For the Carolina Panthers to greatly improve on their 5-11 record from last season, they’ll have to get much better production from their starting quarterback. Last year didn’t go according to plan at all.
The Panthers made the decision to pounce on Sam Darnold and Bridgewater was later traded to Denver. The good news for Darnold is that it won’t be too difficult to outperform Bridgewater’s 2020 season.
The Carolina Panthers have gone 5-11 two years in a row. I guarantee they won’t finish with the same record this season. 17 games makes that one easy, but I also think they have the potential to be much better. Here’s why.
1. Sam Darnold brings experience and potential to QB position
Because of their roster decisions, all eyes in Carolina will be on Darnold during his first year with the Panthers. This is a kid who just turned 24 and already has 38 NFL starts under his belt.
For comparison’s sake, Mac Jones will be 24 at the start of the 2022 football season and may still not have many starts under his belt, depending on Cam Newton. Another surprising note, Darnold is actually six months younger than Joe Burrow, who has 10 NFL starts.
Because Darnold already has so much NFL experience and yet is still young enough to drastically develop his football skills, the Panthers took a small risk on him becoming their next quarterback solution. Perhaps the biggest reason they traded for Darnold is because they strongly believe in their ability to continue developing his skills.
2. Carolina’s support staff is built for success
Entering his fourth season, Darnold is in position to receive the best coaching of his life with offensive coordinator Joe Brady leading the charge. In college, Brady developed the scheme that molded Joe Burrow into the top overall selection of the 2020 NFL Draft.
If Brady can work some of the same magic with Darnold that he used with Burrow, why can’t he turn his career around? Landing in a pit of dysfunction, the former No. 3 overall draft pick was set up to fail in New York.
With the Jets, Darnold’s best targets were Robby Anderson and slot receiver Jamison Crowder. After Anderson was traded to the Panthers, it’s no surprise that Darnold had a down year.
For the first time in his NFL career, Darnold will have the benefit of having two proven receivers and a top-notch running back. In Carolina, the offense is stacked with talent. All Darnold will have to do is get his playmakers the ball and get the eff out the way.
3. Plenty of playmakers on Carolina Panthers offense
In 2020, the Carolina Panthers had four players gain over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and Christian McCaffrey wasn’t one of them due to only playing three games. Though Curtis Samuel and Mike Davis have signed elsewhere, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and of course CMC still remain.
Then, there are the new additions of Terrace Marshall Jr. and Chuba Hubbard via the draft. Marshall is particularly intriguing as he’s reuniting with his LSU offensive coordinator, Joe Brady. Although Marshall won’t start as a rookie, his athletic profile is freakish at 6’3, with 4.4 speed, and a 39” vertical.
If Brady managed to get career years out of Mike Davis and Curtis Samuel, imagine what he can do with a full season of CMC plus Moore, Anderson, and a player he’s already familiar with in Marshall?
Of course, the success of the Panthers offense relies on Sam Darnold taking the next step in his development. But with an innovative offensive coordinator and so many playmakers at his side, Darnold should have a career year. Fans enjoying home games at Bank of America Stadium will be hearing the Panthers’ growl a lot on game days.
4. Carolina Panthers’ pass rush will be fierce
Watching the Panthers on offense is going to exciting enough, but the defense has just as much budding talent ready to blow. The defensive line in particular has plenty of potential, it just needs more time to jell on the field.
Brian Burns has been every bit the freakish pass-rusher the Panthers hoped he’d be, with the second-best pressure rate of all players on third downs in just his second season. Just turning 23, Burns has a chance to be just as dominant as Myles Garrett and Danielle Hunter have been, he certainly has the athletic profile.
Though it went largely unnoticed, Derrick Brown had a strong rookie year in the trenches after being drafted seventh overall. PFF charted Brown with 34 pressures, ranking second among 2020 rookie defenders. After playing 70% of all defensive snaps and a full offseason to work on his game, Brown should make a name for himself in the pros soon enough.
Free-agent signee Haason Reddick’s 12.5 sacks tied for fourth-most in the NFL in 2020. Add him to the existing core of young rushers in Carolina, and the Panthers have a dangerous bunch.
5. Influx of secondary talent should patch up average defense
Last season, the Carolina Panthers finished in the middle of the pack (17th) in passing yards allowed. Which, for a young unit was actually better than expected. Especially after their defensive leader, Luke Kuechly retired before the season began.
The inexperienced group had its ups and downs, but they learned a lot that should better prepare them for 2021. To help supplement the developing pass rush up front, the Panthers added two more playmakers in the secondary with big-play potential.
Bringing in A.J. Bouye and Jaycee Horn gives the Panthers two starting cornerbacks six feet or taller. In the NFC South, having the extra size will help when being tasked to cover Michael Thomas, Kyle Pitts, Mike Evans, and Rob Gronkowski.
Becoming a finalist for Defensive Rookie of the Year playing multiple positions, Jeremy Chinn was ferocious all over the field in 2020. In his second season, the Panthers have Chinn focusing on playing safety full-time. Standing at 6’3, but playing even bigger, Chinn already strikes fear from sideline to sideline.
All around, the Panthers have built a defensive unit that is big and fast. Team owner David Tepper should be proud of the pieces in place in Charlotte. Coaches Matt Rhule and Joe Brady are some of the youngest, brightest minds in the business, with the right group of personnel, this team is poised to make some noise.
As the Panthers look to tighten up what was a league-average defense in 2020, their additions over the past few years should carry this squad to contention. If they make strides defensively, it shouldn’t take too much from Darnold to keep the Panthers competitive in 2021, fighting for a playoff spot in the NFC South.