The 2020 season was a disappointment for the Carolina Panthers, a lot of what if’s left to ponder. Matt Rhule and his staff brought in who they thought was going to be their franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on a three deal. However, after a 5-11 season, they decided to go a different direction for the fall and traded Bridgewater away from a sixth-round pick to the Denver Broncos. Their record may not have been great, but 6 of those losses were one-score games and two others were only lost by 8 points. I wonder what the year would have looked like with a fully healthy Christian McCaffery?
The good part about finishing with a poor record is a better draft selection. With the 8th in the draft, many thought the Panthers would have a chance at one of the top QBs in the draft, many mock drafts had them selecting either Justin Fields or Trey Lance, whichever happened to fall. Neither of those scenarios happened. There were also rumors (and still are) that they were in on Deshaun Watson before everything went down. On April 5th it was announced that the Panthers have traded away their sixth-round selection in the 2021 draft, along with a second and fourth-round selection in 2022 to the New York Jets for the former 2018 3rd overall selection Sam Darnold.
By trading for Sam Darnold and not taking a QB in the first round, which could have been Justin Fields, the Panthers were able to fill other holes that they obviously felt were important. It has been said that Teddy Bridgewater lacked the arm strength to run Joe Brady’s offense to the fullest. Time will tell whether Darnold can shake the “ghosts” he saw while playing with the Jets and whether it was Adam Gase not being able to get the most out of Darnold. Bridgewater finished as the QB 19 in fantasy, and supported three top 27 WRs, playing most of the year without Christian McCaffery. Where the team struggled was on third down and in the red zone where they finished 25th in 3D% at 39% and 28th in RZpct at 50.9%. With a healthy McCaffery, second-round selection Terrace Marshall, and free-agent acquisition Dan Arnold, these numbers should improve this year, which should result in more wins.
As mentioned a few times already, Christian McCaffery was hurt the majority of the year. He started the year with a two-touchdown performance to go along with 135 total yards. Week two started the same way, but he hurt his ankle in the last two minutes of the game, which kept him out for the next 6 games. He came back for a huge game in week 9 against Kansas City before being shelved for the rest of the year. In his 3 healthy games, he averaged 19.6 rush attempts and 6.3 targets a game. He was on top of the fantasy world again amongst non QBs, averaging 24.4 points in his three healthy games.
Mike Davis filled in with mixed results, starting strong with four games of over 20 fantasy points, but then tailing off as the year progressed with the majority of games hovering around the 10 point mark. He finished with 642 yards on 165 attempts with 6 TDs and another 373 yards through the air on 59 receptions (70 targets) to go with another 2 TDs. However, he will be bringing his skill set to the Atlanta Falcons this fall. In his place, comes fourth-round selection Chuba Hubbard, who flashed in the 2019 college season, but was disappointed in a small showing in 2020 which possibly dropped his draft stock significantly. Nevertheless, the Canadian boy showed a three-down skill set in college and should be able to fill in if something were to happen to McCaffery and maybe even get some touches to possibly keep McCaffery fresh and healthy for a 17 game season.
In Joe Brady’s offense, WRs were at the forefront, as mentioned earlier Bridgwater supported 3 top 27 finishes by D.J. Moore (17), Curtis Samuel (25), and Robby Anderson (27) all while only having a team total of 16 passing touchdowns. Both Moore and Anderson went over 1000 receiving yards, with Moore leading the way with 1193 on 66 receptions (118 targets) and Anderson 1096 on 95 receptions (136 targets). Curtis Samuel was just shy of 100 targets with 97, which he turned into 77 receptions and 851 yards. However, Moore led the way with 4 TDs, YIKES! Samuel left in free agency to join the Washington Football Team, leaving the third WR spot open for second-round draft pick Terrace Marshall.
Marshall fell in the draft due to some injury concerns. Can he fill the slot role and be a red zone threat with his speed and size combo? Many in the fantasy community are getting excited about him and with the production, Samuel put up last year there is no reason he couldn’t. He had 13 TDs in 12 games in 2019 and another 10 TDs in 7 games last season. He might be one of the answers to the red zone problems the Panthers faced last season, along with having McCaffery back.
One underrated addition to this offense was TE Dan Arnold, coming over from the Arizona Cardinal. Arnold was efficient with the target he did receive putting up 438 yards on 31 receptions (45 targets) which averages out to 14.1 yards a reception. He also had 4 TDs, which matches the total put up by lead man D.J. Moore. Ian Thomas and Chris Manhertz combined for 39 targets and 26 catches last year as the Panthers TEs, but with the Arnold signing and Tommy Tremble being drafted in the third round, there seemed to be a priority to upgrade this position.
The Panther's offensive line ranked 19th according to Profootballforcast.com, they allowed 36 sacks last year, and the running backs averaged roughly around 3.8 yards an attempt. They returned three of five starters from last year and added guard Pat Elfein (Jets) and tackle Cameron Erving (Cowboys) to the mix. They also spent a third-round pick on OT Brady Christensen and a sixth-round pick on OL Deonte Brown who both could be competing for starting jobs.
One of the biggest concerns on the defensive side of the ball was the inability to stop opposing offenses on 3rd down, allowing teams to convert on at a 49.2% rate, which ranked 31st in the league. They ranked 21st in red-zone defense allowing teams to score 63.2% of the time. Money was spent on the defensive side of the ball, along with the 8th overall pick corner Jaycee Horn. Veteran corner A.J. Bouye was added and should slide in nicely as the third CB behind Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn. Haason Reddick was added to team up with third-year standout Brian Burns to rush the passer. Denzel Perryman was added to take some pressure off of Shaq Thompson, who had a bit of a down year but had huge shoes to fill when Luke Kueckly retired in January of 2020. Jeremy Chinn is a rising star in the league and will look to build off his great rookie year. Other depth additions on the defensive side of the ball will make this a competitive group this year.
The Sam Darnold trade will define the season. Is he a better fit for Joe Brady’s offense? They signed his 5th-year option right after the trade so the assumption is that he will get more of an opportunity than Bridgewater did. Will he be able to put his shaky past behind him and start fresh? He has the best weapons he has ever had, a middle-of-the-road offensive line, and arguably the best running back in the league to lean on. Can this young defense take a step forward and put a stop to opposing offenses, particularly on third downs?
VegasInsider.com doesn’t believe there is going to be much of a change setting the over/under win total at 7.5. If I was a betting man this is one team I might take a chance on. With a healthy Christian McCaffery, an exciting young defense with some veteran addition, add in the fact that some of those one-score games go in their favor this year and you have yourself a .500 team with the opportunity to exceed that. With the exception of the stacked Buccaneers, this division has had its turnover. The Saints and Falcons both have lost significant players to injury, retirement, or trades, the Panthers could sneak into the second spot in the NFC South if the ball bounces their way a bit more often this year.
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