Carolina Panthers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers moved on last off-season from long-time signal caller Cam Newton, who they selected #1 overall in 2011 and went to a Super Bowl with in his MVP season in 2015, but whose injury problems, particularly his surgically repaired shoulder, led to the Panthers deciding to change course long-term. The Panthers took the money they saved by releasing Newton and his 19.1 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and gave it to Teddy Bridgewater, one of the top free agent signal callers, who joined on a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal.

In Bridgewater’s first season in Carolina, the results were not what the Panthers wanted, as they finished just 5-11, but they were better than their record suggested. Most of the Panthers’ losses were close, with all but three coming by one score, and their 3-8 record in one score games is more the product of bad luck than anything this team was doing wrong. The Panthers also had one of the toughest schedules in the league, in part due to sharing a division with the Buccaneers and Saints, who happen to be the only teams to hand them multi-score losses all last season. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Panthers ranked a middling 17th at -0.08%, more suggestive of an 8-8 team than one that went 5-11. With an easier schedule and likely better luck in close games, it wasn’t a stretch to expect the Panthers to take a step forward in 2021 and win a few more games, even without drastically upgrading this roster. However, the Panthers decided they didn’t want Bridgewater to stick around for another year to be part of that, shipping him to the Broncos for a late round pick and eating most of the guaranteed money remaining on his deal. In total, the Panthers paid Bridgewater about 31 million for just 15 starts in one season and received just a late round pick in compensation for him in a trade. 

To replace Bridgewater, the Panthers sent a package of picks, including a 2022 2nd round pick, to the Jets for 2018 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, who did not develop in three seasons with the Jets, but could benefit from a change of scenery, ahead of still only his age 24 season. The Panthers seem pretty committed to Darnold, not only giving up a future premium pick to acquire him, but also passing on both Justin Fields and Mac Jones with the 8th overall pick and functionally tying themselves to Darnold for at least two seasons by picking up his guaranteed option for 2022 at 18.858 million, though I suppose the Panthers could also salary dump him in a year like Bridgewater if he doesn’t pan out.

Even though this team was better than it’s record, trying to upgrade Bridgewater was understandable. His contract was an overpay to begin with, based on Bridgewater going 5-0 against an easy schedule with a very talented supporting cast in New Orleans, and looked worse a year in, after Bridgewater finished 31st among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF in 2020. Bridgewater’s statistical production wasn’t bad, completing 69.1% of his passes for an average of 7.59 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and the Panthers offense was a little better than average, finishing 15th in schedule adjusted first down rate at +0.50%, but Bridgewater had help from a solid supporting cast and plays in a relatively quarterback friendly offense, coordinated by up and coming young coaching candidate Joe Brady.

This season, the Panthers are hoping those same benefits can get the most out of Darnold, who was viewed by some as the most talented quarterback in a draft class that included Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield three years ago, but has had about as tough of a start to his career as he could have, getting no support from his supporting cast or coaching staff in New York with the Jets. In three seasons, Darnold completed just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.64 YPA, 45 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions.

Darnold’s highest rated season on PFF was actually his rookie year in 2018, when he finished 29th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks and actually showed signs of progress in the second half, but that was before the Jets hired head coach Adam Gase, whose coaching staff undoubtedly stunted Darnold’s growth and led to him ranking progressively lower on PFF in each of the next two seasons, ranking 31st out of 39 eligible in 2019 and 38th out of 42 eligible in 2020. Simply put, the Panthers are betting that he isn’t damaged goods and that they can build off some of the promise he showed earlier in his career and turn him into a capable starting quarterback. 

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a quarterback written off as a bust turned it around and Darnold is younger than most, but his youth also means it’s possible that Darnold could still become a successful quarterback in the NFL someday, without him necessarily showing great progress in his first season in Carolina. Think of quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill and Alex Smith, former high draft picks, who had to wait until several seasons into their career to turn into something more than a low end starting quarterback. It’s also very possible Darnold’s issues go beyond the Jets and, as much as his supporting cast deserves some of the blame for his struggles, he also had the worst QB rating in the league last season with a clean pocket. Darnold still comes with upside, but he’s far from a guarantee to make good on that in 2021.

