(UPDATE: The Panthers traded a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Baker Mayfield on July 6, after the publication of this preview. While Mayfield has a draft pedigree and has shown some flashes in the NFL, it's hard to believe that the Panthers should feel like they've solved their quarterback dilemma. After all, the Browns are facing a lengthy suspension for their new quarterback Deshaun Watson and just accepted a conditional late-round pick two years from now for Mayfield. That's telling.
Mayfield immediately steps in as the Panthers' starter and is an upgrade, though he still has a long way to go to resurrect his career. If he reaches his top level and stays there, Carolina will look smart for buying very low, which they should have done with Sam Darnold but overpaid. At least they learned a lesson there. But until Mayfield rebounds — again, a team with playoff hopes and a quarterback who is facing a long suspension just gave Mayfield away for nothing, which should be alarming — then the trade doesn't move the needle tremendously for the Panthers' outlook.)
The Carolina Panthers were 3-0 last season. They got aggressive in the trade market.
They traded tight end Dan Arnold and a third-round pick to Jacksonville for cornerback CJ Henderson and a fifth-round pick. Then they acquired cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a former NFL defensive player of the year, from New England for a sixth-round pick. There was no ambiguity in the building.
"We're ready to win now," quarterback Sam Darnold said after the Gilmore trade, according to Darin Gantt of the Panthers' website. "I think that's the biggest thing. We're all aware, we can win games, and we're capable of doing that. So that's really the message it sends."
"I think everyone in this building believes we can win now," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said.
"They're confident we can win right now," cornerback Donte Jackson said.
No wonder this offseason was so tense. We all know the Panthers took a nosedive. After that 3-0 start, Carolina went 2-12. Darnold, who showed some early promise, fell apart. That made the Panthers' blind gamble in him, despite clear warning signs from his time with the New York Jets, look horrendous. The offense was putrid and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, not too far removed from being hailed as a genius for his work with Joe Burrow and the LSU offense, was abruptly fired during the season. Coach Matt Rhule survived for another season, but we can assume it was a close call. A report from The Athletic late last season said owner David Tepper was "unhappy and embarrassed" about the Rhule contract two years into it, though Tepper has since supported Rhule publicly. Late last season, fans started chanting "Fire Rhule" ... at a Charlotte Hornets game.
The Panthers, unlike when they were off to that hot start last season, weren't overly aggressive elsewhere in building the roster this offseason. The Panthers had a public pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson that came up short, which made things even more uncomfortable. There were some additions but it's not a much different team from the one that lost its last seven games.
Here's the lesson: The NFL is hard. Tepper made a fortune in the business world managing hedge funds and he tried to be an immediate success in football through bold, impulsive moves.
He gave Rhule a shocking seven-year, $62 million deal to leave Baylor. He paid quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, then paid Bridgewater to go away so the Jets could trade for Darnold and pay him. His team traded for a couple cornerbacks early last season when things looked good and sent the message they were trying to win now. Then he saw his team lose 12 of 14 to end the season. Tepper's four Panthers teams have gone 7-9, 5-11, 5-11, 5-12.
"I've said it, 'five years, five years, five years' from the time Coach Rhule was hired, it's just building that foundation, having patience to build that foundation, trying to get fans to have patience for that foundation to have sustained winning," Tepper said, via ESPN.com.
"It's hard to build that foundation. It's hard. I have a new appreciation for just how stupid I am sometimes, quite frankly."
The Panthers are in for what could be a strange season. Fans want Rhule out, and he has five years left on a bloated contract. Darnold is making $18.858 million because Carolina exercised his fifth-year option after trading for him last year. Talk about regrets. Carolina has no obvious quarterback of the future unless rookie third-round pick Matt Corral hits big or there's a trade before the season.
Christian McCaffrey, undeniably talented, has missed most of the last two seasons with injury and there were trade rumors about him this offseason. But yet, the roster is good enough, with top-end players like McCaffrey, receiver D.J. Moore, cornerback Donte Jackson, safety Jeremy Chinn, edge rusher Brian Burns, linebacker Shaq Thompson and a reworked offensive line, that the team could be much better. The Panthers shouldn't be bad enough to finish as a bottom-five team in the NFL. Maybe that's a bad thing given their quarterback situation.
The Panthers are stuck, at least for now. Tepper and his football people have tried to build quickly and that didn't work. Even a patient approach might require a complete offseason sweep at GM, coach, quarterback and a new face of the franchise if McCaffrey and the Panthers have another rough season.
The Panthers re-signed cornerback Donte Jackson to a three-year, $35.2 million deal, and that was their big move. Carolina lost pass rusher Haason Reddick, who led the team with 11 sacks last season, to the Philadelphia Eagles. Stephon Gilmore left after one partial season, though Carolina added to the secondary with safety Xavier Woods. Then there was a focus on fixing the offensive line. The Panthers signed guard Austin Corbett and center Bradley Bozeman, and took tackle Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick. That should lead to three big upgrades to go with standout tackle Taylor Moton. The Panthers' other top-100 draft pick was quarterback Matt Corral, and it seems like that will be important to note as this season goes on. The Panthers' draft class was light because they traded a second-round pick for Sam Darnold and a third-round pick for C.J. Henderson, and the less that's said about that, the better.
Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker started games for the Panthers last season. All three had negative touchdown-to-interception ratios. Darnold is the one who matters for this season, because he was guaranteed $18.858 million and the Panthers had no choice but to retain him. They still tried to trade to Deshaun Watson, and that didn't work. There were Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo rumors, but those never developed. Darnold's Pro Football Focus grade was 36th among 37 qualified quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger was the only one worse, and he retired. Darnold was good early in the season but then regressed to the same bad decisions and inaccuracy that ruined his time with the Jets. Matt Corral could end up being the first rookie QB to start a game this season. Given that Matt Rhule is on the hot seat, he can't afford to lose games with Darnold throwing interceptions. It's not crazy to think Corral takes over the job early, plays well with some good talent around him, is in contention for NFL offensive rookie of the year (voters love QBs, after all) and the Panthers feel they have an answer at quarterback. Corral has a good arm and athleticism, and maybe he's the very rare third-round steal at QB.
I'll start by saying I like Matt Corral at 18-1 to win offensive rookie of the year at BetMGM. It shouldn't surprise anyone if he's starting sometime in September — it can't even be ruled out that there's a Russell Wilson/Matt Flynn situation and Corral wins the job in preseason — though I'd wait to bet it until we're sure Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo won't be added. I also think Christian McCaffrey at 10-1 to win comeback player of the year is a smart play. (More on him in a moment.) As for the Panthers as a team, their win total is 5.5. I'd lean to the over but with no great confidence. It's a talented roster but the QB situation is hard to ignore.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "DJ Moore has been an excellent NFL receiver from the moment he dropped in 2018, but the end zone has proven elusive. Check the cumulative wide receiver ranks over the past four years — Moore slots seventh in targets, 13th in catches, eighth in receiving yards, but just 46th in receiving touchdowns.
"Moore’s quarterbacks share culpability in this puzzling touchdown slump — he’s caught scoring passes from Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, Kyle Allen, and the last gasp of Cam Newton. There’s not a plus quarterback in that group. But unless the Panthers magically find a quarterback solution between now and September, it’s hard to imagine Moore spiking in the most important fantasy column. Although Moore’s ADP is reasonable, an eyelash under 50, I can’t get excited about his upside until the Panthers land a circle of trust quarterback."
The Panthers were 4-3 when Christian McCaffrey played last season and 1-11 when he didn't. With other players maybe you could dismiss that as coincidence, but McCaffrey's value to the Panthers is undeniable. He is one of the best players in football when he's healthy. McCaffrey had 1,159 total yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games he has played the past two seasons. He is still excellent when he plays. But he has played just 10 of 33 possible games over two seasons due to ankle, thigh, shoulder and hamstring injuries. Given his size and workload (McCaffrey led the NFL with 403 touches his last healthy season in 2019) it's easy to wonder if his durability will be an issue the rest of his career. Perhaps the past two seasons have just been freak injuries and bad luck, but things can go bad for running backs in a hurry. McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million deal in 2020 and while everyone claimed he'd be the exception to the horrendous recent record of running backs on second contracts, it doesn't look good after two years. Yet, if he plays all season he could be NFL offensive player of the year. That's the type of impact he can still have.
Is DJ Moore the NFL's most underrated receiver?
Moore has had four different regular quarterbacks in four season: Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold. Not great. Moore has also played with Will Grier and P.J. Walker, who each started multiple games the past few seasons, and he had five games last season with a broken-down Newton. But the last three seasons Moore has posted an average of 1,175 receiving yards. He has 301 receptions in four seasons. He is the only receiver in the NFL with 1,200 yards from scrimmage in each of the past three seasons, which speaks to his talent and durability. Yet he's rarely mentioned alongside the best receivers in the game. A good quarterback could lead to a real breakout and change that narrative, though that seems to be at least a year away.
The Panthers' 3-0 start last season was fueled by Sam Darnold playing well, Christian McCaffrey making plays and a great defensive effort. Darnold had two 300-yard games and threw only one interception in those first three games. The Panthers beat the Jets and Houston Texans in that stretch, but also had a 26-7 win over the New Orleans Saints that aged well. It wasn't all a fluke. There is decent talent on the roster and the offensive line might be much better. McCaffrey staying healthy would be enormous. He helps everything, including whoever plays quarterback. Maybe it's even a quarterback not on the roster. Baker Mayfield has to go somewhere, probably. The Panthers have enough talent to be in playoff contention. They just need a lot to go right at some key spots.
Matt Rhule probably should be the favorite to be the first coach fired this season. Starting in Week 3, the Panthers have a five-game stretch that could be trouble: vs. Saints, vs. Cardinals, vs. 49ers, at Rams, vs. Buccaneers. Maybe Carolina can win some in that first stretch of home games, but there could be the type of losing streak that brings about big changes. If Christian McCaffrey can't stay healthy, we know Carolina struggles without him. The quarterback situation is frightening. When you lose 12 of 14 games the previous season and then don't have a marvelous offseason, it's not hard to see the bottom completely falling out.
The Panthers shouldn't be a bottom feeder in the NFL. There are some very good players at each position group. Carolina is a prime example of how being near the bottom of the league at quarterback (and maybe coach, too) can drag a franchise down. The Panthers are probably good enough to win a handful of games, but they'll come up short of playoff contention. Sam Darnold won't be the quarterback by the end of the season, whether that's because the Panthers have made a trade or Matt Corral is getting a shot. Then in the offseason, Carolina will again wrestle with the question of how to build a winner.