Year one under head coach Matt Rhule went as expected with the Panthers finishing with a 5-11 record. To be quite honest, the Panthers may have even exceeded expectations considering the roster they had a year ago. For a team that is in a major rebuild project, the Panthers didn't show it on the field. They were competitive week in and week out and eight of their eleven losses came by one score or less.
This offseason, the Panthers made a change in the front office by firing Marty Hurney and hiring Scott Fitterer as the team’s new general manager. Fitterer comes from the Seattle Seahawks where was a member of the front office since 2001. He most recently held the role of Vice President of Football Operations. Since taking over the job, he has made a number of changes to the roster including striking a deal with the New York Jets for quarterback Sam Darnold. Fitterer also brought in quality free agents such as LB Haason Reddick, TE Dan Arnold, CB A.J. Bouye, and a few others to go along with a respectable draft haul of ten rookies.
With what seems to be an improved roster, the Panthers believe they have what it takes to make a push for not only a winning season but a spot in the postseason as well.
With Sam Darnold in and Teddy Bridgewater out, the Panthers’ offense has the potential to be more explosive and more efficient in 2021. Bridgewater was a serviceable quarterback but he lacked the arm strength and downfield accuracy to be a better-than-average quarterback.
Despite the struggles during his time with the Jets, there is a real sense of belief that Sam Darnold will flourish in this Joe Brady offense. For the first time in his career, Darnold is surrounded not only by elite talent at the skill positions but also by a coaching staff and front office that have full trust in him to get the job done.
Returning at receiver are DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. The Panthers lost Curtis Samuel to free agency but 2nd round draft pick Terrace Marshall Jr. is doing more than just filling in nicely. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that by the end of the season, he will have had the best rookie year out of all the receivers from the 2021 NFL Draft class.
In the backfield, Carolina added some depth behind Christian McCaffrey who missed 13 games a year ago due to injury. Carolina selected Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard in the 4th round of the draft and recently claimed veteran Royce Freeman off waivers from the Denver Broncos.
The tight end room also seems to be in a much better place following the additions of Dan Arnold and 3rd round pick, Tommy Tremble. Ian Thomas will still have a role in the offense but he will no longer be considered the featured tight end in the passing game which will be Arnold’s job.
The offensive line still remains a major concern aside from right tackle Taylor Moton, who recently signed a four-year contract extension. Carolina brought in Cam Erving and Pat Elflein to man down the left tackle and left guard spots but they have had their fair share of struggles in the league. Left tackle has been a sore spot for the Panthers’ organization who will be starting its eight different player at that position in as many years.
The defensive line has turned from a weakness to a potential strength for the Panthers in 2021. Second-year player Derrick Brown is on the right path for having a breakout season after showing some signs of promise as a rookie. To help Brown on the interior of the defensive line, Carolina signed former Tennessee Titan DaQuan Jones who has 93 career starts to his name. They also added depth there through the draft by selecting Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon and Kentucky’s Phil Hoskins.
Everyone knows about Brian Burns and the young budding star’s extremely high ceiling. The one problem Carolina faced a year ago was that nearly every offensive line started to turn their full attention to Burns and began double-teaming him. To solve that issue, GM Scott Fitterer signed Haason Reddick in free agency. Reddick posted a career-high 12.5 sacks last season with the Cardinals.
In the 2nd level, it was essentially Shaq Thompson and a bunch of misfits a year ago. Carolina not only lacked depth at linebacker but even production from former starter Tahir Whitehead. Brining in Reddick should help take the attention away from Burns on every snap and also shore up the linebacking unit. Frankie Luvu has been the biggest surprise this preseason as the former Jet has solidified a role in Phil Snow’s defense and is performing better than expected.
The secondary was filled with youth and inexperience in 2020 and it showed as the season moved along. To help bring those young pieces along, Carolina agreed to a deal with veteran A.J. Bouye. Bouye will be forced to miss the first two games of the season to finish out a suspension that he was given last year. First-round pick Jaycee Horn has looked as good as advertised and will start opposite of Donte Jackson, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal.
Jeremy Chinn has made the full-time switch from linebacker to safety which will prolong his career and allow him to make more plays on the ball. He finished his rookie year with 117 tackles, five QB hits, five pass breakups, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries for touchdowns, and one sack.
The Panthers have a very favorable start to their schedule and could get off to a 5-3 or even a 6-2 start through the first eight games. However, the ladder half of the schedule is going to be quite the challenge. The final four games of the season include a home-and-home with Tampa Bay and road trips to Buffalo and New Orleans. Carolina will get off to a strong start but their youth will show late in the season. I've got the Panthers finishing the 2021 season with a 7-10 record.
Expected Depth Chart
QB - Sam Darnold, PJ Walker
RB - Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard, Royce Freeman
WR - Robby Anderson, Brandon Zylstra
WR - DJ Moore, Terrace Marshall Jr., Shi Smith
TE - Dan Arnold, Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble, Colin Thompson
FB - Giovanni Ricci
LT - Cameron Erving, Taylor Moton
LG - Pat Elflein, Dennis Daley, Michael Jordan
C - Matt Paradis, Pat Elflein
RG - John Miller, Deonte Brown
RT - Taylor Moton, Brady Christensen
DE - Brian Burns, Marquis Haynes, Darryl Johnson
DT - Derrick Brown, Daviyon Nixon, Phil Hoskins
DT - DaQuan Jones, Bravvion Roy
DE - Morgan Fox, Yetur Gross-Matos
LOLB - Shaq Thompson, Julian Stanford
MLB - Jermaine Carter, Clay Johnston
ROLB - Haason Reddick, Frankie Luvu
CB - Donte Jackson, Stanley Thomas-Oliver
CB - Jaycee Horn, A.J. Bouye, Keith Taylor
FS - Jeremy Chinn, Myles Hartsfield
SS - Juston Burris, Sam Franklin, Sean Chandler
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