Carolina Panthers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2015, the Panthers had the league’s best record at 15-1, took an undefeated season into week 16, and made a Super Bowl appearance. Not only did head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton win Coach of the Year and MVP respectively that season, the Panthers also had Luke Kuechly, relatively fresh off his 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award. However, the Panthers lost that Super Bowl to the Broncos and have not been able to find that form again in 4 seasons since, going 29-35 in the regular season with just one wild card berth, no playoff victories, and no division titles.

In the past few months, the Panthers have undergone rapid change. There have been other changes, but most notably the Panthers fired Ron Rivera during the season last year, released Cam Newton this off-season, and watched Luke Kuechly retire due to health concerns after repeated concussions. In short order, the pillars of their team for the past decade or so were all gone. In many ways, the changes started when new owner David Tepper took over the team from long-time owner Jerry Richardson before the 2018 season. 

Tepper has not been shy about making his mark on the franchise and clearly wants to rebuild the team over the long run. He brought in a somewhat unorthodox new head coach to oversee this rebuild, hiring Baylor University’s Matt Rhule to a 7-year, 62 million dollar deal that makes him one of the highest paid coaches in the NFL. Rhule exceeded expectations in multiple stops in the college ranks, but has just one year of NFL experience as a position coach and brings along an offensive coordinator in Joe Brady and a defensive coordinator in Phil Snow whose experience is primarily from college as well, with neither having served in a role higher than a position coach in the NFL either. There’s certainly upside with this coaching staff, but the Panthers are taking a big risk going all in on college coaches.

Long-time NFL GM Marty Hurney is still nominally the GM in Carolina, but it sounds like Rhule got final say over the roster as part of his huge deal and he didn’t waste much time turning over this roster this off-season, most noticeably at the quarterback position, where Newton was replaced after missing 16 of his last 24 games with foot and shoulder injuries and playing banged up in the other 8. The Panthers saved 19.1 million in cash and cap space by releasing Newton ahead of the final year of his contract and put that cap space towards a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal for free agent Teddy Bridgewater.

What’s unclear is how effective these moves are going to be long-term. Rhule could develop into a good NFL coach, but it’s worth wondering if the Panthers were too quick to move on from Rivera, who had been consistently successful before his franchise quarterback got hurt and who was arguably the hottest head coaching candidate on the market this off-season. The team certainly didn’t improve their level of play without Rivera last season, with a -7.80% first down rate differential in 4 games without him, as opposed to -3.39% in 12 games with him. They especially struggled on Rivera’s side of the ball on defense, which went from a 38.06% first down rate allowed with Rivera to a 42.08% first down rate without. Rhule should bring more than an interim head coach, but I’m definitely not convinced he will prove to be an upgrade over Rivera.

Teddy Bridgewater was also a risky signing, as he’s still played very little since a horrific career altering knee injury that he suffered before the 2016 season. Bridgewater missed all of 2016 and threw just 25 passes from 2017-2018, none of which came in meaningful game situations. In 2019, he got an extended chance as the starter with Drew Brees out for almost 6 games and, while he won all 5 of his starts, he wasn’t the primary reason they were winning.

Those 5 games happened to be their best defensive stretch of the year, as they allowed just a 32.01% first down rate, which allowed the Saints to win those games despite posting a 34.15% first down rate with Bridgewater on the field last season. That rate is most equivalent to the 24th ranked Lions over the course of the season, which isn’t bad, but the Saints have a ton of talent on offense around the quarterback and a very quarterback friendly system, so that’s kind of disappointing. For comparison, they had a 41.86% first down rate with Brees as the starting quarterback last season, which would have been best in the NFL over the full season.

Bridgewater was a first round pick in 2014 and looked like a potential future franchise quarterback before the injury, but now close to 5 years since his last pre-injury season, it’s definitely fair to wonder if he’ll ever reach the heights he could have had he not had his career derailed by injury. I hope he can stay healthy and have a long career in the NFL, but he projects as more of a low end starter/high end backup than a franchise quarterback.

The Panthers hedged their bet a little bit by only guaranteeing 10 million of the 18 million he’s scheduled to make in 2021, which gives the Panthers some flexibility if they want to move on from him next off-season, a smart move because, if this season goes badly enough, they could easily end up with the opportunity to take a quarterback like Justin Fields or even local product and consensus projected #1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence atop next year’s draft. 

