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2020 Team Report: Carolina Panthers

Last updated: Mon, Sep 7

Offensive Philosophy

The Carolina Panthers will sport an entirely new look in 2020 as Ron Rivera and Cam Newton- the team's coach and quarterback since 2011- are both out. In their place comes new head coach Matt Rhule, known more as an executive-type who prefers to leave the fine details to his assistants, in this case wunderkind offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Brady spent two seasons as an offensive assistant with the Saints before serving one year as the passing game coordinator at LSU, and his philosophy draws heavily from Sean Payton's offense in New Orleans. Expect plenty of receivers running vertical routes, often three or even four at once, with running backs coming out of the backfield to stretch the defense horizontally. This should be a perfect pairing for do-everything back Christian McCaffrey, who already owns the two highest single-season reception totals by a running back in history; since Payton joined the Saints in 2006 his team has produced five of the top six and six of the top eight seasons in the league in terms of pass attempts to running backs. Over the past decade, Payton's Saints have thrown more than 50% more passes to their backs than league average. One interesting conflict is that running back Christian McCaffrey was as much of a one-man show as the league has seen in a long time; of all the touches Carolina gave to a running back last year, McCaffrey received 92% of them. On the other hand, the Saints have consistently been arguably the most committed team in the league to a committee approach at the position; in his two seasons in New Orleans, in the 28 games both Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara played they touched the ball 447 and 385 times, respectively. The talent gap between McCaffrey and the rest of the backs on the roster is much larger and it's an interesting sign that the Panthers didn't add another back in the draft, but the history suggests Brady would prefer a bit more of a time-share approach.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Teddy Bridgewater
Backup(s): Will Grier, PJ Walker

Starting QB: The Panthers started a new era with the firing of nine-year veteran, Ron Rivera and the hiring of former Temple and Baylor head coach, Matt Rhule. The Panthers have moved on from former league MVP, Cam Newton, citing it was time for a change. The departure of Newton included the welcoming of three-year veteran, Teddy Bridgewater. The Louisville product has experience in offensive coordinator, Joe Brady's system during his time with the New Orleans Saints. Bridgewater started five games for the Saints in 2019, all wins. His performance and familiarity of Brady's offense led Carolina to sign him to a three-year deal in March. Bridgewater inherits an offense loaded with young weapons, including Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, newly signed Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, and budding tight end, Ian Thomas. Carolina hand-picked Bridgewater to be the captain of their offense. He brings excellent leadership qualities, accuracy, especially for short to middle-ranged throws, which fits Carolina's system well, plus he is familiar with Joe Brady's coaching style and his offense. From a fantasy perspective, Bridgewater is expected to be a QB2 in terms of production, but if all areas click, he could surprise, given the level of talent on Carolina's offense. The Panthers could use some help shoring up the offensive line. Adding veteran left tackle, Russell Okung, via a trade, definitely helps matters, but this unit is still far from polished.

Backup QB: The Panthers traded backup quarterback Kyle Allen to Ron Rivera's Washington team in the offseason, leaving last year's third-round pick, Will Grier, as the primary backup. Grier saw action last season starting two games, both losses. He finished 28 for 52 for 228 yards, 0 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Though he is still young and learning, his performance in 2019 was not at the level of what Carolina expected from their third round investment. Grier will have the chance to battle for the backup spot in 2020 with newly signed, XFL standout, P.J. Walker. Walker was the runaway leader for the league MVP trophy before the XFL season abruptly ended, as all sports stopped, in March, 2020. In five games, Walker led the Houston Roughnecks to a 5-0 record with 15 touchdown passes, both league highs. Walker's experience with Matt Rhule goes back to 2013-2016 at Temple University where Rhule coached. Walker was the starting quarterback for the majority of Rhule's time. Not only was Walker a standout in the XFL, but his allegiance and familiarity with Rhule, may lead to Walker earning the backup role behind Bridgewater.

Running Backs

Starter: Christian McCaffrey
Backup(s): Reggie Bonnafon, Mike Davis, Jordan Scarlett
Fullback(s): Alex Armah

Starting RB: Christian McCaffrey was the most productive running back in the league last season, and he had one of the best seasons at the position in league history. McCaffrey joined Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only running backs who ever reached 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. In addition to that, McCaffrey topped 100 receptions for the second year in a row while scoring 19 times. He is the only running back in history to rush for 1,000 yards and eclipse 100 receptions in a season, twice. All of this accomplished on a 5-11 team with arguably, the league's worst quarterback, statistically speaking. McCaffrey will be entering his fourth year in the league and is expected to be a critical component of the Panthers offense yet again. This year he will have a more accomplished quarterback under center in Teddy Bridgewater who thrives in making plays under duress, where his strength is short to mid-ranged throws. A perfect fit with McCaffrey. Look for offensive coordinator Joe Brady, to utilize McCaffrey as an underneath threat, but also further down field, similar to how Clyde Edwards-Helaire was used at LSU in 2019. McCaffrey is expected to be one of the top running backs selected in fantasy drafts of all formats in 2020.

