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)

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

The Panthers have had a wild ride at quarterback this season and are now on their third quarterback of the season. Cam Newton limped through the first two games of the season with a foot injury that was worse than he let anyone know, costing them a pair of winnable games that were decided by a combined 9 points. Newton then shut himself down for the good of the team and backup Kyle Allen went on to win his next 4 games, making the Panthers look like a borderline contender going into their week 7 bye.

The wheels have fallen off for the Panthers since that bye week though, as they rank 31st in first down rate differential over that stretch at -7.20%. The offense, which ranks 21st in first down rate over that stretch at 34.99%, hasn’t been their biggest problem, as their defense has fallen from a 33.97% first down rate allowed over their first 6 games (7th in the NFL) to a 42.19% first down rate allowed over the past 9 weeks (31st in the NFL), but their offense has been carried by running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore and Allen was responsible for 18 giveaways over a 8-game stretch, leading to him being benched for 3rd round rookie Will Grier before last week’s game in Indianapolis.

Grier’s debut went about as bad as possible, as he completed 27 of 44 for 224 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 picks and led the Panthers to just a 26.76% first down rate in a 38-6 loss to the Colts, who entered last week ranking just 22nd in first down rate allowed. Grier struggled in the pre-season as well, leading to the Panthers naming Allen the backup going into the season. Grier will get another shot in the Panthers’ season finale, which isn’t a bad idea because the Panthers used a relatively high pick on him and need to evaluate him in game action, but he’s unlikely to be much better in his 2nd start, especially with top wide receiver DJ Moore out for this game after missing most of last week’s game. The defense also hasn’t gotten any better since firing head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and the team seems to have somewhat mailed it in. Overall, they rank just 30th in my roster rankings.

The Saints, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum, tied for the best record in the NFC at 12-3 with a shot at a first round bye. Making that even more impressive is the fact that quarterback Drew Brees missed close to 6 full games with injury. Backup Teddy Bridgewater was able to squeak out some wins in games in which their defense played at a high level, but their offense has been significantly better with Brees on the field this season, moving the chains at a 34.15% first down rate with Bridgewater on the field (most similar to the 24th ranked Lions on the season) and a 41.52% first down rate with Brees on the field (most similar to the 2nd ranked Chiefs on the season). 

The Saints’ offense has been especially good in recent weeks, ranking only behind the Ravens with a 43.36% first down rate over their past 6 games. Their defense took a big hit a couple weeks ago when defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport went down for the season and they’ll also be without safety Marcus Williams this week, but the Saints have more than enough offense to compensate and look like one of the top few Super Bowl contenders going into the post-season. They should be able to take care of business against a hapless Panthers team in their final post-season tune-up.

Unfortunately, the Saints are 13-point road favorites in this game, up from 10.5 on the early line a week ago. While the Saints should win this game pretty easily, there’s definitely uncertainty over whether or not they’ll play a complete enough game to cover this large spread, especially with Williams out. There’s also uncertainty in this game because, due to tiebreakers, the outcome of this game will only affect the Saints’ seeding if the Packers lose as heavy favorites to the Lions.

If the Packers win and Seahawks defeat the 49ers on Sunday Night to win the NFC West, the Saints would move into the 2nd seed in the NFC regardless of the outcome of this game because they currently have a one game lead and a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Seahawks. If the 49ers win that game, the Saints would be stuck in the 3rd seed regardless of the outcome of this game because the 49ers have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. 

Saints head coach Sean Payton has said he will treat this as a real game, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pull his starters in the 2nd half if the Packers are up big on the Lions because that will render this game meaningless. That would allow the Panthers to potentially get a backdoor cover even if they get dominated when the Saints’ starters are in the game. For that reason, I’m taking the Panthers, but this is a no confidence pick because of all the uncertainty.