For now though, the Panthers are locked into Bridgewater with only 2019 3rd round pick Will Grier and XFL star PJ Walker behind him on the depth chart. Grier was a relatively high pick, but couldn’t get on the field for a bad team as a rookie and struggled mightily (33.2 QB rating) when he finally got his chance down the stretch. The Panthers will need Bridgewater to stay healthy to avoid a league worst quarterback situation.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Another long-time Panther who was let go this off-season is Greg Olsen, who was released ahead of what would have been a non-guaranteed 7.975 million dollars owed for his age 35 season in 2020. Olsen was a 3-time Pro Bowler in 9 seasons in Carolina and topped 1000 yards in 3 straight seasons from 2014-2016, the only tight end in the NFL to do so over that stretch, but he missed 16 games with injury combined from 2017-2018 and was limited to a 52/597/2 slash line in 14 games upon his return in 2019. The Panthers clearly felt his best days were behind him and wanted to move forward with third year tight end Ian Thomas as the starter.

Thomas showed potential in 7 starts as a rookie in 2018 in Olsen’s absence, catching 28 passes for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns, a 65/613/5 slash line extrapolated over 16 games. However, with Olsen mostly healthy in 2019, Thomas shrunk in the background, totaling just a 16/136/1 slash line and averaging just 0.74 yards per route run, 3rd worst among qualifying tight ends. Thomas is only going into his age 24 season and the former fourth round pick still has upside as a receiver, but he’s been inconsistent thus far in his career.

Thomas has also struggled mightily as a blocker, leading to him finishing 40th out of 44 qualifying tight ends overall on PFF last season, so it’s a bit surprising the Panthers didn’t add any competition for him this off-season. Blocking specialist Chris Mannertz remains, but he has just 6 career catches in 51 career games and isn’t a good enough blocker to make up for it and their only other options are undrafted free agents and veterans who have never caught a pass. It’s a very thin position.

Perhaps the Panthers are planning on not using the tight end spot in the passing game much, as they actually have plenty of receiving talent at wide receiver and, of course, running back, where all-everything feature back Christian McCaffrey had a 116/1005/4 slash line last season in the first 1000/1000 rushing/receiving year since Marshall Faulk in 1999. I’ll get into more about McCaffrey later in the running back section, but at wide receiver the Panthers got a much needed third option this off-season, adding Robby Anderson to replace Jairus Wright, who averaged 0.58 yards per route run last season, worst among qualifying wide receivers, and finished dead last among qualifying wide receivers in overall grade on Pro Football Focus.

It wouldn’t be hard for Anderson to be better than Wright, but Anderson is also a capable player in his own right. He never topped a 63/941/7 slash line and a 42nd ranked finish on PFF (2017) in 4 seasons with the Jets, who signed him undrafted in 2016, but he was at least an average wide receiver in each of his final 3 seasons in New York and averaged a 55/824/6 slash line, despite some inconsistent quarterback play. Now in his age 27 season, Anderson may never develop into a true #1 receiver, but he should remain a capable starter for at least the 2-year, 20 million dollar deal he signed.

Anderson won’t need to be a true #1 receiver either. Along with McCaffrey topping 1000 yards receiving, top wide receiver DJ Moore also surpassed that total with a team leading 87/1175/4 slash line last season. Both players benefited from the constantly trailing Panthers dropping back and passing 633 times, 2nd in the NFL, but they also dealt with poor quarterback play, as the team finished just 20th in passing yards and 28th in yards per attempt. Moore finished as PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver overall. Teddy Bridgewater may not be a high end quarterback, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade and the Panthers figure to still be trailing plenty because of their defense, so McCaffrey and Moore should be able to produce big numbers in the passing game again. 

Moore is also a former first round pick only going into his third season in the league, so he could easily take another step forward, after making a leap last year from a 55/788/2 rookie year slash line. Fellow starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel was not nearly as effective last season, catching just 51.4% of his intended targets and averaging just 0.97 yards per route run. He finished 83rd out of 102 qualifying wide receivers on PFF, which isn’t good, but it suggests that his numbers were somewhat the result of poor quarterback play. 