Backup RBs: If the last two years are any indication, the backup running backs on Carolina won't receive a lot of work. Christian McCaffrey led the team with 287 carries in 2019. The next closest was rookie Reggie Bonnafan with 16. Bonnafan saw the most carries in a Week 5 win vs. Jacksonville when he rushed for 80 yards on five carries, including a 59-yard touchdown run. In the limited time that he saw action, Bonnafan looked capable of providing a spark to the offense. He received his chance when McCaffrey was shaken up from an earlier tumble into the end zone. The game was in-hand at the time, which gave Bonnafan his opportunity and he did not disappoint. If Matt Rhule's staff decides it's best to give McCaffrey respites, Bonnafan appears to be capable of providing decent effort in relief. Mike Davis and Jordan Scarlett fill out the remainder of the running back corps. Both Scarlett and Davis saw minimal action in 2019 and the same is expected for 2020 barring any injury situations.

Fullback: Alex Armah is the team's fullback who will be entering his fourth year in the league, all with Carolina. He doesn't see a lot of action, only 137 snaps in 2019 and slightly less in 2018. When he is used, it's often for short-yardage gains or goal line chances, and it's often a power rush that gets the job done. Armah has scored a touchdown in each of the last two years. It is unclear how he will be utilized in Joe Brady's offense, but if the Panthers decide to increase his opportunities, he is capable of making positive contributions.

Wide Receivers

Starters: D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson
Backups: Seth Roberts, Pharoh Cooper, Brandon Zylstra, Keith Kirkwood, DeAndrew White, Greg Dortch

Starting WRs: The Panthers receiving corps will be led by D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and newly signed Robby Anderson. Moore is entering his third year in the league in 2020 after having a breakout 2019 campaign where he finished 15th in PPR scoring despite having a sub-par quarterback. While Christian McCaffrey is listed as a running back, he most assuredly is also a big part of the Panthers receiver unit, catching 100+ passes in each of the last two years. The Panthers have boastful talent at the wide receiver position, but this offense will look different in 2020 in large part due to a new coaching staff and a new quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. The new coaching regime is led by Matt Rhule featuring offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Brady has ties with the NFL (Saints), but most recently he was a key offensive coach for the 2019 National Champion LSU Tigers. The Carolina passing game, and offense in general, should have many similarities to LSU which includes the success exhibited by receivers Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase. Brady will utilize Carolina's playmakers to the best of their abilities. While Moore may have the upper hand among receivers, this offense should involve everyone who is capable of making plays with three wide receiver sets or more being the dominant personnel. As a result, we should see decent fantasy production from Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson, in addition to their ultimate weapon, Christian McCaffrey.

Backup WRs: D.J. Moore may be the top target among wide receivers, but this offense will feature a healthy dose of several key participants along with Moore and superstar, Christian McCaffrey. Joe Brady's offense will often feature three wide receivers and sometimes four, with the fourth likely being McCaffrey. This formation allows several receivers to stand out and be productive in this offense. Outside of Moore and Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson will see significant snaps and targets. Samuel is entering his fourth year in the league, despite only turning 24 in August. Samuel surprisingly bested teammate D.J. Moore in overall snaps in 2019, plus he had six touchdowns, compared to Moore's four. This marked the second year in a row in which Samuel had at least five touchdowns. He is expected to once again be a key part of the offense, especially with the changes coming under Joe Brady's offensive system. Moore may develop into a fantasy WR1, but Samuel has the ability and opportunity to not be too far behind. The addition of Robby Anderson is not one to take lightly either. Anderson's experience with Matt Rhule at Temple is a big reason why Carolina hand-picked him as a free agent signing in the offseason. Like Samuel, Anderson is no stranger to the end zone. He is coming off three consecutive seasons of 5 touchdowns or more. His forte is using his speed to get behind the defense. At 6'3, 190 pounds, Anderson has more size than Samuel and ultimately is a better down field receiver. He should be the team's primary deep threat target and his place in this offense should yield positive fantasy results with a ceiling of WR2 numbers. Making up the remainder of the wide receiver corps is Seth Roberts, Pharoh Cooper, and Keith Kirkwood. Roberts is a three-year veteran who has played for the Raiders and Ravens before being signed by Carolina this offseason. Roberts has scored at least one touchdown in each of his three seasons in the league. He has primarily been used as a complementary receiver and the same is expected in Carolina. Pharoh Cooper played his college ball in nearby South Carolina. He is expected to audition for the team's KR/PR as well as a speed option in specific scenarios. Keith Kirkwood comes from New Orleans, where he is familiar with Teddy Bridgewater, as well as Joe Brady. Kirkwood also is familiar with Rhule from his days at Temple. He missed the majority of 2019 due to a hamstring injury and will battle for one of the final wide receiver spots with the Panthers.

