The Carolina Panthers are entering a crucial year in the Matt Rhule era, another year Carolina has more questions surrounding the franchise than answers. Carolina lost 12 of 14 games to close out the seaosn after a surprising 3-0 start, highlighted by the struggles of Sam Darnold and Cam Newton -- showcasing why the Panthers need a franchise quarterback if Rhule actually wants to win in the NFL.
Christian McCaffrey's injury also was a major setback to the Panthers' offense, one that functions with the starting running back (who makes over $62 million over the next four years) on the field. The Panthers won just one game when McCaffrey wasn't in the lineup, a bad sign for a franchise that doesn't seem to have any sense of direction when the initial plan to win goes abrupt. Carolina is just 7-21 since starting 3-2 in Rhule's first season.
The Panthers are paying Rhule $62 million to turn the franchise around and build a program in Charlotte, yet the franchise is in a worse state with Rhule than they were before his arrival. Carolina will be looking for a new head coach after the 2022 season if the team doesn't show progress in year three of the Rhule era, as the Panthers seem buried in last in the NFC South with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints still controlling the division.
Rhule doesn't have a chance in Carolina unless Carolina corrects these major issues.
Find a good quarterback
The Panthers made a major mistake in guaranteeing Sam Darnold's fifth-year option for 2022, making a knee-jerk reaction because the organization believed it found its franchise quarterback. Darnold was a disaster after his first three starts, completing 56.86% of his passes for 1,639 yards with six touchdowns to 12 interceptions (62.3 passer rating). That's not what Carolina was envisioning when they decided to pay Darnold $18 million guaranteed fo 2022.
Even though Carolina has to take a huge cap hit with Darnold in 2022, the Panthers need to find another quarterback to lead the franchise. Whether that's in free agency, via trade, or the draft -- any option is better than Darnold at this point. Rhule is coaching for his job, yet he has to see what the ceiling is for the Panthers with Darnold under center. The Panthers need a better option at quarterback to compete with the Buccaneers and Saints in 2022, even though they'll have to swallow Darnold's cap hit.
With the No. 6 pick in the draft, Carolina can buy time and develop Kenny Pickett or Matt Corral and have Darnold start the season -- or use their draft capital and see if they can lure one of the top quarterbacks to Carolina. The Panthers aren't that far off with their roster, and have been aggressive in acquiring talent.
Upgrading at quarterback is a must if Carolina wants to contend in 2022.
Keep Christian McCaffrey on the field
The Panthers are just a better team when McCaffrey is healthy. Carolina was 4-3 when McCaffrey was on the field last season, as the running back rushed for 442 yards and a touchdown (4.46 yards per carry) and 343 receiving yards with a touchdown (9.27 yards per catch). That's 112.1 yards from scrimmage the Panthers have to replace, which hinders the entire game plan.
Chuba Hubbard was viable in McCaffrey's place, averaging 46.2 scrimmage yards per game and six touchdowns. Hubbard doesn't have the explosiveness McCaffrey has, yet the two could be a dangerous pairing in an offense. Carolina should continue to build the offense around McCaffrey, but limit his touches by giving Hubbard some snaps in his second year.
The key toward the Panthers turning things around is making sure the oft-injured McCaffrey plays in December in January in 2022. Another major injury to McCaffrey and Rhule may be taking offers for his next job before the season ends.
Improve the offensive line
The Panthers have to figure out how to retain Donte Jackson, Stephon Gilmore, and Haason Reddick, but offensive line is the top priority if Carolina wants to compete in the NFC South next season. Carolina allowed 52 sacks in 2021 -- which was the fifth-most in the NFL -- and 4.0 yards per carry (ninth fewest in NFL). Part of Darnold and Newton's struggles can be traced to the inconsistent offensive line play.
Taylor Moton was the only offensive lineman to start all 17 games, as the Panthers used a different starting offensive line combination in 12 of the first 16 games (including five straight in December and January). Starting that many offensive linemen is a problem for continuity, as nine offensive linemen started a game for Carolina in 2021 -- eight started at least five games.
The Panthers made a stalwart in Moton and think they have another starting tackle in Brady Christensen, but significantly need help at guard next season and potentially need to find two starters there. Matt Paradis returning at center will be a big boost to an offensive line that needs him to protect the A-gap and keep the quarterback upright.
Carolina has two good players on the offensive line. The Panthers have to find three solid lineman to compete with the Buccaneers and Saints' intinitading front.