By Zach Goins
August 8, 2021
Photo: Alex Cason
As August begins and the Carolina summer gets stickier, it can only mean one thing: NFL training camp is in full swing. With the preseason kicking off and the regular season right around the corner, the Panthers are once again fine tuning the team in preparation for the 2021 campaign.
After an up-and-down (but mainly down) debut season for head coach Matt Rhule, the Panthers will look to turn things around this season– and they’ve made quite a few changes to set the transformation into motion. From bringing in a new quarterback to signing veteran defenders and adding a solid draft class, the turnover in Carolina has been real. With a fresh-faced coaching staff and general manager, the loss of two franchise players in Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, and still relatively new ownership, this Panthers organization is unrecognizable compared to their Super Bowl season in 2015-16.
Now that the pads are on and practice is cranking up, it’s time to see how all of the changes will work out. Three straight losing seasons have fans desperate for a turnaround, so while some change may sting, it’s a promising sign that moves are being made to get the Panthers back in the playoffs. But with change comes uncertainty– and there’s no shortage of questions surrounding the 2021 Panthers.
Can Darnold deliver?
Quarterback Sam Darnold was definitely Carolina’s flashiest acquisition this offseason, as the team traded three draft picks for the former third-overall pick, but now it’s time to see how it translates to the field. The Panthers had a number of woes last season, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater accounted for quite a few of them. Change under center was inevitable, but picking up a guy like Darnold was an option that seemed to materialize out of thin air. His three years with the Jets were less than stellar, but two of those seasons were under head coach Adam Gase. When Gase was with the Dolphins, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was hardly impressive, but has since turned in an excellent few years in Tennessee after escaping his old head coach. Now Panthers fans are hoping Darnold can do the same.
Early reports from training camp in Spartanburg made it sound like Darnold was going through some growing pains in his first few interception-filled practices, but he’s since turned a corner and has the offense moving in the right direction. Reconnecting with wide receiver and former Jets teammate Robby Anderson should be a warm welcome for Darnold, considering the two connected on 11 touchdown passes in two years with the Jets.
At just 24 years old, Darnold still has plenty of potential to unlock and room to grow. In order to make sure the Panthers don’t end up with the same old Sam from New York, Darnold will need to make strides when it comes to decision making. He has a strong arm and he likes to take chances, but this leads to misread coverages and forced throws, as seen by his 11 interceptions in 12 games last year. It doesn’t matter how many weapons Darnold has around him if he can’t figure out how to use them, so offensive coordinator Joe Brady will have his hands full with the Darnold Project.
Offensive Line durability
The number one thing that goes hand-in-hand with a productive quarterback is a successful and healthy offensive line. If Darnold is ever going to prove himself under center, he’ll need to stay upright, something Carolina struggled to do last year, giving up 36 sacks (17th).
The only sure bet on the offensive line is Taylor Moton, the fifth-year right tackle who just signed a four-year extension to stay in Carolina. Beyond Moton, the rest of the offensive line is either young, inconsistent, or a combination of the two. The only other guaranteed starter is veteran center Matt Paradis, who showed considerable growth last season after an underwhelming first year in Carolina. The biggest question lies, as always, at left tackle. The revolving door of bodies who have filled that position will likely continue this year, as third-year players Greg Little and Denis Daley are both in the running. Although if things get dire, Moton has proven he can swap sides and successfully fill in on the left side.
Return of C-Mac
Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the best players in football, and his absence was felt last season. McCaffrey only appeared in three games in 2020, and the numbers speak for themselves: two of the team’s three highest scoring totals occurred in games CMC played in, as well as three of the five highest yardage totals.
However big his return may be, don’t expect it to be as whopping as his 1,000-yard rushing, 1,000-yard receiving campaign in 2019. As the years and injuries add up, expect McCaffrey’s load to be lightened a bit to help sustain his career in Carolina. The addition of fourth-round draft pick Chuba Hubbard from Oklahoma State will provide a bit of depth at running back after the departure of last year’s replacement, Mike Davis.
According to McCaffrey, there’s no shortage of potential for Carolina’s offense.
“I think we can do everything well,” McCaffrey said. “Our O-line is awesome, our quarterback’s great, our receivers are special. From there, to have a complete offense, it’s not beating ourselves and being consistent. We’re going to make big plays, but it’s being efficient, no penalties, no miscommunications, those are the things that take you from an all-right team to a great team.”
Jaycee Horn and the secondary
For the first time in a while, the Panthers defensive backfield appears to be coming into the season as a strength and not a question mark. The unit improved steadily each week under defensive coordinator Phil Snow last season, and the addition of eighth-overall pick Jaycee Horn at cornerback will only strengthen the group.
Horn has already notched a handful of interceptions through the first week and a half of training camp, and is earning praise from the staff.
“He definitely has instincts,” Rhule said of Horn. “He just has to master the details of our defense. That’s gonna take time. He’s got great instincts. He’s got long arms. He’s a physical kid and most importantly he’s got the right mindset to be a good player.”
Another key addition to the squad is veteran defensive back A.J. Bouye, who has been taking reps at nickelback, but has enough flexibility to align at cornerback, too. The Panthers will have to figure out how to get by without Bouye for the first two weeks of the season, though, as the former Pro Bowler must serve the final two games of a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
One player who can help fill gaps throughout the defensive backfield is second-year hybrid linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn, who is expected to move to more of a safety role. Chinn burst onto the scene last season as a Defensive Rookie of the Year runner up, after leading all rookies in tackles. The move to safety will help reduce the amount of blockers Chinn could encounter on any given down, allowing him to play from depth with more speed and vision. No. 1 cornerback Donte Jackson returns as well, and second-year players Troy Pride Jr., Stantley Thomas-Oliver III and Kenny Robinson will help add depth.
The steady improvement last year shows promise for what the secondary could be capable of this year. As long as the unit picks up where it left off, the Panthers defense could be a force. The front office has certainly invested the time, money, and draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, now it’s time to see it pay off.
Joe Brady’s growth in year two
Even without McCaffrey for a majority of the year, the Panthers’ offense still showed flashes under first-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady. The team made up for McCaffrey’s absence by committee, with four players reaching 1,000 scrimmage yards in DJ Moore (1,215), Robby Anderson (1,111), Curtis Samuel (1,051) and Mike Davis (1,015).
Despite those flashy individual numbers, Carolina still ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every major offensive team category last year, putting up just 21.9 points per game (24th), 349.5 yards per game (21st) and only converting 39% of third downs (25th). So, there’s still plenty of room for improvement for Brady and company.
The biggest areas for improvement are in critical points of the game, like third down, the red zone and two-minute situations. The return of the team’s biggest scoring threat in McCaffrey is certainly a red zone boost, and two new additions will likely make an impact as well. Second-round pick Terrace Marshall Jr. will add a big body at wide receiver as a red zone threat, while free agent tight end Dan Arnold is drawing early training camp praise as a reliable third-down safety net.
There’s no lack of weapons at Brady’s disposal on offense this year, so if he can’t figure out a way to successfully utilize them, there won’t be anywhere to hide.
The Carolina Panthers begin the preseason on Sunday, Aug.15 at 1 p.m. at the Indianapolis Colts, and kick off the regular season on Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. hosting the New York Jets at Bank of America Stadium.