Tight Ends

Starters: Ian Thomas
Backups: Seth DeValve, Chris Manhertz

Ian Thomas is expected to earn the top tight end role for the Panthers in replacing longtime veteran Greg Olsen who departed for Seattle in the offseason. Thomas performed well in Olsen's absence over the last two years, catching 35 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns. He brings a good size-speed combination to the position that will be utilized in Joe Brady's offensive system. He enters 2020 as a bench tight end for fantasy purposes, but he has the ability and opportunity entering his third year in the league. He will need to learn Joe Brady's offense, but the two years of prior experience will help him get to the level that could produce surprising fantasy results. Veteran Seth DeValve was signed in the offseason. He has experience with Cleveland and Jacksonville in a secondary role at the tight end position. He has 60 career receptions and four touchdowns in four years in the league. He provides a veteran presence in the Panthers depleted tight end corps and will likely have a secondary role with the team as an understudy to Ian Thomas. Chris Manhertz will be entering his fifth year, all with the Panthers. He has minimal involvement as a receiver and has been used mainly as a blocking source during his time in Carolina.

Place Kicker

Joey Slye: The Panthers enter 2020 with the same competition they had in 2019. Graham Gano went on injured reserve with a knee injury in the preseason, giving way to Joey Slye. Slye was adequate at best overall, making 25 of 32 field goal attempts and 31 of 35 extra point attempts, but he was very strong from distance, making 8 of 11 from 50+ yards. Gano was released before the open of camp, so Slye will be the kicker again in 2020.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Pharoh Cooper, Greg Dortch, Reggie Bonnafon

D.J. Moore fielded punts for the Panthers in 2019, but like Christian McCaffrey before him, an expanding role on offense will likely leave little time for work on special teams. To that end, the Panthers have signed several experienced return specialists and will likely have newcomers Pharoh Cooper and Greg Dortch compete with holdovers Reggie Bonnafon and Brandon Zylstra to earn return responsibilities.

Punt Returners: Pharoh Cooper, Greg Dortch, Brandon Zylstra, D.J. Moore

D.J. Moore fielded punts for the Panthers in 2019, but like Christian McCaffrey before him, an expanding role on offense will likely leave little time for work on special teams. To that end, the Panthers have signed several experienced return specialists and will likely have newcomers Pharoh Cooper and Greg Dortch compete with holdovers Reggie Bonnafon and Brandon Zylstra to earn return responsibilities.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: OT Russell Okung, OG John Miller, C Matt Paradis, OG Michael Schofield, OT Taylor Moton
Key Backups: OL Tyler Larsen, OT Greg Little, OL Dennis Daley

This line has been rebuilt by new coach Matt Rhule from Baylor, who has installed a spread style offensive scheme. There are three new starters, the most famous of which is left tackle Russell Okung, the former Pro Bowler traded from the Chargers. Left guard John Miller replaces Greg Van Roten and right guard Michael Schofield will start for Trai Turner, who was the other side of the Okung trade.

Team Defense

The Panthers defense is being overhauled, so we shouldn't read too much into their 2019 stats, but they did notch 53 sacks, good for second in the league. They were also 31st in points allowed, and a potential weekly liability in yards/points allowed scoring leagues. There's a new defensive coordinator and head coach as head coach Matt Rhule brought Phil Snow with him. Kawann Short, Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson, and Donte Jackson are back as anchors, but the team is changing schemes without the benefit of an offseason and they will have to replace Luke Kuechly, Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, Dontari Poe, Vernon Butler, Gerald McCoy, Eric Reid, and James Bradberry. They did go defense at every single draft pick, although only #7 pick Derrick Brown is likely to have an immediate impact and help offset their losses. It's going to be a rough year of transition for this unit and their ADP in the 20s reflects that. They aren't even a preferred target late in best ball leagues and they'll only be a matchup/bye/injury play during the regular season if Teddy Bridgewater and the offense come together quickly.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Brian Burns, DE Stephen Weatherly, DT Kawann Short, DT Derrick Brown [R]
Backups: DT Zach Kerr, DT Bravvion Roy [R], DE Yetur Gross-Matos [R], DE Shareef Miller