Samuel was a 2nd round pick in 2017 and is still only going into his age 24 season, so he has plenty of upside still. His career got off to a slow start, but he’s progressed from a 15/115/0 slash line to a 39/494/5 and a 54/627/6 slash line. He’s also totaled 278 yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 carries and has the kind of speed and quickness that allows you to play him in different spots. With Anderson coming in, he’ll likely be the #4 passing game option, which he’s not underqualified for. Tight end is a problem position, but the Panthers can mask the problem with receiving talent at other positions.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Christian McCaffrey is also a great runner as well, rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns on 287 carries (4.83 YPC) last season and 1,098 yards and 7 touchdowns on 219 carries (5.01 YPC) in 2018. He struggled as a runner during his rookie season in 2017, rushing for 435 yards and 2 touchdowns on 117 carries (3.72 YPC), but that’s the only time he’s been less than superhuman in any aspect of his game. His receiving totals have improved from 80/651/5 to 107/867/6 to 116/1005/4 in 3 seasons in the league and he’s finished in the top-6 among running backs in overall grade on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, while playing 190 snaps more than any running back in the league over that stretch. 

Despite having accomplished all of this, the former 8th overall pick is still only going into his age 24 season and, while he plays probably the most injury prone position, it seems like nothing short of injuries will stop him from being one of the best players in the NFL for years to come. Normally I don’t recommend signing running backs to big long-term extensions, but McCaffrey is probably worth it given how much of their offense goes through him and the 4-year, 64 million dollar extension he got this off-season kind of feels like the Panthers got off easy, even though he’s now the highest paid running back in the league.

McCaffrey rarely comes off the field and hasn’t suffered any serious injuries, but if he were injured, the Panthers don’t have any depth behind him, so they’d be in a lot of trouble. 2018 undrafted free agent Reggie Bonnafon was the Panthers #2 back last season, but he only got 16 carries in the first action of his career last season and, while he had 116 yards, almost half of it came on one run. The Panthers brought in veteran competition late in the season last year when they signed ex-Bear Mike Davis and, without another option, Davis and Bonnafon will compete for the #2 role. Davis has been underwhelming through his 5-year career, with a 3.60 career YPC, so the Panthers are obviously hoping they don’t have to play any stretch of time with McCaffrey. So far they haven’t, but we’ll see if that continues.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Panthers also made some changes on the offensive line this off-season, most notably trading right guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for left tackle Russell Okung. It was a strange move and not just because teams rarely swap starting offensive linemen. Turner was signed for more years and less money per year, signed for 20.5 million over 2 years vs. 13 million over 1 year. He’s younger, going into his age 27 season, while Okung is going into his age 32 season. He also is coming off a better season, finishing 36th among guards on Pro Football Focus, while Okung finished 57th among 89 qualifying tackles in a season where he was limited to 257 snaps by health problems.

The Panthers were likely going to cut Turner if they couldn’t move him, so they probably view getting anything for him as a win, but his 9 million dollar salary was not cost prohibitive for a player still in his prime who has finished in the top-50 among guards on PFF in all 6 seasons in the league (80 starts), topping out at 10th in 2015. If anything, acquiring Okung might be acquiring negative value. Okung has been an above average offensive tackle for most of his career, finishing 13th among offensive tackles as recently as 2018, but given his age and injury history, it’s very likely his best days behind him and his salary still pays him like he’s in his prime. It was a weird move, especially for a team taking a long-term approach.

Okung also replaces Greg Little at left tackle and the Panthers used the 37th overall pick on him in 2019. With Taylor Moton locked in at right tackle, Little will have to play out of position at guard if he wants to win a starting role. Seeing as Little will likely have to take over at left tackle in a year, given Okung’s contract situation and age, it doesn’t make much sense for the Panthers to acquire Okung as a stopgap for a year they’re unlikely to be competitive. Little was underwhelming on 224 snaps in an injury plagued rookie year, but he could have been better in his 2nd season as a starter. We’ll see how he adjusts to a new position.

Little isn’t guaranteed to win a starting role on the interior, as fellow converted tackle Dennis Daley is also in the mix for the two starting roles with veteran free agent additions Michael Schofield and John Miller. Like Little, Daley was a rookie last season and the 6th round pick ended up seeing more action than his highly drafted classmate because of Little’s injuries. Daley made 9 rookie year starts on the blindside, though his play left something to be desired, as he ranked 69th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. He won’t necessarily be better in his 2nd season in the league in a new position.