If he doesn’t, the Panthers don’t have another option on this roster, not only passing on Fields and Jones at 8, but not selecting a signal caller at any point in the draft. PJ Walker was their backup last season and made the one start that Bridgewater missed with injury, actually winning the game to give the Panthers one of their five wins on the season, but that was largely a defensive effort as the Panthers won 20-0 over the hapless Lions in a game in which Walker completed 24 of 34 for 258 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. 

Walker also struggled even more in his other action last season, most notably his second half appearance in week 17 against the Saints after the Panthers pulled a struggling Bridgewater mid-game, only to see Walker go out and complete just 5 of 14 with 3 interceptions. In total, Walker completed 57.1% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions in 2020, in the first career action for a 2017 undrafted free agent who only came onto the NFL’s radar when he had a dominant season in the shortened first season of the XFL. 

Barring a massive improvement, it doesn’t look like Walker will ever translate that to the NFL, but he’s likely to remain the backup for lack of a better option, as his primary competition is Will Grier, a 2019 3rd round pick who was drafted by the old coaching staff and who has completed just 28 of 52 for 228 yards, no touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his career, a pathetic 33.2 QB rating. The Panthers will need their risky acquisition of Sam Darnold to pay off, lacking anything resembling a capable alternative, but Darnold comes with a very low floor, for as high as his theoretical ceiling still may be.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

The biggest strength of this offense around Teddy Bridgewater in 2020 was their receiving corps, more specifically their top-3 wide receivers, DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel. All three earned above average grades from PFF, ranked in the top-30 among wide receivers in yards per route run with at least 1.93 yards per route run, and posted significant receiving yardage, totaling 66/1193/4, 95/1096/3, and 77/851/3 slash lines respectively. 

Moore and Anderson joined DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as one of two wide receiver duos to both surpass 1000 yards receiving in 2020 and Samuel also surpassed 1000 yards if you include the work he did as a runner, totaling 200 yards on 41 carries (4.88 YPC), lining up in the backfield on 35 of those 42 carries and taking the other 7 as end arounds or wide receiver sweeps. Samuel was a free agent this off-season and signed a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar deal in Washington, but the Panthers didn’t do a bad job replacing him. 

In free agency, the Panthers signed ex-Seahawk David Moore, who is an unspectacular player, but he averaged 1.42 yards per route run over the past three seasons as the Seahawks’ #3 receiver behind Metcalf and Lockett and at least gives the Panthers a relatively high floor at the position, while second round rookie Terrace Marshall gives them a high ceiling if he can beat out Moore for the job as a rookie. Marshall could have been a first round pick if not for injury concerns, so he could prove to be a steal for a Carolina team that snagged him with the 59th overall pick.

Moore and Anderson both remain and will try to repeat last season’s feat with a new quarterback in town. For Moore, topping 1000 yards was nothing new, as the 2018 first round pick also had a 87/1175/4 slash line in 2019 with worse quarterback play, earning PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver grade in the process. Moore did not have 1000 yards as a rookie in 2018, but his 55/788/2 slash line and 1.81 yards per route run average were impressive for a rookie and he’s only gotten better from there. Still only in his age 24 season, it’s possible he could keep getting better. He still has two years left on his rookie deal, but the Panthers are likely trying to figure out how to lock him up long-term.

Anderson has been in the league longer, now heading into his sixth season in the league, but last season was his first 1000 yard year, so he’s a bit of a one-year wonder in terms of being that level of a receiver. Prior to signing a 2-year, 20 million dollar deal with the Panthers last off-season, Anderson spent the first four years of his career with the Jets and actually already has a couple years of experience with Sam Darnold, his quarterback with the Jets in 2018 and 2019. In those two seasons, Anderson averaged just 1.52 yards per route run and had slash lines of 50/752/6 and 52/779/5 respectively. 

Anderson wouldn’t be the first player to improve permanently after leaving the Jets and the same thing could happen with Darnold, but even last season his production was largely the result of a high volume (136 targets, 10th in the NFL, and 18 more than even DJ Moore) and he’s never finished higher than 41st among wide receivers on PFF in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s more of a high end #2 wide receiver, while Moore is a true #1 receiver who could take another step and become one of the top wide receivers in the league in his fourth season in the league in 2021.

As talented as the Panthers were at wide receiver, they had arguably the worst tight end group in the league last season, completing just 27 passes to tight ends. In an attempt to remedy this, the Panthers used a third round pick on Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble, who will get a chance to play as a rookie. The Panthers also signed veteran Dan Arnold in free agency, who has a good chance to win the starting job in a group that only contains a third round rookie and underwhelming incumbent Ian Thomas, a 2018 4th round pick who has averaged just 0.63 yards per route run, 5.58 yards per target, and has caught just 72 passes in 48 games in his career.