New Orleans Saints 31 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina +13

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-9) at Indianapolis Colts (6-8)

The Kyle Allen era in Carolina got off to a great start, as the 2018 undrafted free agent won his first 4 starts after taking over for an injured Cam Newton week 3, but things have gone south in a hurry. Since that 4-game winning streak, the Panthers have lost 7 of 8 games to fall out of playoff contention completely. Over that stretch, they have the 3rd worst first down rate differential in the league at -4.42%. 

The offense actually hasn’t been the problem, as they’ve had a 36.65% first down rate over that stretch, 11th in the NFL, but their defense, which ranked 7th in first down rate allowed at 33.97% in the first 6 games of the season, but has fallen to 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.07% over the past 8 games. The Panthers fired head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera a couple weeks ago, but it hasn’t seemed to make a difference in two games against the Falcons and Seahawks.

After firing their head coach a couple weeks ago, the Panthers are now benching Allen for third round rookie Will Grier. Even though the offense hasn’t really been the problem, it’s understandable why the Panthers would make this decision. Allen hasn’t played well, with the offense being carried by feature back Christian McCaffrey and #1 wide receiver DJ Moore, and, in a lost season, it’s worth giving Grier a shot. 

I don’t have high expectations for Grier though. He struggled in the pre-season, losing the backup job to Allen as a result, and could also be without starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel after he picked up an injury at practice this week. The Panthers are also in a tough spot this week, playing a meaningless non-conference matchup before a big divisional home matchup against the Saints to close out the season next week. Teams are 20-42 ATS since 2016 before being 7+ point home underdogs and the Panthers are 10.5-point home underdogs on the early line.

This isn’t an easy matchup for the Panthers either, on the road in Indianapolis. The Colts are just 6-8, but they’ve played better than their record has suggested, ranking 16th in first down rate differential at -0.17%. They got blown out against the Saints last week, but before that their only loss by more than a touchdown came against the Titans in a game in which the Colts were about to take the lead in the 4th quarter before a blocked kick returned for a touchdown. I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Colts this week because they could be flat after getting eliminated from post-season contention last week, but I think they’ll be more focused because they were just blown out, so they should be able to take care of business against an inferior team in a bad spot.

Indianapolis Colts 26 Carolina Panthers 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -6.5

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (10-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-8)

The Panthers got off to a 4-2 start, but they’ve been an entirely different team since their week 7 bye, ranking 29th in first down rate differential over that stretch at -5.60% and losing 6 of 7 games. First time starting quarterback Kyle Allen has regressed since a hot start to the season, but the offense hasn’t been the problem, as they’ve ranked 13th in first down rate at 35.67% since week 7. The problem has been the defense, which ranked 7th in first down rate allowed at 33.97% before their bye, but has fallen to 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.27% since their bye. The Panthers fired head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera a couple weeks ago, but it didn’t seem to make a difference in the Panthers blowout loss in Atlanta last season.

That being said, I actually kind of like the Panthers this week, as 6-point home underdogs against the Seahawks. The Seahawks have 10 wins, but they haven’t blown teams out, with just one of their wins coming by more than a touchdown. Their average margin of victory is just 5.60 points per game and 6 of their wins have come by 6 points or fewer, relevant given this line is 6. Overall on the season, the Seahawks rank 13th in point differential at +20 and 17th in first down rate differential at -0.55% and could easily be 8-5 right now if not for missed makeable field goals in wins over the 49ers and Rams. If that were the case, they’d be fighting for a playoff spot and likely would not be favored by 6 points on the road against the Panthers.

The Seahawks have been even worse in recent weeks, ranking 25th in first down rate differential since week 7 at -3.05%, only about two and a half percent better than the Panthers over that stretch, as much as Carolina has struggled. The Seahawks also come into this game very banged up, with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney out and fellow defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and cornerback Shaq Griffin considered true question marks. I have this line calculated at Seattle -3, so we’re getting enough line value with the Panthers for them to be worth betting at home this week.

Final Update: Both Ansah and Griffin are inactive for this game, along with Clowney. Those are three key players on this defense and my calculated line drops to Seattle -2 without them. Despite that, this line has moved up to 6.5 in some places, so I’m raising the confidence on this pick.

