In the first year of the Matt Rhule era, the Carolina Panthers went 5-11 but lost eight of those eleven games by just one score. They were competitive on a weekly basis but just didn't have the experience and depth to close out games.
Heading into year two, the Panthers are primed for an uptick in the win column but there are several question marks surrounding the team that could hold them back. Can they improve on that 5-11 record from a year ago? Let's break it down.
The Panthers made several changes to the defense this offseason and brought in a ton of young talent that has experience. Signing LB Haason Reddick was huge for the Panthers' pass rush which struggled mightily aside from Brian Burns. Denzel Perryman is a massive improvement over Tahir Whitehead. In the secondary, GM Scott Fitterer added a couple of solid veterans in A.J. Bouye and Rashaan Melvin to help stabilize a very young position group. Not to mention the signings of DE Morgan Fox, LB Frankie Luvu, and DT DaQuan Jones who all give Carolina depth at each position. Throw first-round pick Jaycee Horn into the mix and all of a sudden, the Panthers defense looks drastically different but in a good way.
The NFL is a passing league nowadays but that does not rule out the importance of an elite running back like Christian McCaffrey. As we all know, McCaffrey is more than just a running back. The offense runs through McCaffrey and rightfully so as he is the team's most explosive player with the ball in his hands. He missed 13 games a year ago and although Mike Davis did a nice job in his place, the offense took a bit of a dip. For Carolina to get things turned around, you have to have your best players on the field and that includes McCaffrey.
Improvement at Quarterback
Anyone who watched the Carolina Panthers last year could easily see that Teddy Bridgewater was not the answer. Sam Darnold appears to be an upgrade but he hasn't proven anything yet. He struggled during his time in New York but can you really blame him? Just about every young quarterback would have failed in that situation. What Darnold does bring to the table is a strong arm which is something Bridgewater lacked. The Panthers were handcuffed to the dink and dunk offense a year ago because of Bridgewater's inconsistency in throwing the ball down the field. Darnold had a strong connection with Robby Anderson in the past on deep balls so look for that to return in 2021.
The biggest question mark is whether or not Darnold can regain his self-confidence and turn into the quarterback that everyone thought he could be when he was drafted. Once a quarterback fails early and often in his career, it can be a challenge in trying to repair him. Can Darnold be fixed? If he can, the Panthers' offense should have no trouble moving the ball up and down the field and matching scores with the elite offensive units in the NFC South.
Questions at Left Tackle
Heading into the offseason, I was certain the Panthers would make a move to bolster their offensive line at left tackle. However, I did not foresee Cameron Erving being the answer. This is a position the Panthers have to figure out sooner than later, even if it means moving Taylor Moton over or inserting rookie Brady Christensen. Regardless of who wins the starting job out of training camp, the Panthers will be rolling out their eighth different starting left tackle in as many years. That's not a trend you want to have at any position, let alone left tackle.
Replacing Curtis Samuel
No one expected Curtis Samuel to have the type of season he had a year ago. He totaled 1,051 all-purpose yards and recorded a career-high in catch percentage at 79.%. If the ball came his way, Samuel was getting it. Now that he's off to Washington, the Panthers have to find someone to work the middle of the field and be a reliable target on crucial downs. That could be tight end Dan Arnold who came over from the Cardinals, rookie receivers Terrace Marshall and Shi Smith, or maybe even David Moore. Someone among that group has to step up and take the attention away from DJ Moore and Robby Anderson working the outside.
On paper, the Panthers do look like an improved bunch on both sides of the ball. However, when you are the youngest team in the league and are starting all over again with a new quarterback, it's hard to say that this team is in a much better position to win in 2021. The future is bright and maybe as early as 2022 but this will be a building year for Carolina. Six to seven wins seems realistic and with a 17th game added to the schedule, it's pretty much the equivalent to last year's 5-11.
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