Schofield and Miller, meanwhile, come over from the Chargers and Bengals respectively on 1-year deals worth 1.5 million and 4 million respectively. Both have plenty of experience, as Schofield has made 66 starts in 6 seasons in the league (47 at right guard and 19 at right tackle), while Miller has made 60 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but both are low upside options who have never earned more than a middling grade from PFF in a season.

Schofield is probably the better of the two and finished a career best 37th among guards last season, significantly ahead of Miller, who ranked 56th out of 89 qualifiers, but both will have opportunities to earn roles at a wide open position. With not only right guard Turner gone but also left guard Greg Van Roten (PFF’s 24th ranked guard in 11 starts before suffering an injury) gone from last year’s line, the Panthers should see a drop off at both guard positions regardless of who starts.

As mentioned, Taylor Moton is locked in as the starting right tackle, where he is among the best players in the league at his position. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Moton barely played as a rookie, but has made all 32 starts on the right side over the past 2 seasons and has finished in the top-17 among offensive tackles in both seasons. Still only going into his age 26 season, Moton has a bright future. He figures to be one of the higher paid right tackles in the league on his next contract, whether that’s on a new deal with the Panthers or elsewhere, after the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. The Panthers should obviously make bringing him back long-term a priority.

Center Matt Paradis anchors this offensive line in the middle. He received a 3-year, 29.03 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season to come over from the Broncos, where he made 57 starts from 2015-2018, finishing in the top-13 among centers in all 4 seasons. He proved to be a disappointment in his first year in Carolina though, finishing a career worst 21st out of 35 qualifying centers. It’s possible he was not fully recovered from the broken leg that ended his final season in Denver and he definitely seemed to get better as the season went on. Given that, Paradis has some obvious bounce back potential if he’s back at 100% this season, but, going into his age 31 season, his best days could also easily be behind him. 

The Panthers shuffled this offensive line this off-season, with only Paradis and Moton remaining in their previous spot, but outside of Moton, they don’t have a sure thing on this line, with guard being unsettled and both Okung and Paradis being over 30 with injury concerns. Both Okung and Paradis have bounce back potential, but there’s also a lot of potential downside on this unit and their guard play figures to be worse this season than last year’s regardless of who starts.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Panthers have some reason to be hopeful on offense, but their defense has some major concerns. As I mentioned earlier, this defense got worse when they fired head coach and top defensive mind Ron Rivera mid-season, going from a 38.06% first down rate allowed in games with him and a 42.08% first down rate allowed in games without him. That wasn’t all because of Rivera being fired though, as the Panthers’ defense started falling off significantly even before Rivera was let go. 

After posting a reasonable 33.97% first down rate allowed through the first 6 games of the season, the Panthers defense totally fell apart after their week 7 bye and they allowed a 42.47% first down rate the rest of the way to finish 29th in the NFL with a 39.06% first down rate on the season. And that was with Luke Kuechly, who finished 5th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and decided to retire early this off-season. It’s impossible to understate how big his absence on this defense will be.

It’s not all bad news for the Panthers on defense though, as their struggles down the stretch last season were at least in part due to injury absences. The Panthers ranked middle of the pack in adjusted games lost to injury on defense, but the games that were missed were primarily by key players. That was especially true on the Panthers’ 3-man defensive line, where arguably their top players Kawaan Short and Dontari Poe went down for the season in week 2 and week 12 respectively. In their absence, Vernon Butler (440 snaps) and Kyle Love (412 snaps) had to play significant roles and ranked 100th and 118th respectively on PFF out of 125 qualifying interior defenders. That’s a big part of the reason why they ranked dead last in the NFL with 5.16 yards per carry allowed.

Short returns for 2020, but he’s the only familiar face as their top-4 interior defenders in terms of snaps played last season (Gerald McCoy, Butler, Love, and Poe) are all gone. The Panthers did well to add Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown with the 7th overall pick and he and Short could form a strong duo immediately, even if Brown is a little raw as a rookie. Short is getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, but he finished in the top-19 among interior defenders on PFF in 5 straight seasons prior to last year’s fluke injury, and he could easily return to close to his old form. With the Panthers moving back to a 4-3 defense this season, Short and Brown figure to have significant roles inside at defensive tackle this season.

