Preseason - 2021 Carolina Panthers Outlook
In his first season as the Panthers' head coach, Matt Rhule went 5-11 with improvement on both sides of the ball. His only experience in the NFL came in 2012 for the Giants as the assistant offensive line coach.
Over the previous seven seasons, Rhule worked as the head coach for Temple (28-23) and Baylor (19-20). He took over both programs at low points. In each season as a college coach, his team improved from the previous year. In 2019, Baylor finished 11-3 and 8-1 in conference play after going 1-11 in 2017.
Rhule has been coaching since 1998, with his best highlight coming as the AAC football champion in 2016.
Joe Brady returns for a second year as Carolina's offensive coordinator. At age 31, Brady has two years of experience as an offensive assistant for the Saints (2017-2018) while holding the passing game coordinator and wide receiver coach positions in 2019 for LSU. His rise in the coaching ranks came from his development of Joe Burrow in 2019.
Carolina finished 21st in offensive yards and 24th in points scored (350) while losing their top running back for 13 games.
The defensive side of the ball remains in the hands of Phil Snow. His path to the NFL came paired with Matt Rhule over the past seven seasons. Snow has four years of experience in the NFL working for the Lions as a defensive assistant and linebackers coach. His early career entailed multiple seasons working on defense in the Pac-10 and Pac-12 while seeing time at Arizona State, UCLA, California, and Washington.
Last season the Panthers improved to 18th in points allowed (402 – 68 fewer than 2019) while holding the same ranking in yards allowed.
The bridge over troubled quarterback waters led to another change in the offseason. Carolina acquired Sam Darnold from the Jets in early April for draft picks this year (sixth-round) and next season (second and fourth rounds).
The top losses on offense were RB Mike Davis and WR Curtis Samuel.
Davis handled himself well in relief of Christian McCaffrey last year, but He struggled to make big plays, and defenses appeared to catch up with him over the latter part of the season.
Carolina drafted Samuel in the second round in 2017. His play and production improved each season in the league, highlighted by the 24th wide receiver ranking (212.10 fantasy points) in PPR leagues last year. Samuel added value as well as a change of pace option out of the backfield.
The Panthers added WR David Moore and TE Dan Arnold for bench depth.
Moore flashed over the past three seasons in Seattle, but he failed to secure a starting job. Moore has 13 touchdowns despite only having 78 catches in his career. He showed big-play ability in 2018 and 2019, when he averaged 17.3 yards per catch.
Over the past four seasons, Arnold alternated homes between Arizona and New Orleans. He reached new heights in 2020 (31/438/4) with Kyler Murray throwing him the ball.
On defense, Carolina signed DE Haason Reddick, LB Denzel Perryman, and CB A.J. Bouye.
Reddick comes off his best season in the NFL thanks to a switch back to a pass rusher on the defensive line. He has four years of experience while being drafted in the first round by the Cardinals in 2017.
Perryman worked over the bench over the past three seasons. He plays well in run support, but he'll see minimal snaps on passing downs.
Bouye played well in coverage in 2016 and 2017 with the Texans and Jaguars, but he lost his way last year while battling a shoulder injury. The NFL also suspended him for six games (two left in 2021) for failing a drug test.
CB Rasul Douglas left town to sign with the Raiders. He brought risk/reward value in coverage. Douglas will give up some damage in touchdowns, and wide receivers challenged him over the long field.
With the eighth overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Panthers invested in CB Jaycee Horn. His game offers an edge in press coverage, with the wheels to make up for a missed step. In addition, Horn stays connected to receivers in their patterns. He lacks the fire to shine in run support, but Horn has the tools to reach a higher ceiling in this area. His most significant challenge comes from his desire to hold receivers. Carolina expects him to start in his rookie season.
WR Terrance Marshall was the choice in the second round. He projects to be a vertical threat early in his career while doing damage on comeback throws. Marshall offers size (6'2" and 205 lbs.) and speed (4.38 40-yard dash on his pro day). However, his release looks questionable and lacks tempo. To reach a high level, he needs to add more fight to his game off the snap and at the top of his routes.
