold this offseason, subsequently dealing away Bridgewater to the Broncos. In Darnold, the Panthers welcome a 23-year-old former third overall pick with three seasons of NFL experience. However, his time in the league thus far hasn't gone as planned, as injuries, inconsistency and a bad situation overall plagued him with the Jets.

Under offensive coordinator Joe Brady, the Panthers are hopeful Darnold finally comes through on his flashes of promise. With a fast and well-balanced supporting cast, the signal-caller's circumstances heading into this season look to be an upgrade. Of course, he'll need to familiarize himself with a new offense, but Darnold should like his chances of improving his career 45:39 TD:INT while winning more games in Carolina.

McCaffrey Is Back To Spearhead the Offense

In 2019, Christian McCaffrey racked up the third-most yards from scrimmage in a single season in NFL history. With 1,387 yards on the ground and 1,005 more through the air, he also became just the third player to top the 1,000-yard plateau in both categories in a campaign. For good measure, McCaffrey ranked second league-wide in receptions (116) and tied for first in total touchdowns (19).

Such ridiculous production made it even more devastating when he managed to play only three games in 2020 amid a high right ankle sprain, AC joint injury in his right shoulder and a quad issue. With McCaffrey out, the team lacked its offensive catalyst. However, now that McCaffrey is healthy, he'll team with Sam Darnold, two 1,000-yard wide receivers from last year and a number of other newcomers.

DJ Moore and Robby Anderson are the aforementioned pass-catching duo, with three such seasons between them. Beyond that quartet, the skill positions are rounded out by free-agent additions (wideout David Moore and tight end Dan Arnold) and 2021 draft picks (second-round receiver Terrace Marshall and fourth-round back Chuba Hubbard). But having McCaffrey available is key for the success of the Panthers offense. As long as he's firing on all cylinders, Darnold and company will have an easier time making it all work.

Snow Building Ahead of Second Season

Brought in alongside Matt Rhule from Baylor last season, defensive coordinator Phil Snow took over a fresh-faced unit with the Panthers. With rookies and second-year players occupying important roles, Snow's group learned on the fly but held its own over the course of the campaign. Carolina ranked right around the league average in yards (360.1) and points (25.1) allowed per game, improving significantly from 2019's porous defense.

Naturally, that modest upswing also came in spite of five-time All-Pro Luke Kuechly retiring last offseason. With Kuechly's big shoes to fill, Snow empowered rookie safety Jeremy Chinn, whose versatility complemented linebacker Shaq Thompson, and both players topped 100 tackles. In front of them, 2020 first-rounder Derrick Brown gradually emerged as a threat with 2019 top pick Brian Burns, who posted nine sacks in his second season.

Although the cornerbacks at times were underwhelming, 2021 eighth overall selection Jaycee Horn should help the back end, and free-agent additions Haason Reddick, Denzel Perryman and A.J. Bouye offer further insurance at each level. That collection of rising and established talent as Snow himself grows in the job makes for an exciting outfit. After last year's development, the Panthers defense could become even more fierce in the fall.

Barometer

⬆️  Rising: QB Sam Darnold

Darnold disappointed during his time with the Jets, but his setting now appears far more favorable. In a creative scheme and with weapons like Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and DJ Moore, Darnold could blossom

⬇️  Falling: TE Ian Thomas

Despite being trusted with a starting role last season, Thomas quickly became an afterthought. He enters the final year of his rookie contract having seen the Panthers sign Dan Arnold to lead their tight-end group.

😴  Sleeper: WR Terrace Marshall

Standing nearly 6-3 with 4.4 speed, Marshall represents a big-bodied receiver to complement Anderson and Moore. In one season under coordinator Joe Brady in college, Marshall scored 13 times as a third receiver.

🌟  Pivotal Player: Christian McCaffrey

Whereas McCaffrey went into last year fresh off a rare campaign with 1,000 yards as both a rusher and receiver, the running back approaches the upcoming season striving to return to his All-Pro best. Injuries restricted him to only three appearances in 2020, so he should be eager to take the field and reclaim his superstar status.

Medical Tent

RB Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey unfortunately couldn't offer much of an encore to his historic performance in 2019, as a pesky ankle injury sidelined him early before a pair of issues surfaced later on. In making just three appearances last season, he left a huge void in the Panthers offense, but by June he reported to being back to 100 percent. Still just 25 years old, McCaffrey hadn't missed a game prior to 2020, so he'll aim to reclaim his every-down role and status among the league's elite playmakers while once more proving his health.

RB Reggie Bonnafon

After serving as McCaffrey's backup in 2019, Bonnafon featured in only two games last year before suffering an ankle injury of his own. That sadly prevented Bonnafon – who has averaged 6.6 yards per carry in his brief career – from vying for snaps in McCaffrey's extended absence, but he returns at full strength to stake his claim this year. With rookie fourth-rounder Chuba Hubbard now in the fold along with Rodney Smith, however, Bonnafon faces notable competition in his quest to climb back up the depth chart.

CB Troy Pride

Although coach Matt Rhule declined to specify Pride's injury, he said in June that the cornerback may miss the beginning of training camp. Pride, who last year started eight games as a rookie, was sidelined for Carolina's final two outings with a hip injury. Right now, it's unclear whether that same issue continues to plague him, but whenever Pride returns he's expected to compete with Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye for pegging at cornerback, where he posted 42 tackles and defended two passes last season.

Job Battle

In Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, the Panthers boast an outstanding top three options on offense. That trio is fast, versatile and highly productive, but it'll be interesting to see who emerges as coordinator Joe Brady's favored complement behind them. Curtis Samuel is no longer around to occupy a hybrid role, but Carolina brought in several new faces this offseason to help bolster its ranks. Namely, Dan Arnold, David Moore and Terrace Marshall profile as the most likely candidates to blossom as the team's fourth option.

Both 26 years old, Arnold and David Moore enjoyed career highs in the NFC West last season, posting similar stat lines overall, but whereas Moore will be behind Moore and Anderson at wideout, Arnold projects as the team's starting tight end. That position is one Brady has emphasized improving going into his second season in charge, portending well for Arnold. Despite being a rookie, however, Marshall actually already played for Brady in college, where his athleticism was highlighted often behind two star receivers. The second-rounder could immediately push Moore for the third wideout job, making him a sleeper to succeed behind Carolina's big three.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Pitner
Nick Pitner writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire. He supports Arsenal FC, the Green Bay Packers, and the New York Knicks, while specializing in those respective sports in his coverage for the site.
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