Arnold only has 51 catches in 31 career games in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2017 and he doesn’t give you much as a blocker, but he’s shown a lot of promise in limited action as a receiver, averaging 1.58 yards per route run for his career, so he could have a decent receiving total if he gets a significant target total for the first time in his career. Arnold was technically a starter last season with the Cardinals, but they don’t focus on the tight end position in their offense and Arnold received just 45 targets as a result. 

The tight end is not a big part of this offense either, but I would expect him to exceed that total if he wins the starting job. Unless Tremble can exceed expectations as a rookie or Thomas can unexpectedly take a big step forward, I would expect Arnold to be able to do that. The Panthers will miss wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who left as a free agent this off-season, but they added decent replacements for him at wide receiver, and if the Panthers can get more out of the tight end spot, that will make up for some of Samuel’s absence as well. Led by Moore and Anderson, this is a solid group overall.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One key player that Teddy Bridgewater did not have the benefit of for most of last season was feature back Christian McCaffrey, who was limited to 76 touches and 171 snaps in 3 games by injury. McCaffrey led the league with 403 touches in 2019, after 326 touches in 2018, so it’s not really a surprise that McCaffrey got hurt in his 3rd attempt at a massive workload (25.3 touches per game), but he has never missed a game with injury aside from last season and, still only going into his age 25 season, he’s a good bet to bounce back in 2021, even if the Panthers give him a massive workload again.

I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t as, not only is McCaffrey an incredible playmaker, but the Panthers also don’t have much depth at the position after letting veteran backup Mike Davis, who was solid in McCaffrey’s absence last off-season, walk as a free agent this off-season. Not only is McCaffrey a dominant runner, 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, after struggling as a runner as a rookie in 2017, but he posts receiving numbers similar to a #2 wide receiver, with a 80/651/5 slash line as a rookie, a 107/867/6 slash line in 2018, and a 116/1005/4 slash line in 2019. Overall, he finished the 2018 season as PFF’s 8th ranked running back and the 2019 season as their 3rd ranked running back. I would expect a similar season from him barring another fluke injury.

McCaffrey’s re-addition also won’t take too many pass attempts away from the Panthers’ wide receivers, as between the 19 targets McCaffrey had in 3 games last season and the 70 attempts they gave to Mike Davis in McCaffrey’s absence, the Panthers already had a good amount of targets go to running backs last season. McCaffrey, who has averaged 6.71 yards per target in his career, figures to be a lot more effective in the passing game than Davis, who averaged just 5.33 yards per target on those targets. He should also be an upgrade on the ground for a team that averaged a below average 4.19 YPC last season (22nd in the NFL).

With Davis gone, the Panthers used a fourth round pick on Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard to replace him and, even as a rookie, he has a pretty good chance to lock up the #2 running back job, as his only competition are a trio of running backs in Rodney Smith, Reggie Bonnafon, and Trenton Cannon who saw limited action behind Davis in 2020. Smith led the bunch with 41 carries, but the 2020 undrafted free agent averaged just 3.80 YPC in the first significant action of his career. 

Bonnafon is also a former undrafted free agent, signing in 2019, and he has just 28 career carries in two seasons in the league. Cannon, meanwhile, is a former 6th round pick of the Jets in 2018, but has averaged just 3.04 YPC on 48 carries in three seasons in the league. Hubbard has by far the most upside of their backup options, but even he would be a big downgrade from McCaffrey if McCaffrey gets hurt again. Assuming that doesn’t happen, this Panthers offense will benefit from having one of the best running backs in the league back in the lineup for a full season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The one group on this offense around the quarterback that was a concern for the Panthers heading into the off-season was their offensive line, which held up pretty well last season, but had numerous contributors set to hit free agency. The Panthers did lose some of those contributors and they have some major concerns on this group heading into 2021, but they kept their most important free agent, right tackle Taylor Moton, with the franchise tag, guaranteeing him 13.754 million for 2021, assuming a long-term deal isn’t worked out in the meantime.