In the third round, Carolina picked up T Brady Christensen and TE Tommy Tremble.
Christensen's skill set should fit in well with what the Panthers want to do running the ball with Christian McCaffrey. He plays with power and strength while firing off the snaps. His range looks limited in pass protection, pushing him to the guard position in Carolina.
Tremble earned his way into the NFL as a blocker, but his frame (6'3" and 245 lbs.) isn't ideal for a lead role at tight end. He continues to improve, but his growth in the passing game at Notre Dame was restricted by a pair of talented players in front of him on the depth chart. Tremble ran a 4.59 40-yard dash on his pro day while also showing short-area quickness. His hands look to be in question when facing tight coverage.
The insurance card at running back in the draft came in the fourth round with the addition of Chuba Hubbard. He runs with rhythm and vision while willing to take what a defense gives him. Hubbard has a north/south feel, but he can win on the outside when given daylight. He dominated in his sophomore season at Oklahoma State (328/2,094/21), helped by a heavy workload (27 touches per week). Hubbard wasn't the same player in 2020 (133/625/5 over seven games).
The Panthers went back to their defense in the fifth round – DT Daviyon Nixon and CB Keith Taylor.
Nixon darts off the line, leading to early wins and disruption. His range is wide for his position while also owning some variation to his pass rush. His shortfall comes from stalemates or losses when tied up at the line of scrimmage by stronger offensive linemen. Nixon needs more upper body strength to reach a higher ceiling.
Taylor has yet to grow into his frame (6'2" and 185 lbs.), putting a damper on his ceiling. His vision and feel for play development aren't at an NFL level. He moves better when attacking the line of scrimmage with the foundation to handle receivers in press coverage. His overall speed is a weak link over the long field. Taylor also lacks playmaking skills. For now, he only has value in tight coverage in the red zone.
Over the final two rounds of the draft, Carolina selected G Deonte Brown, WR Shi Smith, LS Thomas Fletcher, and DT Phil Hoskins.
Brown started for one of the top college programs in the country for three seasons. He is a beast of a man who will be a load to move by a straight-on defender. His range isn't ideal while offering the power and quickness to open holes quickly in the run game.
Smith showed improvement in his route running last year. His future lies in the slot while also having the speed to beat a defender deep. He makes plays in the open field with the willingness to fight for his space in tight quarters after facing bump and run coverage. Smith needs to be more physical on his release and out of his breaks to create a larger passing window.
Fletcher will compete for the long-snapping job on field goals and punts for the Panthers.
Hoskins earns his success with quickness off the line, leading to pressure on the quarterback and disruption in the run game. With the development of his hands and more strength, he'll become more dangerous when challenged by power.
Carolina dropped to 21st in rushing yards (1,704) with 19 touchdowns and only six runs over 20 yards. They averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 25.4 rushing attempts per game.
The Panthers fell to 17th in passing yards (4,129) with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. They gained only 7.5 yards per pass attempt with 55 completions over 20 yards. Their offensive line allowed 36 sacks (58 in 2019).
LT Cameron Erving
The Browns drafted Erving in the first round in 2015. He has been a liability in run blocking in every season in the league. The Cowboys gave him five starts at left tackle last year, leading to the best play of his career in pass protection. A knee injury cost him the first six weeks and the final five games.
Carolina can't trust him to start, leaving Greg Little as the top player to unseat Erving for the starting job. The Panthers drafted him in the second round in 2019, but injuries led to 21 missed games over the past two seasons.
LG Pat Elflein
Between the Vikings and the Jets in 2020, Elflein made seven starts. His play has been a disaster in pass protection over the past three years while showing regression in run blocking with the Jets. The Panthers paid him $13.5 million for three seasons, suggesting they are the greater fool.
