Carolina Panthers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2020 Panthers were a middling team across the board, ranking 17th in offensive efficiency, 20th in defensive efficiency, and 20th in overall efficiency, but they fared poorly in close games, going 3-8 in games decided by one score or less, leading to them finishing just 5-11 on the season. A team’s record in one-score games is not predictive year-to-year, so there was some hope the Panthers would win noticeably more games in 2021. 

Going into 2021, the Panthers made improvements on defense, but, on offense, they made the risky decision to swap out the reliable, but unspectacular Teddy Bridgewater for unproven young quarterback Sam Darnold, while neglecting an offensive line that lost several starters from the year prior. As a result, both the Panthers’ offense and defense went in drastically different directions in 2021. Their defense improved significantly, finishing the season 4th in the NFL in efficiency, but, on offense, Darnold struggled and then got hurt, leaving backups Cam Newton and PJ Walker to start six games, during which they also struggled. 

The Panthers’ team quarterback rating fell from 87.5 in 2020, 23rd in the NFL, to 68.5 in 2021, dead last in the NFL, while their offensive efficiency rank plummeted to 29th in the NFL. The only thing that was similar for the Panthers is they once again won just 5 games, going 5-12, again doing so primarily because of a metric that is not predictive year-to-year, having the NFL’s 2nd worst turnover margin at -13, not just turning the ball over at a high rate on offense (29 turnovers, 2nd most in the NFL), but also managing just 16 takeaways, 5th fewest in the NFL, despite an otherwise great defense. 

If the Panthers’ defense is as good in efficiency rating again in 2022, they will almost certainly force more takeaways, which could make their turnover margin closer to zero, even if their offense continues struggling and continues turning the ball over at a high rate. However, it’s not that simple, as defensive performance tends to be much less consistent and predictive on a year-to-year basis than offensive performance. In terms of overall efficiency, which weights offense higher than defense and also takes into account the Panthers mediocre special teams, the Panthers ranked just 23rd last season, still a little better than their record, but worse than the year prior and not a sign of a team about to make a big leap.

Making matters worse, the Panthers didn’t have much flexibility this off-season. When they acquired Sam Darnold, not only did they give up a 2nd round pick to downgrade the quarterback position, but they also guaranteed his 18.858 million dollar salary for 2022 when they picked up his 5th year option. Darnold’s salary would make it tough to add another highly paid quarterback to the mix this off-season and, in addition to giving away their 2nd round pick for Darnold, the Panthers also gave away their 3rd and 4th round picks in separate trades, meaning they wouldn’t have the draft capital to add one of the top quarterbacks in the draft or to trade for a top quarterback unless they also gave away at least their first round pick.

The Panthers sat out the early off-season quarterback carousel and also passed on reaching for a quarterback with the 6th overall pick, only trading away their 4th round pick and a future 3rd round pick to get back into this year’s 3rd round to select Matt Corral, who looked like he would be competing with Darnold for the starting job in 2022, in what was almost definitely the worst quarterback room in the NFL. However, a gift fell into the Panthers’ lap when the Browns messed up the Baker Mayfield situation so much that they not only ate most of his salary, leaving the Panthers to pay him just 4.85 million for 2022, but also gave him away for just a 5th round pick in 2024.

Mayfield comes with some warts, which is why he was available so cheaply, but he undoubtedly would have returned more in a trade if the Browns had moved him earlier in the off-season, when Carson Wentz went for a pair of third round picks. He’s a legitimate NFL starting quarterback, which is not something you could say about the Panthers’ options previously, even if he is only a one-year rental, going into the final year of his rookie deal and likely to be due a steep raise as a free agent if he bounces back in 2022.

Mayfield struggled in 2021, completing just 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while ranking 30th among quarterbacks on PFF, which led to the Browns wanting to move on from him ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2022, but Mayfield wasn’t healthy for most of last season and he performed better in the past when healthy, completing 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 75 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions across his first three seasons in the league from 2018-2020, while finishing 11th, 17th, and 14th among quarterbacks across those three seasons respectively.