That long-term deal is probably in the Panthers’ interest though, as Moton has proven himself as one of the better right tackles in the league and he is very much still in his prime in his age 27 season, without a single game missed to injury in his career. After only playing 70 snaps as a rookie, the 2017 2nd round pick was inserted into the starting lineup in his second season in 2018 and he hasn’t looked bad, making all 48 starts since and finishing 16th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018, 16th in 2019, and a career best 13th in 2020. Whether it’s on the franchise tag or a long-term deal, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021.

Unfortunately, the Panthers did not retain left tackle Russell Okung. Okung is getting up there in age, heading into his age 33 season, and he’s had a concerning injury history, including a 2020 season in which he played just 406 snaps in 7 games, so it’s somewhat understandable the Panthers wouldn’t pay him significant money to return, but they really didn’t replace him and, even though his playing time was last limited, he was still by far their best left tackle and finished 34th among offensive tackles on PFF, so he will be missed. In his absence last season, three different players, Greg Little, Trent Scott, and Dennis Daley, all saw starts and the Panthers added another potential starting option this off-season in Cam Erving, as well as a long-term option in 3rd round rookie Brady Christensen.

Those are all underwhelming options though. Scott saw the most action in Okung’s absence last season and most held up across 347 snaps (4 starts), but the 2018 undrafted free agent also finished 82nd among 85 eligible offensive tackles on PFF as a 9-game starter in 2019, in the only extended starting experience of his career, and would likely struggle in a season long role. Greg Little has the most upside, being selected in the 2nd round in 2019, but a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 358 below average snaps thus far in his career. He could take a big step forward in his third season in the league and may be the favorite for the starting job, but neither of those things are guaranteed.

Daley saw 9 starts at left tackle in 2019 as a 6th round rookie, replacing an injured Greg Little, but Daley was predictably pretty ineffective, finishing 69th among 86 eligible offensive tackles. In 2020, even though he had opportunities to play more, he saw just 135 snaps all season, the majority of which came at guard, which could be where Daley ultimately ends up starting in 2021, as the Panthers also lost some guards in free agency this off-season. 

Cam Erving can also play guard, but he’s never been good anywhere, earning below average grades from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league. He nominally has experience (47 career starts) and versatility (20 starts at tackle, 15 at guard, 12 at center), but if you take into account that he’s struggled throughout that playing time, the experience and versatility don’t mean a whole lot. Unless Little can step up in a big way in his third season in the league, left tackle should be a big position of weakness for the Panthers in 2021, which wasn’t the case for most of 2020 when Okung played half the season and Trent Scott was able to hold up in a few spot starts.

At guard, Michael Schofield (270 snaps), John Miller (910 snaps), and Chris Reed (892 snaps) all saw significant action last season and, while they were unspectacular, they held up pretty well overall, so it was a concern going into this off-season that all three were set to hit free agency. The Panthers retained Miller on a one-year deal and also signed Pat Elflein in free agency, giving them up to a four player competition for the two guard spots, depending on whether or not Daley or Erving kick inside.

Daley may fare better at guard than he has at tackle, though it’s worth noting it would hardly be a disappointment for him to never develop into a consistent starter as a 6th round pick. Erving’s history of struggles suggests he will almost definitely struggle if counted on for significant action, but I would expect him to end up in the lineup somewhere at one point or another, if for no reason other than the Panthers gave him a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal and have an unsettled group upfront.

Elflein also got a significant contract this off-season, signing 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal, also a head scratching deal considering Elflein was released by the Vikings mid-season last season and struggled in 6 starts for the Jets after resurfacing later in the season. Elflein is a 2017 3rd round pick who is experienced with 49 career starts and he earned a middling grade from PFF in 15 starts in 2019, so he has some bounce back potential, but he has been very inconsistent throughout his career, including his first two seasons in the league in 2017 and 2018 when he played center.

John Miller is the safest bet of the bunch, as he’s made 74 starts in 6 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2015 and, with the exception of his rookie season, he’s always earned around a middling grade from PFF. He’s an unspectacular player who has never finished higher than 23rd among guards on PFF, but he’s a steady starting option at a position of weakness, so I would expect him to win one of the two starting jobs, after making 14 starts in 2020. Even with Miller though, this is an unsettled and underwhelming position group.

Compared to all the decisions the Panthers had to make at other positions upfront, center was a relatively boring position for Carolina this off-season, with center Matt Paradis entering his third season in Carolina and the final year of a 3-year, 29.03 million dollar deal that he signed with the Panthers two off-seasons ago. That deal made sense at the time, as Paradis had finished in the top-11 among centers on PFF in all 4 seasons as a starter with the Broncos (57 starts), including a career best 2nd ranked finish in 2016 and a 3rd ranked finish in his contract year in 2018. However, Paradis has been about an average starter in 32 starts for the Panthers, so he’s been a disappointment. 

