Panthers Season Preview: Baker, McCaffrey, McAdoo, and the offensive line are keys for a successful season

By Zach Goins

August 25, 2022

Photo: Alex Brandon / AP

After seven long months without Carolina Panthers football, at last it’s almost time to kick off the 2022 season.

For some, the last half-year has been a much needed rest from the heartbreak of three consecutive five-win seasons. For others, they’ve been counting down the seconds waiting for another chance to keep pounding.

In August, anything seems possible, and against our better judgment, hopes are once again high for the Carolina Panthers this season. It’s a make-or-break year for third-year head coach Matt Rhule, there’s a new quarterback in town in Baker Mayfield, and a new offensive coordinator to go with him. It’s another chance for a fresh start in Carolina.

Watch episode one of Panthers Camp Confidential 2022

Dreams and hopes are lovely, but what needs to happen to make this year the year for the Carolina Panthers? Let’s take a look at the five keys to a successful 2022 campaign. 

Can Baker Cook? 

Baker Mayfield is now officially the Panthers starting quarterback come Week 1. Carolina traded for the former first-overall pick in early July, and it appeared to only be a matter of time before he would get the nod. Now, just weeks away from kicking off the 2022 season against his former team, Mayfield is settling into his new role.

Coming off a season in which the Panthers struggled under center, bouncing from Darnold to Cam Newton to P.J. Walker, Mayfield’s arrival is intended to bring a bit more stability to the position, although he is no stranger to ups and downs. In 14 starts last season with the Cleveland Browns, Mayfield completed 60% of his passes for 3,010 yards and 17 touchdowns with 13 interceptions, not significantly better than Darnold’s own 60% completion rate and 2,527 yards, but a step above his nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. What Mayfield does bring to the table is a bit of playoff experience, having led the Browns to their first postseason appearance (and victory) since 2002 during the 2020 season. 

One luxury Mayfield will have over past Panthers quarterbacks is a better offensive line, something that has been rare in recent years for Carolina. This year’s first-round pick, Ikem Ekwonu, has locked down the starting left tackle position after a strong showing in training camp, while second-year player Brady Christenson continues to grow in the interior and veteran Taylor Moton holds down the right side. 

Mayfield will have one of the league’s best receivers at his disposal in DJ Moore. For the last three seasons, Moore has topped 1,100 receiving yards even with underwhelming quarterback play, proving that all Mayfield needs to do is find a way to get the ball in his hands and good things will happen. Meanwhile, wide receiver Robbie Anderson will need to bounce back this year after a disappointing 2021 plagued with drops. 

The return of CMC 

It’d be easy enough to copy and paste this section over from last year’s season preview. Nothing has been the same for running back Christian McCaffrey since his record-breaking 1,000-1,000 season in 2019, as injuries have cut both his 2020 and 2021 seasons short. With just 10 appearances over the last two seasons combined, the Panthers will need McCaffrey back in a big way to right the ship this year.

Reports out of training camp have proven he’s still the same dynamic CMC, but only time will tell if he’s back for real this time. It’s no secret that having a threat like McCaffrey would be a tremendous boost for Mayfield with his ability to run routes out of the backfield and carry the load in the ground game, alleviating some pressure from the offensive line. 

Load management and protecting McCaffrey’s health will make or break Carolina’s season. If Panthers fans want to see CMC come Week 18, expect a lot of backup Chuba Hubbard mixed into the lineup. Last season in McCaffrey’s absence, Hubbard rushed for a respectable 612 yards and five touchdowns, proving he’s more than capable of sharing the rock with CMC.

New Offensive Coordinator Ben McAdoo 

You can’t talk about Mayfield and McCaffrey without mentioning new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. The former New York Giants head coach joined the Panthers in January, replacing Joe Brady as the offensive play caller. 

So far under Rhule, the offense has yet to figure out how to unlock the full potential of all its weapons, and much of that has been due to inconsistent quarterback play. Enter, McAdoo.

Outside of his time as a head coach, McAdoo has proven himself to be somewhat of a quarterback whisperer. As the Giants’ offensive coordinator in 2014-2015, he helped revive an aging Eli Manning and coached him to two of the three best statistical years of his career. In 2020 as quarterback’s coach for the lowly Jaguars, he was able to coax solid quarterback play out of Gardner Minshew. With all that being said, McAdoo knows how to work with what he’s got. At each stop, he’s been able to tailor his offensive scheme to best fit the skill set of his quarterback.

So what is that scheme? Traditionally, McAdoo has embraced an up-tempo, West Coast-style offense that spreads out defenses and lets playmakers go to work. With a stable loaded with explosive threats like McCaffrey and Moore, expect to see quick passes and screens just to get the ball in their hands, particularly as the quarterbacks are still getting settled. McAdoo’s past has also placed an emphasis on involving the tight end, something Carolina hasn’t succeeded at since Greg Olsen’s departure following the 2019 season. 

While McAdoo’s two years leading the Giants isn’t exactly illustrious, he adds additional head coaching experience to Rhule’s staff for the first time, something former head coach Ron Rivera said was key for his development as a young coach. The Panthers have also added another former head coach in new secondary coach Steve Wilks, who was previously with the Panthers as defensive coordinator under Rivera. 

Pressure off the Edge 

Flipping over to the defensive side, few things are more exciting than watching edge rusher Brian Burns play football. After earning his first Pro Bowl nod last year, Burns is entering year four coming off back-to-back nine sack seasons, and looking for more. But who will step up opposite him?

Last year’s duo of Burns and Haason Reddick is no longer, with Reddick heading to the Eagles. That means a new edge rusher is needed, and it’s time for Yetur Gross-Matos to step up. The 2020 second-round pick has shown flashes of brilliance while battling through injuries, missing a combined seven games over two seasons. As a bigger body than the departed Reddick, Gross-Matos can not only help Burns in the pass rush, but he can also solidify the rush defense on early downs.

Speaking of that rush defense, 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown will be expected to continue to grow in the interior defensive line, building off the success of his first two seasons. At the next level, Shaq Thompson and Frankie Luvu return as Carolina’s top two linebackers, but the defense will be looking for a new man in the middle. Veteran free agent Damien Wilson is expected to step up at middle linebacker, after posting career-high numbers last season in Jacksonville.

Jaycee Horn 

The final piece of the puzzle on defense lies in the secondary. Veteran cornerback Donte Jackson is back with a new three-year contract, but all eyes will be on the return of Jaycee Horn.

The 2021 first-round pick was drafted to be the Panthers new lockdown corner, and he was living up to the hype, allowing just two catches for 18 yards on 69 coverage snaps. That is, until a foot injury in Week 3 sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Despite the injury, Rhule’s faith in Horn remained through the roof, with the cornerback reportedly being the only player on the team’s “no trade list” during the offseason. 

So, it’s safe to say expectations are high for Horn, as Carolina looks for him to pick right up where he left off last year. 

It’s not just Rhule and the Panthers who have high hopes for Horn, the national media does, too. ESPN’s Ryan Clark lists Horn as his No. 1 breakout player for 2022, coming in ahead of first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence, while former All-Pro NFL cornerback and analyst DeAngelo Hall heaped praise on Horn as well

The Carolina Panthers kick off the 2022 season September 11 at home against the Cleveland Browns.

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