Mayfield is also only going into his age 27 season and his 5th year in the league, so the former #1 overall pick could have further untapped upside. Even if he doesn’t, he should at least be comparable to Teddy Bridgewater, who led this offense to a decent finish in 2020. The Panthers will nominally hold a quarterback competition with Darnold and Corral in the mix as well, but Darnold has a career 76.9 QB rating, while Corral is a raw player who would likely struggle as a rookie, so, with all of training camp to win the job, Mayfield should be considered to be close to a lock to be the week 1 starter. This definitely isn’t a great quarterback room, but it’s a lot more passable than it was before acquiring Mayfield.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The addition of Baker Mayfield is the biggest reason to expect the Panthers to be better offensively this season, as they would have had a hard time even being passable on offense with either Sam Darnold or Matt Corral as the starter, but they would have been at least a little better even without Mayfield. The biggest reason for that is their offensive line, which was also significantly worse in 2021 than it was in 2020, and figures to be noticeably improved in 2022. 

In 2021, just two primary starters on this offensive line finished above average on PFF, right tackle Taylor Moton and center Matt Paradis. Paradis wasn’t retained this off-season, after finishing 17th among centers on PFF in 2021, but he was limited to just 9 games by injury and was replaced with free agent acquisition Bradley Bozeman, who is one of three new starters added on this offensive line this off-season, along with expected left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and expected right tackle Austin Corbett.

If Bozeman plays like he did a year ago, he should be an upgrade on Paradis, as he was PFF’s 11th ranked center. It’s possible Bozeman could be that good again, but last season was the first season of his career at center and he was a much more middling guard in three seasons at that position before moving to center, maxing out as PFF’s 38th ranked guard in 2019. It’s possible he’s just a better fit at center and will remain a consistently above average center going forward, still only in his age 28 season, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee. Still, he should be at least a solid starter, as he has been throughout his career, and he was a great value on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal.

Corbett was more expensive, signing for 26.25 million over 3 years, but he should be a solid addition as well. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Corbett didn’t do much in the first couple years of his career, but he’s broken out as an above average guard over the past two seasons, finishing 14th and 27th among guards on PFF in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Unlikely to regress to his previous form at this point and in his prime in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2022.

Ekwonu was added through the draft, taken 6th overall with the pick the Panthers wisely didn’t waste on a quarterback. He could have some growing pains as a rookie, but he also could have an immediate impact as an above average starter and he has the upside to be one of the best tackles in the league long-term. The Panthers are hoping he can form a great long-term duo with Taylor Moton, who was by far their best offensive lineman in 2021, finishing 21st among offensive tackles on PFF. That was no fluke either, as he was PFF’s 16th, 15th, and 13th ranked offensive tackle in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively as well, while making all 65 possible starts over the past four seasons. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2022.

The one questionable spot remaining on this offensive line is left guard and it might not even be a weakness if 2021 3rd round pick Brady Christensen proves to be a capable starter in his first full year on the job, after earning a middling grade from PFF across 480 snaps as a rookie, seeing action at both tackle and guard. Christensen could see competition from Cameron Erving (589 snaps), Michael Jordan (703 snaps), Pat Elflein (534 snaps), and Dennis Daley (573 snaps), who all saw significant action last season and who all have the ability to play guard, but who all don’t currently have a clear starting role. 

Erving and Daley also both have the ability to play tackle as well, while Elflein can play center.

All of them are underwhelming starting options though, with them combining to have one above average season on PFF (Pat Elflein in 2019) between the four of them in 18 combined seasons in the league, so Christensen is still the favorite to start at left guard. Those players aren’t bad depth though, and all those guys being reserves just shows you how much better this offensive line should be than a year ago. 

Grade: B+

Running Backs

In addition to improved quarterback and offensive line play, the Panthers offense should also benefit from a healthier season from feature back Christian McCaffrey, who was limited to just 272 snaps (136 touches) in 7 games in 2021. McCaffrey also had an injury plagued 2020 season, playing just 171 snaps (76 touches) in 3 games, but, prior to his recent injuries, McCaffrey was one of the best running backs in the league, ranking 8th and 3rd among running backs on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively, while averaging 4.91 YPC across 506 total carries and adding 1.77 yards per route run through the air, and there are good reasons to think he can bounce back, even after two injury plagued years.