There are several things that likely led to the decline and I wouldn’t expect things to turn around at this point. Paradis was an older free agent two off-seasons ago and is now already heading into his age 32 season and Paradis had also suffered a broken leg at the end of his tenure in Denver and it’s possible he hasn’t been the same since. Either way, his best days are almost definitely behind him, even if he continues being a solid starter for a few more seasons. He’s still a useful player on an offensive line that can’t afford any more unsettled positions.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The Panthers weren’t that good defensively last season, ranking 17th schedule adjusted in first down rate allowed at -0.58%, but they had one of the youngest defenses in the league and exceeded expectations by even being a middling unit. Probably the biggest reason for their success was the emergence of second-year defensive end Brian Burns, who the Panthers selected 16th overall in 2019. Burns wasn’t bad as a rookie, particularly as a pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate, despite only playing about half the snaps, but he took a big step forward in his second season, totaling 9 sacks, 13 hits, and a 13.6% pressure rate and finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked edge defender on 750 snaps. 

The 6-5 250 pound Burns has been significantly better as a pass rusher than a run stopper in both seasons, but he was a capable run defender last season, in addition to finishing 6th among edge defenders on PFF in pass rush grade. He’s technically a one-year wonder in terms of being the player he was last season, but, at the same time, he’s still only in his age 23 season, so he could easily develop into one of the top players in the league at his position over the next few years. Development of young players is not always linear, but I would expect another strong year from him, even if he comes with more variance than comparable players. 

Burns could also benefit from getting more pass rush snaps, after the Panthers somewhat questionably dropped him into coverage on 17.9% of his pass snaps last season, an aspect in which he struggled. That’s because the Panthers signed Haason Reddick in free agency, who will play opposite Burns and drop into coverage on occasion, hopefully allowing Burns to focus on the aspect of the game in which he dominated last season. Reddick wasn’t great in coverage either, but he dropped into coverage on 26.7% of his pass snaps in 2020, which was actually down significantly from the first three seasons of his career in which he was a hybrid edge defender/off ball linebacker, dropping into coverage on 64.7% of his pass snaps.

A first round pick in 2017, Reddick was highly inconsistent across those three seasons, including a terrible 2019 campaign in which he finished 96th among 101 eligible off ball linebackers across 690 snaps. Moving to a more traditional edge defender role led to Reddick having a breakout 2020 campaign though, especially as a pass rusher, as he actually finished below average both against the run and in coverage, but ranked 24th among edge defenders overall because he finished 11th in pass rush grade and totalled 12.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.6% pressure rate on the season. 

Reddick and Burns would likely both benefit from not having to drop into coverage as much, but Reddick is the better option to drop in coverage if they have to drop one of them on occasion, not just because of his experience as a coverage linebacker, but because he’s been a less consistent pass rusher than Burns throughout his career. Burns is such a dominant edge rusher that it really doesn’t make sense to regularly have to drop into coverage rather than try to pressure the quarterback. 

Yetur Gross-Matos, a 2020 2nd round pick, should also see a role. The 6-5 265 pounder is more of a traditional defensive end and only dropped into coverage on 5.7% of his pass snaps last season. He finished below average on PFF across just 377 snaps, but he dealt with injuries that limited him to just 12 games and could be improved in his second season in the league, perhaps significantly so. 

Marquis Haynes, a 2018 4th round pick, could also continue seeing playing time after playing a career high 390 snaps last season, but he’s very inexperienced and has finished with a negative grade from PFF in all three seasons, despite his limited playing time. He would only see a deep rotational role in a group with three clear options ahead of him, including a duo that are both coming off of great pass rush seasons, even if they both had never had a season that good previously.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

What made the Panthers’ capable defensive performance last season even more surprising was that it mostly came without one of their most proven interior defenders Kawann Short, who went down for the season after 123 snaps in 3 games. In his prime, Short was one of the Panthers’ best players and one of the best interior defenders in the league, but he’s had two straight seasons derailed by injury, playing 199 snaps total over that stretch, so the Panthers made the decision to move on from him this off-season, rather than paying him 14.5 million for his age 32 season in 2021.

