Who Will Be the Panthers' Surprise Player in 2020?

Schuyler Callihan

As several new faces litter the Carolina Panthers' roster, there are several options for as to who can be the team's surprise player in 2020. To me, the answer is fairly easy - defensive end Stephen Weatherly.

With the entire starting defensive line gone from a year ago, Weatherly has a wide open opportunity to not only start, but be a force on the Panthers defense. During his first two years of his NFL career, Weatherly struggled to see playing time. However, over the last two years he has turned it up a notch accounting for 59 tackles, six sacks, and 11 tackles for loss. 

To help evaluate my case for Weatherly, I brought in Will Ragatz of Sports Illustrated's Inside the Vikings for further analysis.

Q: Weatherly didn’t see much action during his first two years in the league. What do you believe was the main reason behind it and how did he emerge over the last two seasons?

Ragatz: "Weatherly was a seventh-round pick, so he faced long odds to make it as far as he has in the NFL. As a rookie, he was transitioning from playing outside linebacker at Vanderbilt to defensive end in the Vikings’ 4-3 scheme. He didn’t end up making the team in 2016, but he stuck around on the practice squad. In 2017, he was still pretty deep down the depth chart, but he made the 53-man roster and was a strong contributor on special teams.

"With Brian Robison retiring after that season, the opportunity was there for Weatherly to emerge as the No. 3 defensive end behind Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter in 2018. He took advantage of that chance, and made six starts when Griffen was dealing with off-the-field issues. He had three sacks that season and three more last season, which helped him earn his deal with the Panthers in free agency."

Q: What are some of Weatherly’s strengths and weaknesses?

Ragatz: "The first thing that stands out about Weatherly is his size and length. At 6’5”, 265, with 34.5-inch arms, he has the frame to make a major impact both as a pass-rusher and against the run. As a pass-rusher, he has a quick first step and several moves that he can employ to try to beat his man. Another clear strength of Weatherly’s is his intelligence; he’s an incredibly smart dude, which manifests itself both on and off the field. (As a side note, Weatherly is one of the most interesting and well-spoken athletes I’ve ever covered. He’s awesome to talk to in the locker room.)

"As for weaknesses, he’s not exactly a phenomenal athlete for the position. Weatherly generally wins more with size, technique, and intelligence than explosive athleticism or bend. That can sometimes get him into trouble against great offensive linemen. He’s also somewhat inconsistent as a run defender and missed a few tackles last year."

Q: It seems like he has the tools to be a really standout player. Can he eventually turn into an elite pass rusher?

Ragatz: I don’t think Weatherly has the ceiling to be an “elite” pass rusher, to be honest. There’s a certain athletic gear that those players have which he hasn’t shown over the past few seasons. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be valuable in Carolina on a two-year, $12.5 million deal. He just turned 26, so there’s still room for some development and growth from Weatherly, especially if a change of scenery can unlock some of his potential.

Q: How do you think he will handle being in a starting role in Carolina?

Ragatz: "It’ll be an interesting transition for Weatherly, who has never had this kind of opportunity before. He’ll look to take what he learned from legendary Vikings D-line coach Andre Patterson – as well as former teammates Griffen and Hunter – and take advantage of expanded playing time. It’ll be a move back to the edge for Weatherly, who spent most of last year as an interior pass-rusher on obvious passing downs. So instead of rushing against guards, he’ll go back to taking on tackles on the outside.

"As I mentioned, I don’t think Weatherly has the upside to become an All-Pro or anything like that. But can he be a quality starter? Absolutely. With his length, experience, and smarts, I’d expect Weatherly to adjust well to his new role. He’s someone who can give the Panthers 6-8 sacks and provide solid run defense as well. He’ll also make a difference in the community and probably become a leader in the locker room."

Who do you think will be the Panthers' surprise player in 2020? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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