Are the Carolina Panthers in a position to make a legitimate leap towards playoff contention this season?
The short answer is... maybe.
The Panthers' defense looks nasty on paper. It's going to be such a joy to watch this unit terrorize NFL offenses everywhere. If Carolina finds a way to make the playoffs this year, it's because of its ferocious defensive line along with an improved back end.
If Carolina misses the playoffs this year, there's a great chance it will be because of the quarterback and the offensive line.
Sam Darnold's tendency to turn the football over has been a problem since he entered the league in 2018. It is important for people to remember that this man threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the Jets last year. He threw nine touchdowns and eleven interceptions in twelve games. Any team willing to take a chance on a quarterback with a stat line that horrendous is taking a massive risk, regardless of how much was given up through the trade.
Those who believe in Darnold may believe that his poor performance last season had to do with the instability that surrounded him.
While that is a valid argument, I would like to simplify it even more. Some of those interceptions were due to his offensive line being unable to block people at the line of scrimmage. Every pick certainly wasn't the o-line's fault; at the end of the day, it's Darnold's decision-making on the field that needs to be improved. However, the o-line not providing Darnold with enough time could be an issue that the Panthers also deal with, because the line is arguably just as bad as the line Darnold had in New York.
The Carolina Panthers have been plagued with quarterback and offensive line issues for years.
One of the reasons why Cam Newton continuously battled injuries during his last years in Carolina is that his o-line was never truly a notable investment for the front office at the time. If you pay attention to this team's success (or lack thereof) over the past few years, it may be easy to notice that the quarterback and O-line's performances were never consistently great. The two position groups go hand in hand and play a massive role in running the offense.
The two position groups that are arguably the most critical to an offense's success are the quarterback and the offensive line.
Without quality play from both of these groups, there's a good chance that the offense isn't going to be very good. As a result, the team isn't going to be all that great unless the defense is '85 Bears or Legion of Boom-esque. Personally, I don't think Carolina's defense is on that level yet. You can have flash and explosiveness all day long at skill positions such as wide receiver and running back, but if your offensive line isn't able to sustain blocks and your quarterback is rattled by it, expect to have a long day.
A common narrative surrounding Darnold's "second chance" is this idea that the Panthers will do a better job at overseeing Darnold's development than than the Jets did.
Let's look into the 2020 New York Jets' starting offensive line. The group consisted of Mekhi Becton, Alex Lewis, Connor McGovern, former Panther Greg Van Roten, and George Fant. Out of those five players, only Mekhi Becton truly stands out. There is potentially a concerning parallel here.
To open the 2021 NFL season, the Panthers' starting offensive line will consist of Cam Erving, Pat Elflein, Matt Paradis, Dennis Daley, and Taylor Moton. Out of those five players, only Taylor Moton stands out. See the potential problem here? It seems unfair to judge this Panthers O-line before their first regular season game, but there is tape out on every single player on this line. As a collective whole, the Panthers' line looks similar to the Jets' line last year.
Where does that leave Sam Darnold?
It's simple. If he is unable to make necessary improvements despite the adversity he may face this season, then he's going to continue to throw laughably bad interceptions. If the O-line finds a way to gel properly, then Darnold will have zero excuses. Darnold and the big men up front will have to drastically exceed expectations if they want the Panthers to be in playoff contention this season.
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