For one, McCaffrey is still very much in his prime, even for a running back, in his age 26 season. He’s also remained effective when on the field over the past two seasons, averaging 4.22 YPC on 158 carries and a ridiculous 2.45 yards per route run through the air, and he didn’t have any significant injury history prior to 2020, not missing a game in his first three seasons in the league from 2017-2019, despite position leading snap counts of 966 and 1,039 in 2018 and 2019 respectively (729 touches between those two seasons).

The Panthers probably won’t play him that much again in 2022, just to keep him fresh, but he is by far their best playmaker at the running back position, so he probably won’t come off the field more than a few snaps per game just to get a breather. The Panthers did upgrade their depth behind him a little bit this season though, after watching 2021 4th round pick Chuba Hubbard struggle mightily as the feature back in McCaffrey’s absence last season, rushing for 3.56 YPC on 172 carries, ranking 45th out of 50 eligible running backs in carry success rate at 44%, and managing just 0.98 yards per route run through the air, making him a clear downgrade over McCaffrey in every aspect.

Hubbard could be better in his second year in the league, but he’ll also face competition for the #2 job from free agent acquisition D’Onta Foreman. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Foreman flashed promise as a rookie, averaging 4.19 YPC across 78 carries, but then suffered a torn achilles that derailed his career for effectively three seasons, during which time he spent stretches out of the league and had just 29 carries total. However, Foreman was able to catch on with the Titans last season and showed his rookie year form again as the lead back when Derrick Henry got hurt, averaging 4.26 YPC on 133 carries and ranking 24th in carry success rate at 52%.

Foreman has never been used much in a passing down role, but he’s actually averaged 1.81 yards per route run for his career in very limited experience in passing situations. McCaffrey’s prowess as a passing down back will likely ensure he will play in almost every passing situation, but he could be split out wide or lined up in the slot on occasion and the Panthers will probably want to limit his carries in early down situations more than they have in the past to keep him fresh, so both Foreman and Hubbard could see at least some role behind McCaffrey. If McCaffrey can stay healthy, he is one of the best players in the league at his position, but that’s far from a guarantee, given how the past two seasons have gone, and their backups would still be a huge drop off from McCaffrey if he missed time.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The Panthers’ quarterback and offensive line play should be significantly improved in 2022 compared to 2021, and could even be better than 2020, when they were a decent offense, even without Christian McCaffrey healthy for most of the season. With McCaffrey likely healthier in 2022, to go with an improved offensive line and quarterback situation, there is definitely reason for optimism on this offense, but it’s not quite that simple, as the Panthers’ receiving corps, which was their biggest strength in 2020, is now a position of concern.

In 2020, despite middling quarterback play at best, the Panthers had three wide receivers with impressive slash lines, with DJ Moore (66/1193/4) and Robbie Anderson (95/1096/3) being one of two wide receiver duos (DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett) to both surpass 1,000 yards receiving and Curtis Samuel (77/851/3) surpassing 1,000 yards if you include his 200 rushing yards on 41 carries. Not only did those three all post impressive receiving totals, but they also averaged 2.23, 1.99, and 1.94 yards per route run respectively, while ranking 26th, 41st, and 31st respectively among wide receivers on PFF.

In 2021, Moore continued being a #1 receiver, posting a 93/1157/4 slash line, his 3rd straight 1,000 yard season, but Samuel had signed with Washington, while Anderson regressed mightily, managing just a 53/519/5 slash line, despite actually playing more passing snaps in 2021, averaging just 0.83 yards per route run and ranking 96th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF. It was a career worst year for Anderson, so he should be better in 2022, still only in his age 29 season, but 2020 was a career best year, so it’s unlikely he bounces back to that level and his 1.53 yards per route run average over the past five seasons is middling at best. 