Their depth is a big problem, however, as they did little else to add to the position aside from adding Brown. Zach Kerr is probably their best backup, but he’s primarily a base package run stuffer at 6-2 334 and he’s never played more than 394 snaps in any of his 6 seasons in the league. Meanwhile, fellow veteran Chris Smith has never played more than 401 snaps in 6 seasons in the league and has been underwhelming throughout his career. It’s possible even 6th round rookie Bravvion Roy could carve out a rotational role at a thin position. Short and Brown will be relied on for heavy snaps, which could tire them out and hurt their effectiveness, and they’d be in a lot of trouble if they ever lost either player to injury.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Another long-time Panther that is no longer on the team is defensive end Mario Addison, who signed a 3-year, 30.45 million dollar deal in Buffalo this off-season, after 8 seasons in Carolina. Addison didn’t become a productive regular until 2015 and didn’t become a starter until 2017, but he earned an average or better grade on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons and he led the team with 9.5 sacks and a 11.4% pressure rate last season. Bruce Irvin was 2nd on the team with 8.5 sacks and a 10.4% pressure rate, but he’s gone as well, so the Panthers have a lot to replace on the edge too.

They did a slightly better job adding depth at the defensive end position than they did inside at defensive tackle this off-season, using the 38th overall pick on Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos and signing ex-Viking Stephen Weatherly to a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar contract in free agency. Gross-Matos was a good value at the top of the second round, but Weatherly was pretty underwhelming in a rotational role in Minnesota over the past two seasons, averaging 29.6 snaps per game. He had a decent 9.3% pressure rate, but struggled against the run and shouldn’t play a bigger role in Carolina.

The Panthers also have some other young holdovers, led by last year’s first round pick Brian Burns, who they will undoubtedly be counting on for a larger role this season. Burns’ play against the run left something to be desired as a rookie, but he had 7.5 sacks and a 10.3% pressure rate, despite being limited to 478 snaps by a wrist injury, and he could easily take a big step forward in 2020. Only 22 years ago, Burns is an incredible athlete and has a huge upside, even if he takes another few years to get there. 

They also have former undrafted free agent Efe Obada (495 career snaps in 2 seasons in the league), 2018 4th round pick Marquis Haynes (256 career snaps), and 2019 4th round Christian Miller (91 snaps as a rookie), but none of them have had much impact yet in their careers. Burns, Weatherly, and Gross-Matos figure to get the bulk of the snaps, but they’re all young too, so they may struggle for consistency as a group.

Grade: C+ 

Linebackers

As mentioned, Luke Kuechly’s loss will be massive for this team, as he was a top-5 off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 6 seasons. The Panthers still have 2015 first round pick Shaq Thompson, who has developed into a solid player in his own right, but he’s still nowhere near as good as Kuechly. He’s graded an above average grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league and he’s a versatile linebacker with the ability to even play some defensive back. 

However, Thompson got them grades in limited action behind Kuechly and Thomas Davis for the first 4 years of his career (38.1 snaps per game) and his first season as an every down player in 2020 was good (32nd among off ball linebackers), but not spectacular and his 12 missed tackles were a big part of the Panthers struggles against the run. Thompson is still only going into his age 26 season and could improve more, but he’ll also have to take on even more responsibility as the top linebacker and could get exposed more,

Tahir Whitehead was nominally signed to replace Kuechly, although he obviously isn’t the same player. He’ll start at least in base packages, but it’s fair to wonder how much playing time he’ll see in passing situations. Whitehead has been an every down player across 63 starts over the past 4 seasons with the Lions and Raiders, but he finished in the bottom-20 among off ball linebackers on PFF in all 4 seasons in coverage grade, so he’s been overmatched in a large role and would be best in a pure base package run stuffing role. Unfortunately, the Panthers don’t really have another option to play next to Thompson in nickel packages, so he’ll likely have to play significant snaps again. Now going into his age 30 season, Whitehead is highly unlikely to be significantly improved this season.