Seattle Seahawks 33 Carolina Panthers 31

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6.5

Confidence: High

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-7) at Atlanta Falcons (3-9)

When these two teams met a few weeks ago, the Panthers were favored by 4.5 points at home, but ended up getting blown out by a final score of 29-3. Now in the rematch, the Falcons are favored by a field goal at home, suggesting these two teams are about even, whereas the previous line suggested the Panthers were a couple points better. We’re not getting as much line value with the Falcons as we were in the previous matchup, but this line is still off. 

The Falcons have lost back-to-back home games since the previous matchup, first to the Buccaneers and then to the Saints, but they actually won the first down rate battle against New Orleans, despite missing their top-2 receivers in terms of yards per game, Julio Jones and Austin Hooper. Both of those players will return this week, the latter from a 3-game absence. On the season, the Falcons are actually about even in first down rate differential, ranking 18th in the NFL at -0.29%. Their 3-9 record is largely the result of their -11 turnover margin (4th worst in the NFL), but turnover margins don’t correlate week-to-week, so the Falcons aren’t necessarily going to continue losing the turnover battle going forward. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, have also lost back-to-back games since the previous matchup, but that’s part of a larger trend for this team, as they’ve completely bottomed out over the past couple months after a 4-2 start. Since the start of week 7, only the Raiders and the Jaguars have a worse first down rate differential than the Panthers, who are at -7.22%. Their one win during that time frame came against the Titans in a game in which the Panthers lost the first down rate battle but won by 10 because the Titans missed 3 field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. 

On the season, the Panthers rank just 23rd in first down rate differential at -2.56%, despite facing a much easier schedule than the Falcons (58% opponents win percentage vs 51%). With Jones and Hooper back and the Panthers trending downwards, I have this line calculated at Atlanta -8. A trip to San Francisco on deck looms as a potential distraction (teams are 24-49 ATS as favorites before being double digit underdogs since 2008), but the Falcons are a great value at -3 and bettable at -3.5 as well.

Atlanta Falcons 31 Carolina Panthers 24

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3

Confidence: High

Washington Redskins at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (2-9) at Carolina Panthers (5-6)

This was one of the toughest games of the week to decide. On one hand, the Panthers have struggled in recent weeks with Kyle Allen falling back to earth after surprisingly playing well in his first few starts of the season and, as a result, they probably shouldn’t be favored by double digits against anyone, even the Redskins. Dating back to week 7, the Panthers have a first down rate differential of -7.81%, 29th in the NFL over that time period. I still have them calculated as 7.5-point home favorites this week against one of the worst few teams in the league, but we’re getting line value with the visitors.

On the other hand, the Redskins are in a tough spot as big underdogs before being big underdogs again. It’s tough for an inferior team to keep it close against a superior team with another tough game on deck, as teams are 29-59 ATS since 2002 as underdogs of 10 or more before being underdogs of 10 or more again. The Redskins are currently 14.5-point underdogs on the early line for next week’s matchup in Green Bay with the Packers and, in a lost season, might not bring their best effort for this game with a tougher game on deck. I’m taking the Redskins for pick ‘em purposes, but this is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week and a push is a strong possibility.

Carolina Panthers 20 Washington Redskins 10

Pick against the spread: Washington +10

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-5) at New Orleans Saints (8-2)

The Saints surprisingly lost at home to the then 1-7 Falcons a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t even really close, with a final score of 26-9. However, the Falcons were better than that 1-7 record suggested, entering that game 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, and the Falcons have also since gone on to defeat the Panthers 29-3, so that loss doesn’t look so bad anymore, especially since the Saints were able to follow it up with a convincing 34-17 win in Tampa Bay last week. 