Moore will remain the #1 receiver and, as a highly talented former first round pick who is only in his age 25 season and who is now probably getting the best quarterback he’s had in his career, a career best year would not be a surprise in the slightest. For a player that has already consistently surpassed 1,000 yards receiving, that career best year could put him among the league’s leaders in receiving, especially without a ton of competition for targets.

Terrace Marshall was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft as a replacement for Curtis Samuel, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, averaging just 0.50 yards per route run, while finishing as PFF’s 113rd ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible across 422 snaps. Marshall’s struggles led to Brandon Zylstra, a 2017 undrafted free agent, playing a career high 334 snaps as, splitting time with Marshall as the #3 receiver. Zylstra averaged a decent 1.39 yards per route run average in 2021, but he has played just 549 total offensive snaps total in five seasons in the league and would be a very underwhelming #3 receiver if Marshall can’t take a step forward and lock down the #3 receiver job in his second year in the league.

Marshall could also face competition from veteran free agent acquisition Rashard Higgins. Higgins has mostly been a depth receiver in his career, but he’s surpassed 450 snaps played in four of six seasons in the league, while averaging 1.19 yards per route run, including 1.48 over the past four seasons, when his quarterback happened to be Baker Mayfield. He would be a middling #3 option at best, but his familiarity with Mayfield makes him at least worth noting. Marshall taking a big step forward in year two would be their best option at the #3 receiver spot, but that’s not a guarantee and, even if he does lock down the job, he could easily struggle, so it’s possible Higgins or Zylstra end up playing a significant role.

The Panthers also didn’t get much out of their tight ends last season, with Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble playing 703 snaps and 522 snaps respectively, but averaging just 0.63 yards per route run and 0.65 yards per route run respectively. Thomas was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and came into the league with upside, but he hasn’t developed into anything more than a solid blocker, averaging just 0.63 yards per route run for his career. Now going into his age 26 season, Thomas is unlikely to have further untapped upside. Tremble at least has upside, selected in the 3rd round just a year ago in 2021, and he certainly has the ability to take a step forward in his second season in the league, but, even if he does, he could remain an underwhelming option. 

Outside of DJ Moore and pass catching running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers lack reliable pass catching options, although it wouldn’t be hard for this group to be better than a year ago by default, with Anderson and Marshall struggling mightily and McCaffrey missing most of the season. Still, it’s unlikely this group approaches their 2020 level of play, which hurts the Panthers’ chances of being significantly better on offense than their middling 2020 unit, even with McCaffrey likely to be healthier than 2020 and a quarterback and offensive line that both could be better than 2020.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Any way you look at it, the Panthers offense figures to be significantly better in 2022 than it was in 2021 and they’re likely to be around a middling unit, similar to their 2020 offense. The 2021 Panthers finished 4th in defensive efficiency and, if you combined their 2020 offense and their 2021 defense, you would likely get a playoff team, but it’s not that simple, as it is unlikely the Panthers will be as good as they were defensively a year ago and it’s possible they could regress significantly. 

Part of it is just that it’s tougher to consistently play at a high level on defense than it is on offense. While an elite offense is largely quarterback driven, which usually remains steady year-to-year, an elite defense usually needs 7-9 players playing at an above average level and with defensive players leaving in free agency, getting hurt, or regressing on a regular basis in the NFL, it becomes very tough to maintain that high level of play every year. That should especially be true for the Panthers, who lost several key defenders from a year ago and now have a defense that much more closely resembles their mediocre 2020 unit than their dominant 2021 unit.

Their biggest loss is probably edge defender Haason Reddick, who signed with the Eagles on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season, after spending only one season in Carolina. Reddick’s run defense left something to be desired, but he led this team with 11 sacks in 2021 and backed it up with good peripheral pass rush stats, with another 11 quarterback hits and a 10.0% pressure rate, so he was a big part of the reason for their defensive improvement in 2021 and he’ll be a big loss, especially since the Panthers didn’t really do much to replace him, not adding any notable veterans in free agency and unable to address the position in the draft until the 6th round, as a result of their lack of draft picks.

