The Carolina Panthers couldn’t look more different heading into what we expect to be the 2020 season. There’s a new head coach and a new quarterback while a number of storied, beloved Panther players have either gone to new teams or are away from football altogether.
Carolina fired head coach Ron Rivera in-season and appointed Matt Rhule as his successor in January. The team let go of quarterback Cam Newton after injury-riddled seasons and now have proven back-up-turned-starter Teddy Bridgewater, who kept the New Orleans Saints in contention for weeks while Drew Brees was recovering from injury. There’s no Luke Kuechly; he retired. Greg Olsen is now in the Pacific Northwest playing on a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks. There’s a new defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, and the Panthers are left with the task of creating a new identity for themselves—it won’t hurt that they still have vital parts to their offensive in running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver D.J. Moore.
This is all to say Carolina is at a crossroads. Can the Panthers find a new, winning identity or will they continue to regress? Let’s set a realistic benchmark: In order for the team’s 2020 season to be successful, it needs to put together a winning season or, at the very least, a .500 season.
Rebuilds are messy; they take time. Rhule is stepping into his first NFL head coaching job and while he’s known for turning around collegiate programs—after spending four seasons at Temple (2013-16) and three at Baylor (2017-19)—the pros are the pros for a reason. It’s the same game with a different set of rules, and now Rhule needs this team to buy-in in order to affect the same kind of change.
Bridgewater should help. He masterfully went 5-0 as a starter last season, and to think he’s a placeholder for a top quarterback pick in the 2021 draft would be doing him a disservice. In New Orleans, through Weeks 3-7, Bridgewater ranked in the top five in passer rating (103.7), completion percentage (69.7), and expected completion percentage. Bridgewater, at 27, isn’t the hot new rookie teams have put all their hope into, but he’s a proven star with plenty left to give. In his last season as a full-time starter, in 2016 with the Minnesota Vikings, Bridgewater went 11-5 and passed for 3,231 yards and 14 touchdowns. He would have continued building off that success if it wasn’t for a knee injury that derailed his career, but Bridgewater seems to be back on track with this new-look offense and has the pieces to be successful.
It starts with McCaffrey and Moore on offense. Behind them, there are some other key players, former New York Jets (and Temple) receiver Robby Anderson, who will already have some familiarity with Rhule, and fourth-year receiver Curtis Samuel, who can build off of his starting campaign from last season where he was playing in 86% of the team’s snaps and finished the year with 627 yards and six touchdowns. They’ll be working behind an offensive line that could use some improvements. After trading Trai Turner for former Los Angeles Charger offense tackle Russell Okung, there is a questionable hole left at guard. The projected starters now—Okung, John Miller, Matt Paradis, Dennis Daley, and Taylor Morton—will need to be more impressive than they are on paper. Bridgewater had one of the top offensive lines last season but had one of the worst lines in that 2016 season with the Vikings. I would imagine Rhule will put more resources into the offensive front in the future after focusing much of his attention on the defense this offseason. If Carolina’s new front can have at least a middling season, the offense should be able to work around it.
The reinforcements on defense come after Kuechly, Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, and Eric Reid parted ways with the Panthers. They used the 2020 NFL Draft to build up the unit with Derrick Brown (nose tackle), Yetur Gross-Matos (defensive end), and Jeremy Chinn (safety). They also have 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns (EDGE). The reasonably young group will be up against tough competition in the NFC South especially with Tom Brady in the mix. Inside linebacker Shaq Thompson is still at the heart of the defense and now working alongside Tahir Whitehead, with third-year Panther Marquis Haynes and Burns on the outside. Carolina addressed the holes left on defense, but there’s still plenty of question marks surrounding how well this unit will work together, especially in the secondary.
The Panthers need to be competitive with this roster and put wins on the board; it’s that simple. If they end the season below .500, it will be a disappointing finish for a team that has plenty of talent.
- Dec 08, 2022
- Dec 08, 2022