Nobody seems to doubt the Panthers will have plenty of offensive firepower in 2021. The “and if” part in many projections for their season was getting a high caliber QB to run it. Fans will get more solid evidence that GM Scott Fitterer did pretty good with his first real important job, on Sunday in Indianapolis.
Sam Darnold, former NY Jet – I won’t use that term often any more, he’s the Panthers QB, no ifs, ands, or buts now – was said to look good in practice last week, so here we go! Its certainly nothing like the fanfare that accompanied #1 pick Cam Newton’s arrival in Charlotte in 2011, off a national championship at Auburn for him and a 1-15 season in Charlotte.
Former Panther coach Ron Rivera always said things became more real once the pads went on, and there you have it in a nutshell. Unloved where he was, Darnold is a talented player getting a muuuccch better second opportunity to prove his worth to us fannies will be the train to ride. He can’t nail a 300-yard night during two practices with Colts, and will probably only see a half of game action, so any attaboys! finally being uttered now, I’m sure he’ll accept them.
Any bigger picture decision about Fitterer’s genius will have to wait a little longer, https://cdtalententerprises.com/2021/04/09/panthers-take-care-of-business-gm-fitterer-lands-qb-darnold-to-get-rolling/ but $30 million in cap space has plugged quite a few holes with free agents.
Consider 11-6 season a Panthers reboot
This will be an absolute turnaround season for the franchise, and opposing defenses should buckle it on tight after a highly movitated Christian McCaffrey (C-MC, some say CeeMac) comes out of the gate with maybe 150 yds./2 TDs on the Jets. Receivers Robbie Anderson and DJ Moore were the #3 production duo in NFL, and while two of FOUR Panthers not named McCaffrey who gained over 1,000 yards from scrimmage are gone (RB M.Davis, WR C.Samuel), there will be plenty of #22 jerseys in the stands cheering his return.
Valuable replacement for Curtis Samuel (to Washington, 3 yr/$34.5M) NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund pegged Terrance Marshall, Jr. as Top 5 pick to lead rookie receivers this year.
At 6’2″, 200 lbs., he’s the same size as Panther great Mushin Muhammad, as a #3 receiver, he’ll get 1-1 coverage because of Moore and Anderson.
For those who haven’t already forgotten Greg Olsen and his ‘ninja skills,’ suddenly appearing downfield to catch a clutch first down pass, management has signed 6’6″ Dan Arnold (Arizona) to a 2 year/$6M contract. That’s just in case Darnold can’t find a receiver anywhere else, there should a large security blanket-level target pretty much in front of his eyes.
Ask ex-Panther Jimmy Clausen why they couldn’t find a good pass-catching tight end when he was blitzed mercilessly the year before Cam Newton got a pair of stud TEs (Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen), or just accept they saw a need and took care of it.
The ‘Madden’ version of McCaffrey is redonkulous, his reality and quality equally so. Offensive lines LOVE working for someone with the ability to go house if you hold your block another fraction of a second.
Defense – Another Big Leap?
In Year Two of Phil Snow as the Panthers Defensive Coordinator, expectations for another rise in the rankings – from bottom three in all categories to 18th overall in points and total yardage in 2020 – are legitimate. It’s taken three seasons of iffy improvement to get here, and last year was still the worst defense in franchise history on 3rd down (allowed 49.2% conversion) and INTs with 7.
With #1 pick Jaycee Horn a large, very physical cornerback, getting off the field on 3rd down will be enhanced.
The all-defensive draft last year looks like gold now, especially trading up to have a second-second round pick that became Jeremy Chinn. https://www.espn.com/nfl/player/_/id/4043169/jeremy-chinn The Panthers defense led the league in recovered fumbles (15) and scored 3 touchdowns, two by Chinn on back-back plays. As for the mere 29 total sacks, Brian Burns (9) is looking to blow up at whatever they’ll call his position – speed rusher is accurate – and is the epitome of ‘Mobile, Agile, Hostile’.
The all-defensive draft last year looks like gold now, especially trading up to have a second-second round pick that became Jeremy Chinn.
Top factors to assess 2021 defense will be sacks, and turnovers will be emphasized. A couple times off the field with a stop on 3rd down becoming more opportunities for a potent offense will obviously make a difference. Turnovers always follow aggressive play calling, and adding a number of free agents (DT DaQuan Jones, LB Denzel Perryman, DE Haason Reddick) with that element is a real boost.
Reddick had 12.5 sacks for Arizona last year, plus 16 QB hits, 6 forced fumbles, 15 tackles for loss, and THAT will get a defense off the field sooner. He’ll play the opposite side from Burns, and Phil Snow must be licking his chops to have such a major upgrade. Jones played all 16 games 5 of 6 years for the Titans, and if not a big sack guy, Perryman is a documented run stuffer, and his range is clearly better than Tahir Whitehead, even if nobody will be going sideline-sideline like Luuuuuke!
DIVISION – NFC South
That Tom Brady took the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in his first year away from New England isn’t lost on anyone in the division, where Panthers will see The GOAT twice a year. Drew Brees is gone, and while fans have waited a long time to see ‘Swiss Army Knife’ QB Taysom Hill – who has done everything for the Saints while Brees continued amazing – “we’ll see” is legitimate. If there’s a QB battle with Jameis Winston, something is wrong in the Dome.
Atlanta remains an arch-rival, and they picked up another stud receiver (TE Kyle Pitts, Florida), whose 4 yr./$32.9M contract is fully guaranteed. Matt Ryan is still slinging it there, and all division games count extra, so whether the secondary is good enough to hold up while the D-line goes after him will be the key, he’s never been called elusive.
There probably isn’t a defensive scheme Brady hasn’t seen, Ryan still has skills and blazing fast receivers, but any post-Brees letdown in New Orleans would be appreciated.
Wrap it up, we’ll take it
While Robbie Anderson isn’t a fan of the new turf in BOA stadium (‘its fake’), the stadium allows far too many other events to keep regular grass viable, so while it will be very different here, its not a totally strange surface either. Expecting someone like McCaffrey and Moore, who can turn on a dime, to take advantage of always good footing is not to be underestimated.
Joey Slye had a 120 point season (29 FGs, 33 PATs), his only drawback being 1-6 from over 50 yards.
Everyone loved Jeremy Chinn‘s contributions last year, switching between OLB and safety. Adding Denzel Perryman will probably allow Snow to keep Chinn at safety, but there will certainly be sneak attacks from the versatile Chinn to keep Ryan and Brady aware of his presence. (The rest of the NFL will learn about it too.)
There was an idea that Panthers would lose a couple shootouts in 2020, that possibility has gone down with an improved QB and a strong off-season of plugging holes with free agency as a result of $30 million in cap space.
Panthers play the NFC East and most of AFC East (total 8 games), with Eagles, Vikes, Pats, and Washington at home, the Bills and Miami on the road, and finish the season with Bucs-Saints-Bucs. They should be in contention for winning the conference all the way to the end – their strength of schedule is rated as 26th (of 32 teams, 5th easiest), which helps me stick with an 11-6 prediction.