That sixth round rookie, Amare Barno, could see action as a rookie, which tells you how thin this group is now, but mostly the Panthers will be hoping for more from a pair of holdovers, Yetur Gross-Matos and Marquis Haynes. Gross-Matos has the higher upside, selected in the 2nd round in 2020, but he’s been middling at best across snap counts of just 377 and 349 respectively thus far in his career. It’s possible he could take a big step forward in his 3rd year in the league and he’ll have plenty of opportunity to start and earn a big role, but he’s a projection to that bigger role and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled in it.

Haynes, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of an upside. He was selected in the 4th round in 2018, but hasn’t been more than a rotational reserve in his career, averaging 274 snaps per season over the past three years and maxing out at 390 snaps played in a season. Now in his 5th season in the league, Haynes has an obvious path to the biggest role of his career and he has been decent as a reserve, but he’s already in his age 29 season, meaning he’s unlikely to have any untapped upside, and he could easily struggle when forced into the biggest role of his career.

Fortunately, the Panthers still have Brian Burns, a 2019 1st round pick who has developed into a high level edge rusher over the past two seasons, totaling 18 sacks, 25 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate. Burns leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s still only in his age 24 season and has a sky high upside, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he improved against the run going forward, or even if he improved further as a pass rusher, with the upside to be one of the best edge rushers in the league for years to come. However, the Panthers’ defense will be hurt by not having both him and Reddick rushing the passer off the edge in 2022 and depth is a big concern behind Burns.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Panthers also lost a pair of significant contributors at the interior defender spot this off-season, with both DaQuan Jones (640 snaps) and Morgan Fox (561 snaps) signing elsewhere this off-season, after being useful in their lone year with the Panthers, signing last off-season and helping this defense improve significantly from 2020 to 2021. Jones was an above average player against the run and as a pass rusher (7.1% pressure rate), finishing as PFF’s 39th ranked interior defender overall, while Fox struggled against the run, but also was an effective pass rusher, with a 7.7% pressure rate, leading to him finishing with a middling overall grade from PFF despite his issues against the run.

The Panthers added Matt Ioannidis in free agency this off-season and he’s a solid starter, finishing average or better on PFF in four straight healthy seasons, including a 40th ranked finish among interior defenders on PFF across 608 snaps last season, but he can only replace one of Jones or Fox. Ioannidis is a better pass rusher than either Fox or Jones, with 24.5 sacks, 32 hits, and a 11.5% pressure rate in 73 career games, but he does consistently struggle against the run. He’s not a bad starter, but, without any other additions made at the position this off-season, the Panthers have very questionable depth behind him.

Bravvion Roy is their top returning reserve from a year ago, but he struggled across just 341 snaps, finishing 115th among 146 eligible interior defenders, after ranking 128th among 139 eligible interior defenders across 419 snaps as a rookie in 2020. He could be better in his third year in the league in 2020, but he was just a 6th round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he never developed into even a useful rotational player and he’s likely to prove to be overstretched if he has to play a larger role in 2022 than he has in his first two seasons in the league. 

Roy will likely have to play that larger role though, with their next best reserve option probably being 2021 5th round pick Daviyon Nixon, who only played 82 snaps as a rookie and is basically a complete unknown at the NFL level. He may have more untapped upside than Roy, but only by default. Both Nixon and Roy are likely to struggle in extended reserve action and would almost definitely be significant weaknesses if they had to step into the starting lineup in place of an injured starter.

One thing that could happen in 2022 that would compensate for their lack of depth would be a breakout season by Derrick Brown, who was selected 7th overall in 2020 and now heads into his third season in the league. Brown has been steady, if unspectacular thus far in his career, earning slightly above average grades from PFF across snap counts of 742 and 631 respectively, holding up against the run and playing at his best as a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 7.1% pressure rate in 32 career games, and he still has the upside and talent to make a big impact in year three if he can put it all together. 

