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2021 Team Report: Carolina Panthers

Last updated: Tue, May 25

Offensive Philosophy

New head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady were the most-hyped offensive hires heading into 2020, and while Carolina wasn't a great offense by any means, they made the most of their personnel; lacking a top quarterback and getting just three games from superstar running back Christian McCaffrey, three different Panthers receivers topped 1,000 yards. Joe Brady comes from the Sean Payton coaching tree, which means he likes to use his receivers to stretch the field vertically while relying on his running backs more for easy completions on short passes. Unlike the Saints, however, the 2020 Panthers seemed to prefer using a single running back rather than a committee.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Sam Darnold
Backup(s): P.J. Walker, Will Grier

Starting QB: The Panthers acquired Sam Darnold from the New York Jets in the offseason and are expecting him to be the starting quarterback in 2021. Darnold was the third overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft and second quarterback off the board (Baker Mayfield was the #1 overall pick). Darnold struggled in his three years in New York under Todd Bowles and then Adam Gase. The system he ran in New York gave him little, if any, leeway to adjust on the fly. As a result, it was a challenge for him to grow and develop. Enter 2021. The trade to Carolina gives Darnold a new start to benefit from a strong and eager coaching staff. He will be 24 years old at the start of the season and will have an opportunity to display the skills that made him a promising prospect in 2018. There is no argument that he now has the best coaching and playmaking staff of his career. Plus he has weapons at his disposal and an improved offensive line that he was lacking in New York. All of the tools are in place for Darnold to have success in 2021. If he doesn't develop into a prominent pro quarterback this season, his days as a starter may numbered.

Backup QB: The Panthers quarterback depth behind Sam Darnold consists of second-year quarterback, P.J. Walker, and Will Grier who has been with the Panthers for the last two years. Whoever occupies the backup roll to Sam Darnold will know Joe Brady's offense in Matt Rhule's system. P.J. Walker appeared in four games last season and totaled one touchdown and five interceptions, but the one game he started, Carolina won 20-0 over Detroit, despite two end zone interceptions. Walker is capable of being a playmaker on offense but his development is a work in progress. Will Grier has even less experience. In two games in 2019, both starts, Grier passed for 228 yards with zero touchdowns and four interceptions finishing with a 33.2. quarterback rating.

Running Backs

Starter: Christian McCaffrey
Backup(s): Chuba Hubbard [R], Rodney Smith, Reggie Bonnafon, Trenton Cannon
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Christian McCaffrey is one of the best running backs in the league when it comes to fantasy production. He is an accomplished rusher and receiver who is heavily involved in the Panthers offense. A high ankle sprain, shoulder ailment, and quad injury hampered his path in 2020 which limited him to only three games. At the end of the season the Panthers likely held him out to err on the side of caution. Carolina was out of the playoff race and did not need to risk or jeopardize McCaffrey in a lost season. When healthy he is an extremely productive piece of the Panther offense. His presence should elevate the Panthers red zone offense that struggled to find consistency in 2020. McCaffrey gained over 370 yards with 17 receptions and six touchdowns in the three games he played in last season. That pace over a 16-game season would've accumulated 481 PPR fantasy points, which would've topped the #1 ranked running back, Alvin Kamara, by 104 points. A bounce-back year to league dominance is expected.

Backup RBs: When Christian McCaffrey is healthy, the Panthers backup running backs don't see much game time, let alone production. That may change as McCaffrey becomes older and endures more hits and wear. For now, he and he alone, is the primary productive threat out of the back field. In the event McCaffrey misses time, rookie Chuba Hubbard is expected to battle Rodney Smith as the next in line, due to the departure of Mike Davis in the offseason. Whoever the back is in Carolina's offense has the ability to produce fantasy points. We saw that with Davis last season. Hubbard was one of the top college running backs after the 2019 season totaling over 2,000 yards rushing with 21 touchdowns. The 2020 season saw a drop-off in production that led to him opting out after seven games. Hubbard has the tools to be the next best back on the team and could have fantasy relevance later in the season, especially if McCaffrey misses any time. Rodney Smith is also in the mix. He first became involved after Week 10 last season as a complementary back to Mike Davis. Smith totaled 215 yards on 50 touches with one touchdown in seven appearances last year. After Smith, the depth chart includes Reggie Bonnafon with Trenton Cannon filling in behind him. McCaffrey is the clear top choice, but the Panthers running back position is a plug-and-play situation primed for fantasy relevance.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson
Backups: Terrace Marshall [R], David Moore, Brandon Zylstra, Keith Kirkwood, Marken Michel, Ventell Bryant, Ishmael Hyman, Omar Bayless, Micah Simon, Shi Smith [R]

