2022 NFL Previews: Carolina Panthers

Most people watch the NFL so they can witness the best football players in the world put on an entertaining showcase of abilities. But if you want to watch the NFL to witness a potential trainwreck instead, may I suggest to you the Carolina Panthers.

This is a team whose head coach, Matt Rhule, has been on the hot seat since last year and it hasn’t cooled off one bit. This is also a team that has invested a ton of trade assets into the quarterback position but instead of getting Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, or even Jimmy Garoppolo, they wound up with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold.

The Panthers are now hinging their hopes on Mayfield to be a franchise quarterback. That may not be the best idea considering the Browns wanted to desperately get rid of him despite the fact that he is arguably the best quarterback they have had this century.

I actually am still a fan of Mayfield and think that he has gotten unfair criticism since he was playing through injuries. I think he can perform admirably in the right situation, as he did two years ago in Cleveland, I just don’t believe Carolina is the right situation.

And to anyone suggesting that there might be a quarterback controversy between Mayfield and Darnold, you’re dumb. Darnold is not a starting caliber quarterback in the NFL and he has no shot to start on a team ever again unless that team wants to lose as many games as possible.

The biggest bright spot on the team is running back Christian McCaffrey. But just like another big bright spot (the sun) he isn’t always around all the time. When McCaffrey is healthy and on the field, he is in the upper echelon of running backs in the league.

Unfortunately, he has had issues staying on the field, usually returning from one injury just to suffer another. For that reason, McCaffrey is the most intriguing Panther to watch this season (especially if you play fantasy football). If he still is capable of dominating games like he used to then he could give the Carolina offense a massive boost, which would in return alleviate the pressure on Mayfield.

Wide receiver D.J. Moore has been one of the players that have stepped up big time with McCaffrey off the field. Moore has put up three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons and has done so while only missing four games in that span.

He may be the most underrated receiver in the game, largely because he doesn’t score a ton of touchdowns (just four in each of those seasons). What makes Moore even more impressive is that he recorded 1,157 yards while catching passes from quarterbacks such as Darnold, P.J. Walker, and Cam Newton (but not the good version of him).

Mayfield may actually be the best quarterback that Moore has had during his time in Carolina. That could prime him for a career year, one that could go a long way toward making him a household name.

Moore is going to have a ton of pressure on him to produce since the rest of the pass-catching group is a little underwhelming. Wide receiver Robbie Anderson took a big step back last season after having a bit of a renaissance year in 2020. But he is still the best option for the second wide receiver spot because all that is behind him is second-year wide receiver Terrace Marshall, Rashard Higgins, and other, even more unproven, receivers such as Brandon Zylstra, Shi Smith, and Charleston Rambo.

The tight end position has even more of a dearth of talent. Tight ends Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble combined for 368 yards and one touchdown last season, and odds are one of them will be the primary tight end this season. Thomas got has the contract extension and Tremble has the potential but neither one should get Carolina fans too excited.

One area of need that the Panthers did focus on this offseason was the offensive line. It was a huge weakness for them last year, giving up the fifth-most sacks in the league last year with 52.

Their biggest get along the line was sixth-overall pick tackle Ikem Ekwonu out of NC State. Many people thought Carolina would draft a quarterback or some other position with that pick but instead, they filled an extremely important position, left tackle, with an extremely talented player.

They also added center/guard Bradley Bozeman, who they signed in free agency away from the Ravens. He will play somewhere along the interior of the line with some combination of interior linemen Austin Corbett, Pat Elflein, and Michael Jordan (no, not that Michael Jordan).

With the offense not being so great last season, the play of the defense went a bit unnoticed. They were not a great unit by any means, but they certainly outperformed expectations. It will hurt to be without linebacker Haason Reddick, who led the team in sacks last year with 11, but there is plenty of young talent ready to step up.

Defensive Brian Burns has arguably already made the leap to star after recording nine sacks in each of the last two seasons and making his first Pro-Bowl in 2021. He will take over as the number one pass-rusher and likely the leader of the defense but it is a role that he is more than ready for after such a productive start to his career.

On the opposite side of Burns is where people will be paying close attention because it is set up for third-year defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos to emerge. He played sparingly, just under 50 percent of the defensive snaps, but had a decent impact, registering 3.5 sacks. The Panthers are likely hoping for Gross-Matos to take over as Burns’s running mate on the pass rush so he is going to have to show that he can handle that this season.

Defensive tackle Derrick Brown is another young player on the defensive line that needs to take a step forward. He has been solid in two years as a starter but has yet to live up to his potential after being taken in the top 10 in the 2020 draft. Carolina brought in veteran defensive tackle Matthew Ioannidis to take some pressure off him this season. That pairing should elevate the rest of the defense by clogging the running lanes and collapsing the pocket when the quarterback drops back.

The defensive line will also need to help out the linebackers behind them, as they are not the strongest group. Linebacker Shaq Thompson has developed into a solid player but he still has his issues in pass coverage. Carolina also brought in linebacker Cory Littleton to play next to Thompson. Littleton has struggled ever since leaving the Rams but still could be an effective cog in the middle of the defense.

Another thing that will help cover for the linebackers is solid play in the secondary. The Panthers certainly have talent amongst that great, they are just waiting for it to fully come together.

Cornerback Donte Jackson is a borderline star at the position after developing into one of the better cover corners in the sport. He does a great job at locking down his side of the field and making it harder for opposing quarterbacks.

The rest of the secondary is where the development needs to happen more, starting with cornerback Jaycee Horn. Carolina made him the first cornerback taken in the 2021 draft (ahead of rookie sensation Pat Surtain) but he played just three games last year. He still may be as good as his draft status suggests and he will get a chance to prove it this year.

Safety Jeremy Chinn was able to demonstrate his potential in his second season in 2021, emerging as a franchise player on the Carolina defense. He has great ball skills for a safety as well as the physicality to drop down and play in the box. He will likely only get better in his third season and could even become one of the best young safeties in the game.

With all the young talent on both sides of the ball the Panthers could be a pretty decent team . . . in a few years. The bottom line is this team is just not ready to compete right now. Luckily, they are in a division that has one really good team (Tampa Bay) and then really falls off (New Orleans and Atlanta). That should be able to get them a few wins but the rest of the games will be bleak.

We all know that quarterback is the most important position in all of sports, and with Carolina’s current quarterback situation, they just aren’t set up to succeed. I maintain that Mayfield is solid but he is not the type of quarterback that wins you games that you aren’t supposed to win.

The number that I have in mind for wins for them is six, that’s about what I think they will get to. But my number doesn’t matter. The number that matters is whatever number ownership decides is enough to keep Rhule around for another year. Six wins will be a one-win improvement over last season but it may not be enough to save Rhule’s job.

The best chance that Rhule has is to turn this team into an entertaining and competitive team this season. If he can maximize Moore, McCaffrey, Burns, Chinn, and Horn then that could be enough to convince ownership to give him another shot. It also may be enough to convince Carolina fans to not completely give up on their team. This season will end up being really important for the future of the Panthers’ franchise but it won’t be one that fans look upon fondly five years down the road.