C Matt Paradis
The Panthers gave Paradis 32 starts over the last two years, but he failed to match his previous success with the Broncos. The loss of Christian McCaffrey was a significant part of regression in run blocking. Paradis did regain momentum on pass protection. He has the talent and resume to be a top-tier player at his position.
RG John Miller
Miller made 14 starts in his first year with Carolina. He missed two games with ankle and knee injuries. When on the field, Miller failed to make an impact in any area. He has six seasons of experience in the NFL while never ranking as a top player. His game did look on the uptick in 2016 after getting drafted in the third round in 2015. That season Miller graded as a neutral player at his position while making 16 starts for the Bills.
RT Taylor Moton
Moton made 48 starts over the last three seasons. His run blocking continues to improve where he can now be called a plus player. Moton played well in pass protection in each year in the league. The Panthers drafted him in the second round in 2017.
The center and right tackle positions look to be in good hands for the Panthers. I don't trust Cameron Fleming to protect the blindside. Brady Christensen should find his way into the starting lineup at some position in 2021. With two plusses and a neutral, Carolina still gets a below-par grade for the offensive line.
The Panthers had about the same success last year throwing the ball as in 2019, but they gained more per pass attempt (7.5 – 6.5). Executing scoring plays in the red zone remains an area of weakness. Carolina ran the ball 42.5 percent of the time compared to 37.8 percent with a healthy Christian McCaffrey in 2019 and different coaching staff. The hint here should be that the Panthers should be more active in the run game in 2021.
QB Sam Darnold, CAR - Bye Week Fill-in
Over three seasons with the Jets, Darnold made 38 starts, leading to a 13-25 record with unimpressive stats across the board. He averaged only 6.6 yards per pass attempt with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. His completion rate (59.8) peaked in 2019 (61.9). Darnold became more active as a runner last season (37/237/2).
Darnold passes over 300 yards in five career games while attempting over 34 passes in only 31.6 percent of his starts. In 2020, he had no matchups with more than two passing touchdowns, pushing his failure to 30 of his last 32 contests.
The Panthers threw the ball 34.4 times a game in 2020, which ranked 22nd in the league.
Fantasy Outlook: In the early draft season, Darnold comes off the board as the 27th quarterback. Carolina has the top pass-catching running back in the league, plus two proven lead wide receivers. Terrance Marshall should help as the WR3 in his rookie season. In the end, Darnold needs to prove he belongs in the NFL as a starting quarterback while also staying healthy. Only a wait-and-see fantasy option with potential matchup value if the Panthers' offense shows growth in 2021.
Other Options: P.J. Walker, Will Grier
RB Christian McCaffrey, CAR - Stud (low risk)
With Christian McCaffrey in 2020, the Panthers gained only 4.1 yards per rush and 6.7 yards per catch compared to excellent success in both areas in 2018 (5.1 and 8.1) and 2019 (4.9 and 8.6). Their backs finished last year with 430 touches for 2,035 yards and 19 touchdowns.
McCaffrey led fantasy leagues in running back scoring in PPR leagues in 2018 (387.0) and 2019 (471.2) while being a massive edge (scored 154.30 fantasy points over the 2nd best running back) two years ago. His play over three games (374 combined yards with six touchdowns and 17 catches) last year led to 30.13 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues.
In 2019, he finished with 403 touches while only being the third player in NFL history to gains over 1,000 yards rushing (1,387) and receiving (1,005). McCaffrey gained over 100 yards rushing in six of his first nine games, but none over the final seven weeks. Carolina featured him more in the passing games (68/609/1) over his downturn in rushing yards, highlighted by three outings (11/121, 11/82, and 15/119). McCaffrey had 10 catches or more in five games.
Last year he averaged 28.7 touches per game. McCaffrey missed 13 weeks with ankle, thigh, and shoulder injuries.
Fantasy Outlook: McCaffrey has first overall ADP in the early draft season, rightfully so. The left side of his offensive line has some question marks, and Sam Darnold needs to be a much better player in the Panthers' offense. More of the same while offering a high floor and explosive ceiling.