That’s far from a guarantee, but it’s definitely a possibility and I would expect Brown to have his best year yet either way, even if he doesn’t happen to have a big breakout year and is only a little bit improved. He and Ioannidis should be an above average starting duo, but depth is very questionable. Reserves Bravvion Roy and Daviyon Nixon would likely struggle in significant action, while Brown and Ioannidis could get worn down if they have to play a huge snap count as the starters. That brings down the overall position grade somewhat significantly.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Panthers also lost every down off ball linebacker Jermaine Carter in free agency. That could have been addition by subtraction, as Carter was PFF’s 79th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible across 852 snaps in 2021, but the players the Panthers replaced him with are not necessarily going to be upgrades, as newcomers Damien Wilson and Cory Littleton also  finished just 77th and 64th respectively among off ball linebackers on snap counts of 866 and 663 respectively in 2021. Wilson has never been much better than that in 7 seasons in the league, finishing below average in 6 of those seasons and especially struggling last season when forced into a significant role. Littleton at least has some upside, but he’s not a guarantee to reach it and could easily struggle again. 

A starter for the past four seasons, Littleton was PFF’s 36th and 6th ranked off ball linebacker in his final seasons with the Rams in 2018 and 2019, while playing 964 snaps and 1,039 snaps respectively, before struggling mightily with the Raiders over the past two seasons, finishing below average in both seasons on snap counts of 849 and 663 respectively, having his role gradually scaled back and eventually getting released 2 years and 23.6875 million into a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal, leading to him winding up in Carolina on a much cheaper 1-year, 2.6 million dollar deal this off-season. Littleton was a worthwhile flyer at that price and could bounce back somewhat, but he also could easily struggle and, even if he does bounce back, it’s unlikely he comes close to playing like he did in his best season in the league in 2019.

Littleton and Wilson could both see significant roles as starters in this linebacking corps, playing in base packages with Shaq Thompson, who is the likely to be the only true every down linebacker in this group. Littleton and Wilson come with concerns, but the biggest concern for this group would be if Shaq Thompson regressed significantly, which is a possibility, as he ranked 15th among off ball linebackers in 2021, but only 31st in 2019 and 71st in 2020 in his first two seasons as an every down player. 

Thompson was better earlier in his career as a part-time player, but he hasn’t been a high level every down linebacker in any of his other six seasons in the league, so it’s very possible he isn’t as good in 2022 as he was in 2021, even if only a little bit. Thompson still elevates an otherwise very underwhelming linebacking corps, but it would hurt this defense if he was noticeably worse than a year ago, especially if he happened to regress to his 2020 form, when he was a below average player, a big part of the reason why they were just a middling defense that season.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Panthers also lost cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and AJ Bouye this off-season and, while neither of them played huge snap counts in 2021, playing 304 snaps and 401 snaps respectively, they were their top two cornerbacks in terms of coverage grade on PFF in their only season in Carolina, making an impact on a defense that was much more middling the year before. Gilmore especially played well, finishing 9th among cornerbacks in coverage grade, and the Panthers didn’t really replace either of them. 

They did retain Donte Jackson, who was also a free agent this off-season, bringing him back on a 3-year, 35.18 million dollar deal, but there’s a very good chance he isn’t worth that contract, which makes him the 17th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. Jackson was PFF’s 30th ranked cornerback in 2020, but that was the best season of his career and it came on just 599 snaps, with Jackson being middling at best across snap counts of 895, 726, and 717 in 2018, 2019, and 2021 respectively, including a slightly below average finish last season. Jackson was a 2nd round pick in 2018, but hasn’t consistently put it together, in part due to injuries, and, now in his age 27 season, I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly be worth being paid like a #1 cornerback, even if that is what he may be on this defense by default.

Without any significant replacements added for Gilmore and Bouye, the Panthers will be counting on getting more out of some young players. One young player who almost definitely will give them more is Jaycee Horn, the 8th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, whose career looked off to a promising start, before his rookie season was ended after 142 snaps in 3 games by an injury. He’s a bit of a wild card and an unknown commodity at the NFL level, but he showed a lot of promise in limited action last season and has the upside to be a consistently above average starter long-term, even if it takes him a couple years to reach his potential.

