Schedule: LVR, @TB, @LAC, ARI, @ATL, CHI, @NO, ATL, @KC, TB, DET, @MIN, BYE, DEN, @GB, @WAS, NO
Additions: OL Russell Okung (Trade), QB Teddy Bridgewater (FA), WR Robby Anderson (FA), EDGE Stephen Weatherly (FA), S Juston Burris (FA), OL John Miller (FA), WR Seth Roberts (FA), DL Zach Kerr (FA), LB Tahir Whitehead (FA), KR/PR Pharoh Cooper (FA),
CB Eli Apple (FA), WR Keith Kirkwood (FA), DL Derrick Brown (Draft), EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos (Draft), S Jeremy Chinn (Draft), CB Troy Pride (Draft), DL Bravvion Roy (Draft)
Losses: LB Luke Kuechly (Retired), DL Wes Horton (Retired), QB Cam Newton (FA), CB James Bradberry (FA), EDGE Mario Addison (FA), DL Gerald McCoy (FA), DL Vernon Butler (FA), OL Greg Van Roten (FA), TE Greg Olsen (FA), EDGE Bruce Irvin (FA), OL Daryl Williams (FA), DL Kyle Love (FA), K Graham Gano (FA), OL Trai Turner (Trade), QB Kyle Allen (Trade), LB Andre Smith (Trade), EDGE Christian Miller (Opt-out), CB Eli Apple (Injury), WR Keith Kirkwood (Injury)
Sometimes, youth isn’t a good thing. Carolina may have promising young players on defense, but they’re going to get killed this year. Seriously, this could end up being the worst defense in football. That’s what happens when an already porous defense loses virtually all its veteran talent in one offseason.
Among a long list of names, none stands out more than Luke Kuechly. I don’t think we’ll truly appreciate the future Hall of Famer’s value until we see the Panthers defense without him. Famous for his defensive IQ and rigorous film study, Kuechly routinely called out plays and literally pushed his teammates to get set in the right spots. The drop off from him to Tahir Whitehead is almost unfathomable. It’s also worth monitoring whether Shaq Thompson is ready to be the top linebacker after years as a sidekick.
James Bradberry’s play wasn’t up to Kuechly’s level, but his departure could be similarly devastating. Without him, this secondary looks awful. Donte Jackson is way too inconsistent to be a CB1. Not to mention, he’s simply too small for certain matchups. That will leave the other projected starter, Troy Pride Jr., with more responsibility than the typical number two corner. Needless to say, having a fourth-round rookie guard Michael Thomas or Julio Jones is not ideal. Even when Eli Apple returns from IR, cornerback will remain a weakness. While the safeties are better, they’re still not great. Tre Boston’s tackling issues offset his coverage value and Juston Burris is unproven as a full-time starter.
From a cast of uninspiring options, the front four shines as the defensive group with the most promise. Not just by default, either; they could actually be pretty good. Derrick Brown is too big and fast to endure rookie struggles. He’ll also benefit from the return of Kawann Short. After missing almost all of last season, the two-time Pro Bowler will provide a big boost to the line.
On the edge, Brian Burns gets a lot of hype after posting 7.5 sacks in limited reps. His pass rushing was never in doubt, though. The question coming out was always whether he could develop into a three-down player. Rookie Yetur Gross-Matos and free agent signing Stephen Weatherly will rotate at the other end spot. Considering the supporting cast, this line will have to dominate for the defense to be anything other than awful. Unfortunately, I think they’re more good than great.
Unlike the defense, the offense is in good shape despite heavy turnover. Cam Newton leaving was only a formality at this point. We haven’t seen the real Super Cam is almost two years because of injuries. I’m not a big Teddy Bridgewater guy, but he’s undoubtedly a step up from last year’s quarterbacks. He also gets the benefit of some spectacular weapons around him.
Christian McCaffrey is the best running back in football. That’s right. No one else can match his dual-threat ability or production. Receivers D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson are up there for the best in football, too. I am worried about Bridgewater maximizing their skills, though. Each of those guys can fly, and the former Vikings and Saints quarterback has a bad history of conservative decision-making. Hopefully, he’ll recognize the team’s strengths and take more chances this year. In year one without Greg Olsen, the tight ends will be unspectacular, yet solid. Chris Manhertz is a supreme blocker at the position and Ian Thomas has flashed as a receiver.
Like most teams, this unit’s success will come down to the play of the offensive line. After an awful 2019, they have nowhere to go but up, right? Probably. That doesn’t mean they’ll be good, though. Guards Greg Van Roten and Trai Turner weren’t the problem last year, but they’re both gone. In return for the latter, Carolina received a solid left tackle in Russell Okung. With Taylor Moton on the right side, tackle play won’t be the issue. That would be the interior, where none of the options are inspiring. Center Matt Paradis was a tremendous disappointment in year one of a big contract. John Miller comes over from a terrible Cincinnati line to start at one guard spot while 2019 sixth-rounder Dennis Daley will take the other after a tumultuous rookie year.
Besides the lack of talent, another worry with this team is the coaching staff. Matt Rhule could end up being a great hire, but the longtime college coach will likely need time to transition to the pro game. The same could be said of the coordinators, who are just as inexperienced. I really wish Rhule would’ve hired an experienced DC instead of bringing along Phil Snow. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady is more promising. After spending years with Sean Payton and overseeing Joe Burrow’s record-breaking season at LSU, the 30-year-old could be the latest genius fast-tracked to a head coaching position. Still, there’s going to be a learning curve for him, too.
Honestly, five wins might have been a little generous. Everytime I see people call Carolina a sleeper team, I cringe. If everything goes right, maybe they can compete for a wildcard spot. I just don’t see how the defense and coaching inexperience allow that to happen, though. Throw in a tough schedule, and we have one of the favorites in the Tank for Trevor race.
What’s your record prediction for the Panthers? What did I get right or wrong? Sound off in the comments.