With Drew Brees back under center, the Saints are currently the top team in my roster rankings. Their defense has been solid all season, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 34.00%, and their offense has been significantly better in games started by Brees than it has been in games started by Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater led this offense to a 34.15% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 23rd ranked Panthers on the season, while Brees has led this offense to a 38.10% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 10th ranked Colts on the season. Their offense could have even more room for upside, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Brees’ starts last season. Even if this offense doesn’t improve any further, the Saints are arguably the only team in the league with both a top-10 offense and defense. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, have struggled mightily in recent weeks, with backup quarterback Kyle Allen unsurprisingly falling back to earth after a surprisingly strong start to the season. After Allen won his first 4 starts, the Panthers have lost 3 of 4, with their only win in that stretch coming against the Titans in a game they lost the first down rate battle by 3.95%, winning by 10 in a game the Titans missed 3 makeable field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. On the season, the Panthers rank just 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.59%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 22nd. With the Saints at the top of my roster rankings, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -14, so we’re getting good line value with the Saints as 10-point home favorites.

Unfortunately, the Saints are in a much worse spot than the Panthers this week, which hurts their chances of covering. While the Saints have a rematch with the Falcons in 4 days on Thanksgiving, the Panthers have arguably their easiest game of the season on deck, at home against the Redskins, a game in which they are expected to be 9-point favorites. Underdogs of a touchdown or more are 64-41 ATS since 1989 before being favorites of a touchdown or more. The Saints will be favored next week as well, but there could still be some split focus with a team that just defeated them on deck, especially before a short week (favorites cover at just a 44% rate before a short week). The Saints should still be the right side, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet on it. If this line drops and/or cornerback Marshon Lattimore is active for the Saints, I may reconsider.

New Orleans Saints 34 Carolina Panthers 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (2-7) at Carolina Panthers (5-4)

At 2-7, the Falcons have one of the worst records in the NFL, but peripheral stats have always suggested they’ve played better than the outcome of their games would suggest. Over the past couple weeks, the outcomes of their games have significantly improved, as they pulled off a massive upset as 13.5-point underdogs in New Orleans last week and prior to that they played a competitive game against the Seahawks with backup quarterback Matt Schaub under center. 

The Falcons won the first down rate battle by +8.57% and +6.89% respectively in those two games and now rank 16th on the season in first down rate differential at +0.65%, which aligns with my roster rankings, which have them 18th. They have the league’s worst turnover margin at -12, but that’s largely because of a 31.82% fumble recovery rate (2nd worst in the NFL) and turnover margins are unpredictable on a week-to-week basis anyway. If they can play turnover neutral football the rest of the way, they could easily continue pulling upsets in the second half of the season.

The Panthers, on the other hand, have a turnover margin of +4. They haven’t overly benefitted from turnovers, but, even with a positive turnover margin, they have a negative point differential at -3. They have a 5-4 record, but rank 23rd in first down rate differential at -2.55%, a few spots behind the Falcons, which is also consistent with my roster rankings, which also have them 23rd. The Falcons have some injury concerns on offense, with tight end Austin Hooper and running back Devonta Freeman both out, but the latter was not playing well at all and they get a big re-addition on defense with cornerback Desmond Trufant returning from a 4-game absence. The Panthers, meanwhile, will be without starting cornerback Ross Cockrell and could also be without fellow starting cornerback Donte Jackson. 

The Falcons are also in a significantly better spot. While the Panthers have a much bigger game in New Orleans next week, the Falcons get to return home and face a much easier Buccaneers’ squad. Underdogs are 69-34 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are met in this game. On top of that, divisional home favorites are just 29-64 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs. The Panthers could easily overlook the Falcons this week with arguably the toughest game of their season on deck and if that happens the Falcons could easily catch them off guard and pull the upset this week.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost some line value with the Falcons since last week, with the Falcons going from +7 on the early line to +4.5 this week, but I have the Falcons a couple points better in my rankings and I have this line calculated at even as a result. About 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer, so we’re still getting good protection in case the Falcons can’t pull the upset, but I like the Falcons chances of winning straight up as well, in such a great spot. This is my Pick of the Week.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Carolina Panthers 27 Upset Pick +175

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +4.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-3) at Green Bay Packers (7-2)

The Packers surprisingly lost to the Chargers last week, but the Chargers were healthier in that game than they’ve been all season, so it’s not a huge surprise the Packers had trouble with a team that was one of the better teams in the league a year ago. The Packers are still well positioned in the NFC at 7-2 and are still one of my top ranked teams. They also tend to do well off of a loss in the Aaron Rodgers era, going 34-21 ATS off of a loss with Rodgers under center since his first season as a starter in 2008. 