Starting WRs: The Panthers had three wide receivers in the top 30 last season (PPR format). Robby Anderson 20th, Curtis Samuel 23rd, and D.J. Moore 25th. Samuel has rejoined Ron Rivera in Washington and will vacate over 1,000 yards of offense, 97 targets, and five touchdowns. With Christian McCaffrey in the infirmary for most of the season, Samuel was the team's leading target on third down with 29 receptions. The next closest was Anderson at 19. Samuel's 29 third-down receptions was the fifth-most in the league. McCaffrey will surely fill the void in many ways, but others will need to step in and be reliable targets on third down. The Panthers have players who can and will make plays in Joe Brady's offense. D.J. Moore had eight games of 90+ yards receiving in 2020. Only Calvin Ridley and Stefon Diggs had more. Moore is a capable and consistent receiving threat for Carolina, but his scoring has kept him from becoming an elite option. Moore has 10 touchdowns in three years in the league and has never exceeded four in a season. On the bright side, he has improved his fantasy ranking each year and in Brady's first year as running the offense, Moore had 18.1 yards per catch on 66 receptions. His after the catch skills are among the best in the league. Depending on Sam Darnold's development, that could change in 2021. Darnold has a career average of 6.64 yards per attempt. Robby Anderson surprised many in 2020 with a career-best in targets (137), receptions (95), and receiving yards (1,097). He'll be rejoined with Darnold in 2021 where the two hooked up for 11 touchdowns in 2018-2019. Anderson should again be a prominent piece of the offense, especially with Samuel moving on. Both Moore and Anderson topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2020. Even with the return of McCaffrey, they should once again come close to hitting those marks once again.

Backup WRs: The first crack at the Panthers WR3 role is rookie Terrace Marshall, who Joe Brady knows well from his time at LSU. Marshall is someone who can develop into a strong fantasy-relevant wide receiver. He checks all of the boxes to develop into a special player. At 6'3, 205 pounds, he has height and range to make contested plays. He has sub-4.40 speed (clocked at 4.38 at his pro day), he comes from the heralded LSU fraternity of wide receivers that recently has produced Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, D.J. Chark, Justin Jefferson, and Ja'Marr Chase - all selected in the first or second round. Marshall has a knack for the end zone, catching 23 touchdowns in his last 19 games at LSU. He will fit into Joe Brady's shallow-cross offense well. His presence will also help an offense that finished 28th in the red zone touchdown percentage in 2020. Moving down the depth chart is David Moore who is a familiar face to General Manager Scott Fitterer. He flashed playmaking abilities in Seattle but was hidden down the depth chart behind DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Carolina signed him as a free agent in the offseason and his role will likely stay the same as the Panthers utility receiver behind D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and emerging receiver Terrace Marshall. In three years with Seattle (his first year he appeared in only one game), Moore totaled 13 touchdowns on 78 receptions. That's a touchdown for every six catches. In comparison, Curtis Samuel had 14 touchdown receptions on 185 receptions (a touchdown for every 13 receptions). After the third wide receiver in the Panthers offense the production diminishes. Anderson's 95 receptions led the way last season, followed by Samuel's 77 and Moore's 66. The next closest among wide receivers was Pharoh Cooper with 5. Cooper remains a free agent heading into 2021, but Carolina's depth chart rounds into form with Brandon Zylstra, Keith Kirkwood and then a few others who will battle for a spot on the roster. Zylstra appeared in four games last year with minimal involvement and Kirkwood had even less. Like Anderson, he does have ties to Temple, which we know is a common theme among Matt Rhule players.

