In Charlotte, they sometimes think back to week 16 of last season. Ron Rivera came with the Washington Football Team to visit the franchise that he brought to the Superbowl in 2015. The Panthers won that game and while this may have been good for the morale of the players, it didn’t help the draft pick in the upcoming draft. Instead of opting for third place, Matt Rhule’s team moved up to eighth. We now know that third place proved to be unprecedentedly valuable in the 2021 draft.
It also meant that picking a quarterback in the draft would be a challenge for the Carolina Panthers, who had seen it again after one season with Teddy Bridgewater. With that, there was immediately a clean task for Scott Fitterer; the new general manager that came over from the Seahawks. Owner David Tepper wanted a new QB anyway. Nearly that was Matthew Stafford, but at the last minute the Rams still hijacked him and the Panthers were left empty-handed.
It was decided in Carolina not to wait for the draft and to immediately switch to plan B. The Jets chose a new QB and so Sam Darnold was available. Darnold, still only 24 years old, couldn’t have done it in New York. In Charlotte, he gets another chance to restart his career. Incidentally, it is very questionable to what extent the owner is really happy with Darnold under center. He has expressed several times that he wants a QB who can take the team to the Super Bowl. Darnold has not given that impression in his fledgling career.
Outside of the trade for Darnold, the Panthers were remarkably quiet. The biggest fish caught was Haason Reddick. After a great season in Arizona, he was captured relatively cheaply. Denzel Perryman, provided injury-free, could also prove to be a bargain. The fans became less enthusiastic about the offensive line reinforcements. Cameron Irving and Pat Elflein were not exactly the names that were hoped for. The best news for Panthers fans came late in free agency. Just before the deadline, right tackle Taylor Moton received a well-deserved extension.
Scott Fitterer wanted to show himself clearly in his first year as Carolina Panthers GM. After three days, the Panthers’ trades could no longer be counted on one hand. Trained by the Seattle Seahawks, Fitterer decided to step back many times to raise additional draft capital. That worked out great. It provided Carolina with many extra options, especially in width. Wide receiver Terrace Marshal Jr was reunited with OC Joe Brady. Brady Christensen was brought in as an offensive tackle going forward and Tommy Tremble should become the tight end who can finally fill the gap left by Greg Olsen.
The most talked about was the first pick. Since Darnold had already been brought in, the Panthers let Justin Fields run. Also failed to trade backwards in the first round, which in all likelihood was the plan. That’s why they chose cornerback Jaycee Horn. A raw talent that can immediately give this position group an enormous boost. Should Darnold fail to make it to Charlotte and Justin Fields in Chicago prove a revelation, policymakers will often be reminded of this choice.
As for the guns, things are going well for OC Joe Brady. ‘CMC’ returns and the gap left by Curtis Samuel has been filled by Terrace Marshall Jr and David Moore. In addition, Robby Anderson and DJ Moore formed one of the best wide receiver duos in the National Football League (NFL) last year. Enough toys for Brady, who is after a head coach position in the league.
In fact, there has been one major problem within the Carolina Panthers offense for years: the offensive line. This year, too, this group is a cause for concern. It is true that Taylor Moton, one of the best RTs in the NFL, was signed for a long time, but all other positions are poorly occupied. Cameron Irving or Trent Scott who came over from the Cowboys, both no high flyers, will have to fill the LT position. There are certainly no top players in the guard positions either.
To give Darnold a good shot, he would really have to operate behind a formidable offensive line. The fear of many fans is that he is often put under pressure, because his blindsight in particular can not be defended well.
When coach Matt Rhule was in charge last year, he and his team initially focused on building the defense. That seems to have worked quite well a year later. Although many names within this defense may not ring a bell, this is a young group of players who are brimming with talent.
The defensive line in particular can score high. Second-year DT Derrick Brown, for example, must be able to take a big step. Edge rusher Brian Burns will take advantage of the fact that Haason Reddick won’t be all focus on him. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if Burns is in the top 5 in sack count at the end of the year.
The secondary is also quite boosted. In addition to drafting Horn, the Panthers also attracted experienced cornerback AJ Bouye. As a result, DC Phil Snow suddenly has a much deeper selection with which he can go in many directions. Yet there are also concerns. Despite Denzel Perryman joining the linebackers, the gap left by Luke Kuechly has never really been filled. It is up to Shaq Thompson to show next season that he is worth his expensive contract.
With a good dose of scoreboard journalism, you could say that the Carolina Panthers underperformed last year. Still, it was okay. During eight of the eleven defeats, Carolina had a good chance of winning until the final phase. Add to that the fact that they had by far the toughest schedule in the NFL. That schedule looks, at least on paper, a lot less heavy in 2021. With a wider roster than last year, the Panthers hope to battle the Saints for second in the division.
The ceiling of this team is high, but the floor is very low. If Darnold fails to improve and the offensive line fails again, this season could turn out to be a huge disappointment. Nevertheless, the expectation is that this team, especially because the defense has been considerably strengthened, can do a lot better than last year. With the Buccaneers in the same division, direct play-offs are an illusion for now.