RB Chuba Hubbard, CAR - Fantasy Handcuff
Over three seasons at Oklahoma State, Hubbard gained 4,097 yards with 36 touchdowns and 53 catches. He averaged 5.9 yards per rush and 9.0 yards per catch. When at his best in 2019, Hubbard rushed over 100 yards in 12 of his 13 starts, highlighted by four games with over 200 yards (26/221/3, 32/256/3, 25/296/1, and 20/223/2). He had over 20 touches in every game except Week 2 (8/44/1).
Fantasy Outlook: Hubbard gives the Panthers a higher ceiling player to backup McCaffrey in 2021. He runs with patience and the vision to make big plays. His ADP (165) is favorable for a fantasy owner looking to buy an upside handcuff. If I draft Christian McCaffery, I'm making sure to roster Hubbard.
Other Options: Rodney Smith, Reggie Bonnafon, Trenton Cannon
WR D.J. Moore, CAR - Solid/Safe Pick
Carolina completed over two-thirds of their passes to the wide receiver position last season, leading to 80 percent of their passing yards. Their wideouts finished with 252 catches for 3,301 yards and 11 touchdowns on 375 targets. The production grew by about 25 percent from 2019, but the Panthers only threw to them 41 more times than the previous year.
Moore finished with similar yards and touchdowns in 2019 (1,175/4) and 2020 (1,193/4), but the Panthers gave him 17 fewer targets (118). As a result, his catch rate fell to 55.9 percent compared to 64.4 in 2019. The change at quarterback led to Moore working more as a deep threat (18.1 yards per catch). He finished with 19 catches of 20 yards or more while also hitting on six passes for 40 yards or more.
In his four games (8/120, 7/127, 6/131, and 5/101) with over 100 yards receiving, Moore failed to add a touchdown. Midseason, he gained between 93 and 96 yards in four of his six matchups with all four of his scores. Carolina gave him over five catches in only three games. Moore averaged 9.8 targets over his final five games (27/457).
Fantasy Outlook: Moore has the potential to be a 100-plus catch receiver with plenty of success in yards. He needs to improve his scoring ability to move to elite WR1 status. Over the past two years, he ranked 16th and 25th in wide receiver scoring in PPR leagues. His ADP (53) in late June in 12-team formats priced him as the 20th wideout. My bet says he beats his price point with a 100/1,300/7 type season.
WR Robby Anderson, CAR - Quality Backup
After failing to live up to expectations over four seasons in New York, Anderson developed into a high-volume receiver in Carolina. He caught 95 of his 136 targets (69.9 percent) for 1,096 yards and three touchdowns. Anderson gained a career-low 11.5 yards per catch.
The Panthers gave him his best opportunity over the first five weeks (36/489/1) while averaging 9.2 targets. Over his final nine starts, Anderson failed to gain over 95 yards in any matchup, with combined 49 catches for 456 yards and two touchdowns. Carolina gave him 8.6 targets per game over this span.
In his final two years in New York with Sam Darnold starting at quarterback, He caught 88 of his 164 targets (53.7 percent) for 1,353 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Fantasy Outlook: Anderson has an ADP of 84 in the early draft season while ranking as backend WR3. His history with Darnold doesn't paint a repeated picture. However, I like his growth, and the Panthers' coaching staff did figure out how to get the most out of Anderson. I'll set his 2021 bar at 75 catches for 1,000 yards with five to seven scores.
WR Terrace Marshall, CAR - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
In 2019, Marshall caught a piece of the Joe Burrow ride to the national championship, leading to 46 catches for 671 yards and 13 touchdowns. He flashed over the first seven games last year (48/731/10) before opting out. His best output came in the third game (11/235/3) of the season against Missouri.
Fantasy Outlook: Marshall has a professional feel with the talent to develop into a WR2 in the Panthers' offense down the road. His ceiling falls on his motivation to work hard on his route running. This draft season, he'll be found after the 15th round in 12-team leagues.