Tight Ends

Starters: Dan Arnold
Backups: Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble [R], Colin Thompson, Tommy Stevens, Stephen Sullivan, Giovanni Ricci

Only New England (15) had fewer receptions to tight ends than Carolina (27) last year. In Joe Brady's first year as the Panthers offensive coordinator he rarely utilized the tight end position as a weapon on offense. Ian Thomas accounted for 20 of the team's 27 receptions to the position. That could change in 2021 due to the acquisition of free agent tight end Dan Arnold. The 26 year-old, 6'6, 220-pound Arnold is coming off his best performance in his three years in the league where he totaled 31 receptions on 45 targets for 438 yards and 4 touchdowns for Arizona. Arnold has experience with Joe Brady from his stint in New Orleans in 2018. He is expected to be a fixture in the Panthers offensive plans, especially in the red zone where he can use his size to his advantage. He isn't as big as most tight ends at only 220 pounds, but his 6'6 height and 4.63 40-time makes him a glorified big wide receiver. One who could come in handy for a Panthers team who finished 28th in red zone scoring efficiency in 2020, converting 51% of their 3.6 red zone opportunities per week. Occupying a joker halfback/tight end role in the offense is rookie Tommy Tremble. Consider him a Swiss Army knife in the mold of fullback Alex Armah and tight end Chris Manhertz. Veteran Ian Thomas will also play a role in some capacity but with limited fantasy expectations. Arnold is the one who could be a surprise and become a fantasy-relevant weapon in the already stacked Panthers offense.

Place Kicker

Joey Slye: Slye improved slightly on his 2019 numbers in 2020 and was actually a fantasy-friendly kicker, in part because of Teddy Bridgewater and the red zone offense's woes when it was time to finish drives with touchdowns. Slye was in the top 10 in field goals made, and 5 of his 7 misses were from 50+ yards. Slye went 28 for 30 on attempts from under 50 after going 17 for 21 in 2019. If Sam Darnold is better in the red zone than Bridgewater was, Slye's field goal attempt numbers may come down, but he is going undrafted in most leagues, so that is more than priced in. Consider him a viable emergency pick in deep leagues and possible waiver wire pickup, along with his established status as a fine bye/injury option.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Trenton Cannon

Last year, the Panthers relied on return specialist Pharoh Cooper, who won't return in 2021. They have a candidate to handle kickoffs in his absence in Trenton Cannon, who was typically the second player deep last year, but don't be surprised if they bring in more competition over the offseason.

Punt Returners: D.J. Moore

With return specialist Pharoh Cooper's departure, the most experienced punt returner on Carolina's roster is receiver D.J. Moore, who is likely too involved on offense to risk exposing to hits on special teams. It's likely that Carolina will bring in a yet-unsigned return specialist or undrafted rookie to try to win this role.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Cam Erving, LG Pat Elflein, C Matt Paradis, RG John Miller, RT Taylor Moton
Key Backups: OT Trent Scott, OT Brady Christensen [R], OL Greg Little, OL Dennis Daley, OG Deonte Brown [R]

The strength of this line is at right tackle, where franchise tagged Taylor Moton is a fixture. Center Matt Paradis organizes the middle, and right guard John Miller is a solid player. But the left side is a project. Cam Erving arrived from Dallas and Pat Elflein signed from the Jets. Look for round three rookie Brady Christensen to push Erving for playing time. This line's grade is low, but there's potential to be decent.

Team Defense

The Panthers D/ST was a bit more potent than expected in fantasy leagues in their first year under Phil Snow, but still not a mainstay in lineups. They were among the bottom 10 in sacks and interceptions, but managed to lead the league in fumble recoveries with 15 and return three of them for scores. Fumble luck makes that number much more likely to go down than go up, but the team added Haason Reddick to boost the edge rush and drafted a potential shutdown corner at #8 in Jaycee Horn. They will also be in their second year in the Phil Snow system and could benefit from better quarterback play if Sam Darnold blossoms now that he is out from under Adam Gase's thumb. The Panthers open up the season with Darnold's old team and will face Zach Wilson in his first NFL start, so they could be a fine last round pick for fantasy teams that will stream defenses all season.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Brian Burns, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, DT Bravvion Roy, DT Derrick Brown
Backups: DE Morgan Fox, DE Marquis Haynes, FDE Christian Miller, DE Austin Larkin, DT DaQuan Jones, DT Frank Herron, DT Daviyon Nixon, DT Phil Hoskins

