Schuyler Callihan: 7-10
I'll start off by saying this, I love the moves the Panthers made in free agency and the class they came away with in this year's draft. These moves indicate that they are ready to take the next step in their rebuild, however, things won't be as polished as fans are hoping for. Carolina is the youngest team in the NFL and having a new starting quarterback in the fold is basically putting the offense in the same spot it was a year ago - a chemistry-building season.
As far as the schedule goes, the Panthers have a favorable first half of the season but man, the NFL did them no help by not having a bye until week 13 and their last four games of the year against Buffalo, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay (2x). This team will be much improved in 2021 but the record won't begin to reflect that progress until 2022.
Jason Hewitt: 8-9
I think the Panthers will have a strong start, which will be great for the team’s morale. However, I just don’t think this roster has what it takes in order to become a playoff-contending football team. Until he proves otherwise, Sam Darnold is a below-average NFL quarterback. He also doesn’t have the greatest O-line on paper, which is very concerning considering the fact that he is known to be turnover prone. Good defenses will be encouraged to pressure him into making more mistakes, and Darnold will face some very good ones this year. I think the Carolina defense will take a leap in 2021, and that physical unit will be very fun to watch. The front seven and secondary look better on paper than they have in years. Despite my harsh initial draft grade, I expect Jaycee Horn to thrive in Phil Snow’s defense, and I’m excited to watch him in coverage with Jeremy Chinn.
One of the biggest keys to a successful season for the Panthers has to be winning the turnover battle, and as of right now, I just don’t see it. Similar to last year, the Panthers will have many people fooled due to the weaker part of the schedule being at the beginning of the season. However, the real grind begins at the second half, which features tough matchups such as Buffalo, New England, Tampa Bay (twice), and New Orleans at the Superdome. As of right now, I think the Panthers will be competitive, but I don’t think they will make the playoffs this year. Let’s see if they prove me wrong.
Josh Altorfer: 9-8
Altogether, I’m expecting Carolina to be much improved. The defense was on the cusp of becoming a force toward the end of last season and it has only gotten better on paper. The addition of Sam Darnold at quarterback should be able to keep opposing defenses from stacking the box against Christian McCaffrey at the very least. If everything goes to plan, we will see a shadow of the Joe Brady offense that was deployed at LSU in 2019. The young Panthers are still a year away from being legitimate playoff contenders but this is a huge step in the right direction.
Matt Welch: 10-7 (Wild Card)
As long as Tom Brady is in Tampa Bay, no other team is winning the division. But the time to strike for a Wild Card berth is now for Carolina. Pieces are in place. The defense was much improved and got even better through free agency this offseason. I look for the defense to hold teams enough for Carolina’s offense to get wins. All of this, of course, rests on Sam Darnold’s shoulders. Until proven otherwise in Carolina, I’m on the Darnold train here. I’m under the thinking that all QBs stink it up in New York. So I’m betting on him being efficient enough to move the ball and score points, as long as Christian McCaffrey stays healthy. If the offensive line holds up and Darnold makes good decisions, I’ll give them a playoff spot.
Tyler Ball: 8-9
I think while Carolina has made some major moves to stack up all sides of the ball. Their record this season is going to come down to how quickly Sam Darnold meshes with a new team. The Panthers were already competitive in the league, but the NFC South is now a powerhouse that keeps getting stronger, faster, and overall more competitive. If the Panthers stay healthy, Rhule can stick with his plan to create a high level of competition throughout the entire roster and bring the Panthers a winning season. I think adding Horn and Perryman to the defense will help significantly in shutting down costly plays. I also think that drafting Chuba Hubbard will only benefit Christian McCaffery in the run game. I’ll say 8-9 but the games will be close.