Derrick Brown, the Panthers 7th overall pick in 2020, was originally supposed to form a talented duo with Short, but instead he is more of a replacement for him. Brown had an up and down rookie year, but ultimately ended up with about a middling grade from PFF across 742 snaps, generating consistent pass rush, but leaving something to be desired against the run. Obviously given Brown’s draft status, he has a lot more untapped potential and could easily take a big step forward in his second season in the league, en route to becoming one of the best players in the league at his position. That’s not a guarantee, but I would expect more from such a talented player in year two.

Along with Short, the Panthers lost several other free agents at the interior defender position this off-season, including most notably Zach Kerr, who excelled on 390 snaps in a rotational role last season. To remedy this, the Panthers signed a pair of free agents in DaQuan Jones and Morgan Fox. They’re very different players for two guys who play the same position, so they should complement each other well, working in a platoon depending on the situation. 

Jones is a bigger run stuffer at 6-4 320 who has earned an above average grade from PFF for his run defense in six straight seasons, including two seasons in the top-15 among interior defenders in run defense grade over that stretch, but he has barely contributed as a pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 22 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate in his career. He did play a career high 706 snaps in 2020, but it was one of his more underwhelming seasons overall and, now going into his age 30 season, it’s possible Jones could take a step back overall in 2021. Still, he’s a solid signing for a team that needed help at the position.

Fox, meanwhile, has averaged 363 snaps per season over the past three seasons as a situational pass rusher with the Rams. The 6-3 275 pound former undrafted free agent has predictably earned a below average grade from PFF for his run defense in each of those three seasons, but he has also added 10.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate in his limited action, consistently showing pass rush ability in all three seasons. He should have a significant sub package role for the Panthers and could exceed last year’s career high of 403 snaps. If he exceeds that total drastically, he could struggle, but he should be able to be a decent rotational option.

While the Panthers lost most of their leaders in snaps played at the interior defender spot from last season, they do retain Bravvion Roy, a 2020 6th round pick who saw 419 snaps as a rookie. Roy was terrible across those snaps though, finishing 128th among 139 interior defenders on PFF. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better by default in 2021 and he should continue to have a role in this group, but it’s worth mentioning that 6th round picks typically don’t even develop into useful rotational players. The Panthers also used a 5th round pick in this past draft on Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon and, while he was generally regarded as a steal, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll contribute as a rookie or develop long-term. This retooled group isn’t bad overall, but they’ll need a breakout year from Derrick Brown to get to another level.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Part of why the Panthers were expected to be so bad defensively last season was that an already underwhelming defense in 2019 lost All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to an early retirement. Shaq Thompson took over as the Panthers top linebacker in his absence, but a formerly solid linebacker had the worst campaign of his career in 2020, finishing 71st among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. Thompson had only earned average or better grades from PFF in 5 seasons prior and he’s still only in his age 27 season, so I like his chances of bouncing back even without Kuechly next to him, but even at his best, he’s a massive downgrade from what Kuechly was.

The rest of this linebacking corps consisted of situational players last season, with Tahir Whitehead and Jermaine Carter serving as the other two base linebackers in the Panthers’ 4-3 scheme and safety Jeremy Chinn frequently moving down around the line of scrimmage in sub packages to play as second coverage linebacker next to Thompson. This season, Whitehead is gone, but he was replaced by free agent Denzel Perryman and the rest of this group should remain about the same. 

Swapping Whitehead for Perryman should prove to be an upgrade, perhaps significantly so, after Whitehead finished 97th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 398 snaps last season. Perryman has left something to be desired in coverage throughout his career and has never played more than 481 snaps in any season in his 6-year career, partially because of his lack of coverage abilities, but also because he’s missed 27 games due to injury in his career. However, he’s a high level run defender who has finished in the top-6 among eligible off ball linebackers against the run twice in his career, including 2020, and, though he’ll probably miss some time with injury, he’s otherwise a perfect fit as a base linebacker in this defense.

Jermaine Carter is less impressive, having played just 631 snaps in 3 seasons since the Panthers selected him in the 5th round in 2018, but he at least earned the first above average grade of his career from PFF last season, albeit across just 284 snaps. He’s an underwhelming player who would likely struggle if stretched into a larger role, but he’ll probably be a capable base package linebacker, which is all the Panthers really need from him.