Starting DL: It is all change for the Panthers this offseason, with a new coaching staff and a new mindset permeating the organization. After the shift to a 3-4 yielded dismal results - especially in run defense - the team has turned back to the 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Phil Snow. The switchover will force last year's first round pick Brian Burns to add a bit of weight to his frame as he projects to line up at right defensive end against the league's best pass protectors. Burns showed well at times in his rookie season, but a lingering wrist ailment seemed to drain his confidence down the stretch. Stephen Weatherly was signed in free agency to a two-year contract to man the opposite side, though he profiles as more of a short-term veteran presence on a rebuilding unit. On the interior, Kawann Short will be relied upon to be a primary pass rushing threat as he returns from a shoulder injury. With the seventh overall pick in the NFL Draft, the team selected decorated Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, last year's SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a consistently disruptive presence throughout his college career. Brown has the versatility to play either one-, three- or five-technique and could make an instant impact on a team that will need his run-stopping abilities.

Backup DL: The team brought in Zach Kerr to help in cushioning the blow of losing Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy in free agency. Kerr, a former Cardinal, penned a two-year pact with Carolina, with the 334lb behemoth likely to play nose tackle. Efe Obada, a high upside but inconsistent project player who flashed at times, was waived after final cuts. Yetur Gross-Matos was selected in the second round of the NFL Draft and will immediately compete for significant snaps. Gross-Matos lacks the full repertoire of pass rushing moves, but adding strength and professional coaching will allow him to develop quickly. He could supplant Stephen Weatherly in the edge rotation quickly. Former Baylor defensive tackle Bravvion Roy fits most logically as a zero- or one-technique. Shareef Miller was claimed off waivers after final cuts. A fourth round pick of the Eagles last season, he profiles as a rotational and developmental option.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Tahir Whitehead, SLB Jermaine Carter, WLB Shaq Thompson
Backups: LB Marquis Haynes, LB Christian Miller (opt-out), LB Adarius Taylor, LB Julian Stanford, LB Sam Franklin

Starting LBs: The major storyline for the Panthers in the offseason on defense was the retirement of perennial All-Pro and undisputed heartbeat of the unit, Luke Kuechly. Perhaps with an eye towards the future, just weeks before Kuechly's announcement the team re-signed Shaq Thompson to a four-year extension. The void left by Kuechly's talent and leadership is a gaping one, and Thompson will be expected to lead the way - whether that is from the middle or the weakside. The return to a 4-3, where Thompson played most of his career so far, should suit him. The team added some veteran depth by bringing in Tahir Whitehead on a one-year, $2.5m contract. The veteran has bounced around the league and has ties to head coach Matt Rhule from their days together at Temple. Jermaine Carter could compete with rookie Jeremy Chinn for snaps at strongside linebacker, with the youngster showing well during camp.

Backup LBs: Marquis Haynes was drafted by the previous regime with a transition to the 3-4 in mind, so he may be deployed more as a designated pass rusher in Phil Snow's defense. Christian Miller, who could have played a hybrid LB/DE role in the 4-3, decided to opt out for the season. The team signed nine-year veteran Julian Stanford towards the end of camp while trading former seventh rounder Andre Smith to the Bills. Sam Franklin, an undrafted player out of Baylor, played for Matt Rhule as a freshman.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Donte Jackson, CB Eli Apple, FS Juston Burris, SS Tre Boston
Backups: CB Rasul Douglas, CB Troy Pride Jr. [R], CB Dominique Hatfield, CB Stantley Thomas-Oliver III [R], S Jeremy Chinn [R], CB Corn Elder, DB Myles Hartsfield

Starting DBs: James Bradberry and Eric Reid were let go by the Panthers in free agency as the new regime hit the reset button on the roster. Tre Boston was re-signed on a three-year deal, with the 27-year-old slated to man the strong safety spot on a defense that will be on the field often. Juston Burris was snapped up in free agency on a two-year deal, the former Browns player having shone in limited action towards the end of the 2019 season. The former fourth round pick is not assured of a starting role, but he fits most logically as a free safety. Donte Jackson has endured a torrid time in his career so far and, apart from a handful of solid games, has failed to reach his potential. With Matt Rhule taking over, Jackson has a new lease on life entering his third season. The departure of Bradberry leaves veteran Corn Elder, more of a nickel corner, manning the other outside spot. The second cornerback spot is wide open, though it may fall most feasibly to rookie fourth round pick Troy Pride Jr., whose sprinter speed and transition ability impressed the team, that is if free agent addition Eli Apple doesn't get slotted in.

Backup DBs: Safety Jeremy Chinn was a trade-up target in the second round. He profiles as a speedy, rangy chess piece capable of dropping into coverage and blitzing. Stantley Thomas-Oliver was selected in the seventh round and should slot in as a key special teams player. Myles Hartsfield impressed in camp and took snaps as a running back. Rasul Douglas, formerly of the Eagles, was claimed off waivers after final cuts to provide a veteran option.