8 Carolina Panthers who could be poised for a breakout 2021 season

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·5 min read
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The Carolina Panthers made major changes this offseason to their roster. After signing a large number of team-friendly deals in free agency, they brought in the franchise’s biggest draft class since the expansion in 1995. Carolina also made two significant trades at quarterback, effectively exchanging Teddy Bridgewater for Sam Darnold.

All these new faces should mean a fresh start and more opportunities for some key pieces. This is also a very young team, so another year of growth could lead to some serious improvement. Here are eight individuals who could be poised for a breakout year for one reason or another.

Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady (31)

(Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

If Teddy Bridgewater's claim about not spending much practice time on red zone drills is true, it's a huge indictment of Matt Rhule's staff. In any case, given their red zone issues in 2020, this should be the most critical area of focus over the summer. For what it's worth, offensive coordinator Joe Brady showed improvement late in the year. If Brady continues that trend and puts his new weapons to work in the right way, it should lead to a lot more points for the Panthers and possibly a head-coach job for Brady in 2022.

Quarterback Sam Darnold (23)

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Even if Brady becomes the best play-caller in football, he'll need Sam Darnold to step up and deliver on the promise he flashed occasionally with the Jets. We know Darnold has arm talent to spare. The question is if he can deliver it on a more consistent basis. Doing so will require him to cut down on the turnovers that plagued him in New York, where he threw 39 interceptions and fumbled 20 times in three years. If he avoids those mistakes and takes advantage of a far-superior receiver corps, Darnold has a chance to go from being a fringe starter to a top-15 QB.

Wide receiver D.J. Moore (24)

D.J. Moore
D.J. Moore

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If Brady and Darnold are on their A-game, the major beneficiary will be WR1 D.J. Moore, who could have led the NFL in receiving last year with even average quarterback play. Despite Bridgewater's issues, Moore posted a career-high 18.1 yards per catch and led the league in contested catches of 20+ yards. Assuming that uptick in downfield usage continues and he gets more looks in the red zone, Moore could be in for a huge leap in touchdown production. To date he's only caught 10 in three seasons, but no one should be surprised if he goes for double-digits in 2021.

Wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. (20)

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Nothing is harder to predict than which rookies will adjust quick to life in the NFL and which ones will struggle. It's not unusual for even very-talented prospects to flounder for a while. That said, exceptional athletes at least have the physical tools they need to succeed right away. Marshall checks all the boxes there - posting outstanding explosive numbers and solid size and speed among wide receivers. Marshall also has the added benefit of knowing the offense already and there's good reason to believe he'll thrive in the red zone. During his last two seasons at LSU, Marshall led college football in touchdowns inside the 10-yard line.

Cornerback Jaycee Horn (21)

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The learning curve for rookies at cornerback is as brutal as it gets on defense. Even Jalen Ramsey was somewhat shaky his first year in the league and he's gone on to become the top corner in football. So, it's hard to project where Horn's ceiling is. However, it's not difficult to envision early success. Like Marshall, Horn is a ridiculous athlete - in the 99th percentile for his position. His rare combination of superb size and a refined technique will at least give him a chance against the likes of Mike Evans and Julio Jones.

Cornerback Donte Jackson (25)

Donte Jackson
Donte Jackson

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If he hadn't been playing hurt, Jackson's breakout season would have already come in 2020. Despite lingering foot injuries, he only allowed a 79.2 passer rating and posted three interceptions. This year, Jackson might have a chance to thrive in a new role. Both Horn and A.J. Bouye are better-suited to play outside corner and it makes sense to start them together. That would enable the Panthers to put Jackson in the slot, where his quickness and athleticism could shine and his size wouldn't be as much of an issue.

Defensive tackle Derrick Brown (23)

Derrick Brown
Derrick Brown

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Carolina's top-10 pick from 2020 illustrated how hard it is to hit the ground running in year one. Brown made some mental mistakes early and at one point was leading the league in penalties. He settled in though and blossomed as a pass rusher as the season progressed - eventually finishing second in pressures among rookies behind Chase Young. Brown's pass-rushing looks impressive already. However, he'll need to improve as a run defender to reach his potential. Brown missed five tackles last year (12.8%). If he can clean that up, the Pro Bowl might be in reach.

Kicker Joey Slye (25)

Joey Slye
Joey Slye

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

We'll take Joey Slye's leg strength over any other kicker in the NFL right now. However, there's more to playing the position than just pure power, as Slye has discovered. While he's already made nine field goals of 50 yards or more in two years, Slye has had issues with consistency and he's made less than 80% of his attempts so far. Good news on this front: Slye understands the nature of the problem and has been working with a sports psychologist. If the mental aspect clicks, Slye might just develop into an elite kicker. [vertical-gallery id=636874]

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