Chinn, meanwhile, earned an above average coverage grade, including the occasions he covered as a deep safety, where he was not as effective as he was as a linebacker, but he also finished below average against the run. His tackle total of 117 was impressive, but his 7.1 yards average depth of tackle and 4.2% run stop rate are both underwhelming for someone who plays in the box as much as he does and his 18 missed tackles were among the most in the league. 

It’s possible the 2020 2nd round pick takes a step forward in his second season in the league, but the 6-2 212 pounder is always going to be undersized for a linebacker. He definitely adds to their coverage unit though and he’s the kind of versatile player you can move around to mask his weaknesses. The Panthers obviously lack anyone the caliber of Luke Kuechly, but they could piece together a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Along with linebacker, Chinn also plays safety, where he typically started next to Tre Boston last season. Boston struggled, finishing 79th among 99 eligible safeties on PFF, and was not retained this off-season. Without any significant additions made to this group this off-season, the Panthers will instead rely on getting more out of Juston Burris, who played 790 snaps as the 3rd safety last season, coming in as a sub package safety when Chinn played linebacker, and Sam Franklin, a 2020 undrafted free agent who struggled across 251 snaps as a reserve as a rookie. Burris figures to start next to Chinn, with Franklin taking over Burris’ old role as the 3rd safety and likely seeing significant action.

Along with Franklin, Burris also was underwhelming last season, so, while Boston didn’t play very well, losing him without replacing him could hurt this group for depth purposes. Burris has been better in the past, but not in every season and he had also never played more than 409 snaps in a season prior to last season, so I would expect him to struggle as a season long every down starter at safety. Franklin, meanwhile, is likely to struggle as well, unless he takes a big step forward in year two, something that might never happen for a player who was allowed to fall out of the draft entirely just a year ago.

At cornerback, the Panthers lost Rasul Douglas and Corn Elder, who held up over 821 snaps and 411 snaps respectively last season, but they replaced them by using the 8th overall pick on South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn and signing veteran AJ Bouye to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal in free agency. That should be an upgrade and they definitely give the Panthers a higher ceiling at the position, but they come with some downside as well, Horn because he’s a rookie and Bouye because he’s earned below average grades from PFF in back-to-back seasons, after reaching a career peak from 2016-2018, when he ranked 5th, 7th, and 22nd among cornerbacks on PFF. Bouye isn’t that old, still just going into his age 30 season, but his best days are probably behind him. His injury history is concerning as well, as he’s played in all 16 games just once in 8 seasons in the league.

Horn and Bouye should start, leaving Donte Jackson as the likely 3rd cornerback. Jackson wasn’t bad across 599 snaps last season, but he’s been pretty inconsistent throughout his career since being selected by the Panthers in the 2nd round in 2018, including a 2019 campaign in which he finished 103rd among 109 eligible cornerbacks across 726 snaps. Still only going into his age 26 season, Jackson is young enough that he could still get better and perhaps his play last season was a sign of things to come, but the Panthers don’t seem willing to commit to a starting role for him, adding Horn and Bouye and leaving Jackson as the third cornerback at best.

Jackson’s primary competition for the third cornerback role will be 2020 4th round pick Troy Pride, who will need to make a big step forward after finishing 132nd among 136 eligible cornerbacks across 529 snaps as a rookie, and veteran Rashaan Melvin, who hasn’t earned an above average grade from PFF since 2017, missed all of last season with an opt-out, and now is going into his age 32 season. Depth is a bit concerning at cornerback, but overall they’re in much better shape at cornerback than safety. Their top-3 cornerbacks all possess significant upside, but also significant downside and their safety group is very underwhelming outside of Jeremy Chinn, a part-time linebacker.

Grade: C+

Kicker/Punter

The Panthers had decent special teams overall last season, finishing 16th in special teams DVOA. According to DVOA, their best special teams aspect was kickoffs, while their worst was field goals/extra point. This isn’t a surprise when you look at their kicker Joey Slye, who has been among the best kickoff specialists in the league over the past two seasons, ranking 2nd on PFF in that aspect in each of the past two seasons, but who has also finished below average on place kicks in both seasons, making just 90.1% of his extra points and 79.4% of his field goals. The Panthers are sticking with Slye for his third season in the league in 2021, not adding any competition for him, so I would expect the same disparity between his kickoff and place kicking ability. 