CJ Henderson is also a recent top-10 pick, but, compared to Horn, he is much less certain to give them significantly more than he did a year ago, even if all he gave them last year was 282 mediocre snaps. Henderson was actually originally drafted by the Jaguars, but struggled in 474 rookie year snaps with them and lasted two games into his second season in the league in 2021 before he was traded to the Panthers for a 3rd round pick and tight end Dan Arnold, a trade the Jaguars appear to have won thus far, even though they were selling low on a top-10 pick. Henderson still has upside, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t put it together and continued struggling, now likely expected to take on a larger role in his second season with the team.

Keith Taylor, a 2021 5th round pick, is also in the mix for a role, even though he was pretty mediocre on 448 snaps as a rookie and isn’t necessarily a guarantee to develop into a useful starter, given that he wasn’t highly drafted. Myles Hartsfield is a slot/safety hybrid option who could see a role at cornerback in sub packages, but the 2020 undrafted free agent struggled in the first extended action of his career across 472 snaps in 2021, finishing in just the 5th percentile among defensive backs on PFF. He’s no guarantee to be any better going forward and looks like a bottom of the roster talent.

Hartsfield probably doesn’t have much opportunity to earn a role at safety this season, as safety is the one position the Panthers actually upgraded on defense this off-season, signing Xavier Woods, who should be a good value on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. Woods has never been a top level safety, but he’s made 61 starts over the past four seasons, while finishing average or better on PFF in all four seasons, maxing out as their 28th ranked safety in 2019, so he should at least be an average starter, with the upside to be more. He should be an upgrade on Juston Burris and Sean Chandler, who played 420 snaps and 538 snaps respectively at safety last season and were pretty mediocre, as they have been throughout their careers. They will now be reserves with Woods coming in, roles they are much better fits in.

Woods will start opposite Jeremy Chinn, who remains as the other safety. A 2nd round pick in 2020, Chinn had a solid rookie season and then quickly developed into one of the Panthers’ best defensive players in his second season in the league in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked safety. Still only in his age 24 season, it’s possible he has more untapped upside and he should at least remain an above average starter going forward. He leads a secondary that is decent, but unspectacular overall.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Panthers had a below average special teams unit last season, ranking 24th in special teams DVOA, but there are some reasons for optimism in 2021. They added punter Johnny Hekker and returner Andre Roberts, who have been among the best players in the league at their positions in their respective careers, finishing in the top-7 at their position in 6 of 9 seasons and 4 of 8 seasons respectively in which they were the primary option at their position. Both would be significant upgrades at their respective positions if they played at that level in 2022.

However, the flip side of that is both Hekker and Roberts are going into their age 32 and age 34 season respectively and coming off of down years, finishing 11th and 37th respectively at their positions on PFF. On top of that, they didn’t have a single core special teamer finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF in 2021 and didn’t add any this off-season, while kicker Zane Gonzalez is unlikely to repeat a career best year, finishing 6th among kickers on PFF, after never finishing higher than 9th in any of his first four seasons in the league prior to last season. This is likely to be a below average group again, even if they may be slightly improved.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Panthers improved their offensive line earlier in the season and they were always likely to get a healthier season out of Christian McCaffrey, but, prior to their trade for Baker Mayfield, this looked likely to be another lost season for the Panthers, with the worst quarterback situation in the league and a defense that looks likely to be significantly worse than a year ago. Mayfield gives them a legitimate starting caliber quarterback, even if only a low-end one, and he comes at the price of a backup and a mid-round draft pick two years from now. 

The Panthers’ defense is still highly unlikely to be as good as a year ago and could be similar to their middling 2020 unit, but they probably won’t be bad on defense and they’re unlikely to be bad on offense, with an improved quarterback situation and more talent around the quarterback than a year ago. Ultimately, it’s still unlikely this team can earn a wild card spot in the NFC, but they will at least be a more competitive team than they would have been if they had to start Sam Darnold or Matt Corral all season. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Final Prediction: The Panthers will be more competitive with Baker Mayfield than they otherwise would have been, but still have an underwhelming roster and are likely to finish below .500.

Prediction: 6-11, 3rd in NFC South

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