The Packers also head home this week, where they are 41-21 ATS since 2011 in games Rodgers starts and finishes. They face a Panthers team that is 5-3 and that has lost just once in 6 games since inserting backup quarterback Kyle Allen into the lineup for an injured Cam Newton, but that loss came by 38, while some of their wins have been close games that could have gone either way. On the season, they have just a +5 point differential, despite benefitting from a +6 turnover margin that ranks 5th in the NFL. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and the Panthers rank just 21st in the league with a -2.52% first down rate differential. That lines up with my roster rankings, which have them 18th.

I have this line calculated at Green Bay -10, giving us a ton of line value with the Packers as 5-point favorites. The line has shifted a point and a half from the early line last week as a result of the Packers’ loss, but even at -6.5 the Packers would have been an enticing bet. I like their chances of bouncing back at home a lot, against an overrated opponent, especially with a bye on deck. Home favorites of 6+ are 49-17 ATS since 2002 before a bye and, while the Packers aren’t favored by that many points, they should be, so the logic still holds. They should be focused and take care of business without any upcoming distractions. This would be my Pick of the Week if the Packers didn’t have a pair of banged up key defensive backs (Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos), but both seem likely to play through their injuries and the Packers are otherwise healthy.

Green Bay Packers 30 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -5

Confidence: High

Tennessee Titans at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 9 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (4-4) at Carolina Panthers (4-3)

Prior to last week’s loss, the Panthers were undefeated with backup quarterback Kyle Allen under center and could have arguably been undefeated on the season had they started Allen to begin the season instead of a very injured Cam Newton, who started 2 games that were lost by a combined 9 points. However, a couple of their victories also could have gone the other way and they were embarrassed in their loss last week, losing 51-13 in San Francisco. 

On the season, they rank just 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.41% after that loss. The 49ers are arguably the best team in the NFL, but that was still a humiliating defeat for a team that considered itself in contention, and even before that loss to San Francisco, the Panthers ranked just 13th in first down rate differential at +1.71%. Allen is seemingly regressing weekly and overall he ranks 5th worst in yards per attempt (6.66) among qualifying quarterbacks. 

The Titans are also starting a backup quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, but he’s playing at a higher level (73.1% completion, 8.32 YPA) and is a much more experienced player. He’s not a great starter, but the Titans have a strong roster overall and don’t need much more than competent quarterback play from him. Even with underwhelming quarterback play, the Titans went 9-7 last season, despite facing a league high 9 playoff teams (4-5).

Their defense ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.77% in 2018 and that has carried into this season, as they rank 5th at 32.68%. If Tannehill can continue playing competently, they should be a tough team going forward. Even with Mariota starting the first 6 games of the season, the Titans rank 13th in first down rate at +1.14%, significantly better than the Panthers, who rank 22nd. That’s consistent with my roster rankings, which have the Titans 11th and the Panthers 18th. 

I have this line calculated at even, so we’re getting good line value with the Titans at +3.5, with about 1 in 4 games decided by 3 points or fewer. They’d probably be my Pick of the Week if they had defensive lineman Jurrell Casey healthy, but the Titans are deep at that position with DaQuon Jones and Jeffrey Simmons, a first round rookie who has played well in his first 2 games back from a torn ACL, so losing Casey isn’t as big of a deal as it could have been. The Titans also will have cornerback Adoree Jackson, edge rusher Cameron Wake, and middle linebacker Jayon Brown, who’ve all missed time previously this season. I still like the Titans a lot as long as this line is higher than a field goal.

Tennessee Titans 20 Carolina Panthers 19 Upset Pick +165

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +3.5

Confidence: High