The Panthers also finished above average in DVOA on punts last season, in large part due to impressive rookie punter Joseph Charlton, an undrafted free agent who was PFF’s 5th ranked punter on the season and led the league with a 4.57 second hang time. Charlton seems likely to keep this up in 2021 and beyond and, while the Panthers did bring in another undrafted free agent punter this year, Oscar Draguicevich, it’s very unlikely he’ll be able to unseat Charlton from the starting job. With both their kicker and punter returning, the Panthers should get similar play from both spots in 2021, meaning spotty field goal kicking, but great punting and kickoffs.

Grade: B+

Return Specialists

Another area where the Panthers finished above average in DVOA was kickoff returns, while their punt returns were below average. Wide receiver Pharoh Cooper led the team in both kickoff returns (18) and punt returns (20), but he was underwhelming in both aspects, averaging 23.9 yards per and 5.9 yards per respectively and the Panthers’ return game could be better off with him no longer on the team. 

Running back Trenton Cannon, who vastly exceeded Cooper’s average with 29.8 per on 10 returns in 2020, figures to take over as the primary kickoff return man. He has just 16 career kickoff returns and has never returned a punt, but he has a lot of promise on kickoff returns. Wide receiver David Moore, meanwhile, is likely to take over as the punt returner, after averaging 8.5 yards per on 22 returns with the Seahawks over the past two seasons. Both he and Cannon have a good chance to be better than Cooper was last season.

Grade: B-

Special Teamers

The Panthers got good play from most of their key special teamers last season, but there is some reason to be concerned heading into 2021. Alex Armah (199 snaps) and Adarius Taylor (195 snaps) are gone and both played well last season. Frankie Luvu, who was signed in free agency, was also solid last season across 236 snaps, but he’s only one player and, while he’s finished above average on PFF in two of three seasons in the league, he struggled across 211 snaps in 2019, so he’s not a sure thing to play well.

Their top-4 still remain and all of Julian Stanford (255 snaps), Myles Hartsfield (249 snaps), Brandon Zylstra (239 snaps), and Jermaine Carter (233 snaps) earned above average grades from PFF, but Hartsfield and Zylstra are one-year wonders and depth is an issue beyond them. Trenton Cannon played 163 special teams snaps last season, but struggled. Sam Franklin played well across 156 snaps, but could see that snap count drop in 2021 if he plays a bigger role on defense. After him, the Panthers didn’t have another special teamer play more than 150 snaps or earn an above average grade from PFF, so the Panthers will be counting on unproven inexperienced and/or rookie special teamers a lot in 2021. I expect this group to be worse than a year ago, even if they aren’t a terrible group overall. 

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Panthers played better than their 5-11 record last season, losing a bunch of close games against a tough overall schedule, but it also feels like that level of play was overachieving, compared to their talent level. Overall, the Panthers have some high level players, mostly from nailing their past four first round picks (Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Brian Burns, and Derrick Brown), but the talent isn’t really there behind those players and, in fact, the Panthers have just two other players on this roster (Jeremy Chinn and Taylor Moton) that they’ve drafted outside of the first round that have developed into consistent starters and they were both second round picks, with essentially nothing of note coming out of the third round or later from any of their recent drafts. That lack of depth shows when you look at this roster.

Perhaps this young coaching staff will get the most out of this roster again, but even if they do, they aren’t significantly more talented than they were a year ago, so it’s hard to see this team contending for a playoff spot, even with Drew Brees’ retirement making their divisional schedule a little easier. Their decision to swap out Teddy Bridgewater and replace him with Sam Darnold gives them a higher upside under center, but also a significantly lower floor. 

Without a capable backup quarterback, in the scenario where Darnold doesn’t improve noticeably from his time with the Jets, the Panthers would either be stuck with a struggling Darnold or would have to turn to an unproven backup quarterback who would likely struggle even more. In either case, the Panthers would likely find themselves among the worst teams in the league, so they are really relying on improvement from Darnold. I will have a final prediction for the Panthers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: The Panthers have not made any significant additions since this was originally written and they are minimally effected by special teams being more predictive than expected.

9/4/21 Update: The Panthers played a lot of close games a year ago, but unless Sam Darnold can exceed expectations, the Panthers likely downgraded from a stable, but unspectacular starter in Teddy Bridgewater. Also, for as much skill position talent as they have on offense, I am very concerned about their new look offensive line, which is likely to start Cam Erving, a mediocre swing tackle, on the blindside.

Prediction: 5-12 4th in NFC South

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