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NFL Draft

Panthers Well On Their Way To Being NFC South Contenders

  • The Draft Network
  • November 10, 2020
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Mondays and Tuesdays are all about reaction columns. We praise the teams that won; the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins are the two teams with most of the buzz after Week 9. And we criticize the teams that lost; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks seem to be taking the brunt of that this week.

But every now and then we get a curveball. Where the result of a team’s most recent game doesn’t line up with how we’re talking about them in the days that follow.

This week’s curveball is the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers lost this week, making it four straight defeats, and yet here I sit and I could not be more encouraged about the future of the organization. This week they fell to the Chiefs by a score of 33-31. A team that many said would never be able to keep up offensively or defensively took the reigning Super Bowl champs down to the wire with a real chance to win it at the end. And this isn’t an unfamiliar feeling for this Matt Rhule-led squad.

The Panthers are now 3-6 on the season, but I would tell you there is a lot of context to that record that has encouragement sewn throughout. In their first game as a group, they barely came up short against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 1, a Raiders team that would go on to beat the Chiefs later in the year, by the way. After looking out-matched by the Buccaneers in Week 2, they rattled off three straight wins thanks to a plethora of quick bounce-back performances from some of their youngest and newest starters. They are now on a four-game skid, but of those four losses, their point differential was just seven, three, eight, and two. They are giving teams way more than they were expecting each and every week, and that’s important.

This year was about building a baseline in Carolina. It was about Rhule coming in and setting the foundation to turn the team around just like he did at both Temple and Baylor. If this is the baseline for the Panthers in what was supposed to be one of their worst seasons as a franchise to date, count it as a win. Rhule has been able to get a ton of production out of his early draft class and some unsung heroes. That should only compound the positive momentum and production moving forward. 

This all bodes well for Carolina as they set themselves up for the future. Winning is cool. Winning is fun. But this year was never about the win-loss total for the Panthers. In fact, they’re really in the best-case scenario right now as they look very prepared and competitive every week, yet are still putting themselves in position for a top draft pick come April.

As we look outside of Charlotte, the timing of things could also be lining up perfectly for them. A year of encouragement and experience under their belt in 2020 followed up with another strong free agency period and another strong draft could mean a big step forward in 2021. That could be perfect timing for what is happening around the rest of their division.

In Atlanta, the Falcons just cleaned house by firing their head coach and general manager. With their quarterback and main offensive pieces getting up there in age, as well, the Falcons might be going through some transition seasons over the next few years, likely not competing for division titles. The Buccaneers currently boast one of the top rosters in the NFL, but their heralded coach Bruce Arians is one of the older head coaches in the NFL, and their quarterback Tom Brady can’t play forever. The two of them may only be around for another two, maybe three years before the Buccaneers turn the page. As for the Saints, they’ve been in control of the NFC South for the better part of five years now, but their window is rapidly closing. There is a real chance that due to their current roster and the salary cap issues with it that they’ll have to move on from a lot of their top players over the next few offseasons. Plus their Super Bowl-caliber quarterback Drew Brees was close to retirement last offseason and could be playing his last season in the NFL, regardless of whether or not New Orleans wins it all this year.

So the way things are playing out right now, Atlanta is a big unknown, the Saints might be in a free fall soon, and even with the Buccaneers likely competitive for 2021 and 2022, the NFC South has been known to send multiple teams to the playoffs every year. That other team could very well be the Panthers as early as next season.

The Panthers will likely have their own roster and coaching changes they’ll have to deal with. With how well offensive coordinator Joe Brady is coaching and calling these games, he might get some head coaching looks soon. And though quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been playing some of the best ball of his career, he might not be the guy they carry into their playoff window when it opens. Those will come with challenges, but as well as Rhule has navigated the first year of challenges in his tenure, there is reason to have faith he can handle that, too.

Losing is never fun, and counting a season as a “learning season” or a “building block” sometimes feels like a waste of a year as a fan. But every team has them, and they are paramount for future success. As of right now, though they are not there yet and certainly have a ways to go, the Panthers appear to have a high upward trajectory to compete in the NFC South soon.

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