Starting DL: Though the Panthers defense did not fare well last season from a statistical perspective, there were green shoots along the defensive front. Last season's first round pick Derrick Brown did not make the sustained impact that would have been expected of his lofty draft position, but he improved as the season wore on. Bravvion Roy, a space-eating defensive tackle, will be asked to make up the snaps left over by the released Kawann Short. The bookends are set to be former first rounder Brian Burns, who had a breakout campaign in 2020, and second-year pro Yetur Gross-Matos. Having shown promise in his first season, Gross-Matos will be expected to take another positive step but will likely rotate heavily with Haason Reddick in designated pass rushing situations.

Backup DL: Former Rams defensive end Morgan Fox was picked up by new Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer this offseason to bolster depth. Fox, who stood out in limited action in Los Angeles, could be heavily involved if he impresses. Marquis Haynes will continue in his role as a designed pass rusher, while Christian Miller will return after opting out of 2020 due to Covid-19. Former Titan DaQuan Jones was signed in late April to provide valuable depth on the interior after performing well in his final season in Tennessee. Iowa rookie Daviyon Nixon will provide a good rotational option in his rookie season for a defense that struggled mightily against the run last season.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Shaq Thompson, SLB Haason Reddick, MLB Denzel Perryman
Backups: LB Jermaine Carter, LB Chris Orr, LB Frankie Luvu, LB Jordan Mack, LB Clay Johnston

Starting LBs: The Panthers' linebacker corps has not been the same since the departures of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, with the group struggling last season at times. The addition of Jeremy Chinn as a 'linebacker' in certain packages gave the unit some extra punch. Shaw Thompson will continue to play an every-down role on the weakside, while new signing Denzel Perryman will be expected to solidify the middle with his hard-hitting approach. Haason Reddick, signed on a one-year deal this offseason, will be a Joker-type player for Phil Snow's defense, playing as both an edge rusher and as the Sam linebacker.

Backup LBs: Frankie Luvu was added to the Panthers fold this offseason on a one-year contract, while the rest of the backups feature castaways and inexperienced players who will primarily be special teams contributors. Jermaine Carter is the most likely candidate as the first man off the bench.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Donte Jackson, CB Jaycee Horn [R], FS Juston Burris, SS Jeremy Chinn
Backups: CB A.J. Bouye, CB Rashaan Melvin, CB Keith Taylor, CB Myles Hartsfield, CB Troy Pride, CB Stantley Thomas-Oliver, S Sean Chandler, S Kenny Robinson, S Sam Franklin, S Delano Hill

Starting DBs: Donte Jackson had an up-and-down 2020 campaign, missing some time due to injury as he endured some forgettable games. His status as a starter appears assured entering this season with the team boasting little else in the way of established veterans. The drafting of Jaycee Horn, a talented press cornerback in the first round, changes the equation and gives the Panthers more flexibility against some of the best receivers in the league. Horn could develop into a legitimate shutdown cornerback option. Juston Burris and Jeremy Chinn will man the safety spots. Chinn has the versatility to drop down into the box and produced memorable moments in a highlight-laden rookie campaign. He led all rookies with 117 tackles in 2020 and should be able to carry on the momentum heading into 2021.

Backup DBs: Rashaan Melvin and A.J. Bouye were signed to add some experience to the back end. Troy Pride and Stantley Thomas-Oliver contributed in spurts last season, with Pride playing a larger role and learning the hard way at times. Myles Hartsfield played some running back last year and should provide a Swiss army knife weapon for the team in whatever role he eventually settles into. Among the safeties, Kenny Robinson has the highest upside and should be able to compete for snaps in the secondary. The former Seahawk Delano Hill was signed in May as a project after landing on injured reserve the past two seasons.