Third linebacker Jermaine Carter remains and will likely continue in that role, but the 2018 5th round pick struggled on 261 snaps in the first real action of his career last season and he is not really an option to play a larger role than his pure base package role. He could also face competition from 2018 7th round pick Andre Smith (36 career snaps) and it’s possible that the Panthers could use an edge defender like Marquis Haynes in a hybrid role and play him at linebacker in base packages. Some teams use a 3rd safety as a linebacker in certain situations, but the Panthers have depth problems in the secondary too, so that wouldn’t necessarily be a better option. Outside of Shaq Thompson, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Panthers also lost top cornerback James Bradberry in free agency. He was probably overpaid on a 3-year, 43.5 million dollar deal, as he earned a middling grade from PFF last season and has finished in the top-15 among cornerbacks in yards allowed in each of the past 3 seasons, including 2 seasons in the top-7, but he also regularly matched up with #1 wide receivers in a division with Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Mike Evans and the Panthers didn’t do much to replace him. Also gone are Ross Cockrell (733 snaps) and Javien Elliott (439 snaps), so the Panthers are completely re-working their cornerback depth chart and they’re doing it without much in the way of outside reinforcements.

Third year cornerback Donte Jackson is the only one of their top-4 cornerbacks remaining from last season and figures to be pushed into the #1 cornerback role by default. Jackson struggled last season, finishing 103rd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he was better as a rookie and a groin injury that he suffered last season may have been the culprit, as he got hurt following his best game of the season week 3 and was not the same when he returned in week 8. Jackson could have the best year of his career in his 3rd year in the league in 2020 if he can stay healthy, but the Panthers are asking a lot of him.

Their one free agent addition at the position was Eli Apple, who figures to start opposite Jackson. Apple is considered a bust since he was taken 10th overall by the Giants in 2016 and was subsequently traded to the Saints for a 4th and a 7th round pick in the middle of his 3rd season in the league, which is somewhat fair, as he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF in 4 seasons in the league, but he also has a lot of starting experience (48 starts) and is only going into his age 25 season, so he was a worthwhile flyer on a one-year, 3 million dollar deal for a cornerback needy Panthers team. 

He’s not necessarily a reliable starter though, but the Panthers don’t have the depth to really push him. Corn Elder, a 2017 5th round pick, is currently penciled in as the starting slot cornerback, but he’s barely played in 3 seasons in the league. That’s in large part due to injury and he still has some upside in his age 26 season, but he’s a risky player to rely on as a 3rd cornerback. His only real competition for the job is 4th round rookie Troy Pride, who would likely be overwhelming in a significant role as a rookie.

The Panthers also have a rookie in line to play significant snaps at safety, as 64th overall pick Jeremy Chinn will only have to compete with veteran journeyman Juston Burris. Burris was a 4th round pick by the Jets in 2016, but struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons (521 snaps) with the team at cornerback and was ultimately sent down to the practice squad for several weeks, before bouncing from the Raiders to the Browns. 

With the Browns last season, he was converted to safety and got his first extended starting experience when the Browns had injuries at the position down the stretch. Burris looked much better at his new position, earning a middling grade on 409 snaps, but it would still be hard to rely on him as a 16-game every down starter. It’s possible both Burris and Chinn will see action together in sub packages, with the bigger Chinn (6-3 219) functioning as a 2nd linebacker in place of Tahir Whitehead in nickel packages. The Panthers are going to have to get creative to mask flaws and depth problems on this defense.

At the other safety spot, veteran Eric Reid is probably locked in as the starter, even though he was a big part of the problem in what was a down year for him in 2019, finishing 97th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF. Reid has been better in the past though and the former first round pick is still somehow only going into his age 29 season, so he has bounce back potential. He’s earned an average or better grade in 5 of 7 seasons in the league (98 starts), so he’s still one of the more reliable players in this secondary. Like the rest of this defense, the Panthers have a lot of problems on the back end.

Grade: C-

Conclusion

The Panthers were arguably the worst defensive team in the league down the stretch last season and things look even worse on that side of the ball this season, following the retirement of All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and other off-season departures. Offensively, they have some talent around the quarterback, but their offense line is still questionable and Teddy Bridgewater is probably in the bottom third of NFL starting quarterbacks, not to mention what their quarterback situation would be if Bridgewater ever missed time with injury. It’s going to be tough for them to keep up with what their defense is allowing and they figure to be one of the worst teams in the league this season unless they get lucky. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.71

Defensive Score: 68.99

Total Score: 70.85 (4th in NFC South)

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