Can Matt Rhule lead the Carolina Panthers out of mediocrity in Year 2? His first year had its ups, but there were more downs, and the roller coaster was largely fueled by the inconsistency of play at quarterback. Signing Teddy Bridgewater to a big-money contract didn't pan out, and he's now been traded to the Denver Broncos and replaced with Sam Darnold -- landed via trade from the New York Jets prior to Bridgewater's departure. And with that move, Rhule is hoping his mulligan in Carolina goes over more smoothly, with Christian McCaffrey returning to full health to help in that regard.
As OTAs wrap up around the NFL and mandatory minicamps get underway, the Panthers are beginning to get a better look at not only Darnold, but their group of free agents and rookie draft picks alike. It's the final glimpse before they take a break ahead of training camp in July, and while it's still early, there's a good sense of where the depth chart might land come late August.
Let's take a look at each section of the roster and give it a go.
* denotes rookies
|QB||Sam Darnold||P.J. Walker|
|RB||Christian McCaffrey||Chuba Hubbard*||Trenton Cannon|
|WR||D.J. Moore||Brandon Zylstra|
|WR||Robby Anderson||David Moore|
|WR||Terrace Marshall Jr.*||Omar Bayless|
|TE||Tommy Tremble||Dan Arnold ||Ian Thomas|
|LT||Greg Little||Cameron Erving|
|LG||Dennis Daley||Deonte Brown|
|C||Matt Paradis||Sam Tecklenburg|
|RG||Pat Elflein||John Miler|
|RT||Taylor Moton||Trent Scott|
Sam, I Am
The verdict is out on if Sam Darnold can do for Matt Rhule in Year 2 what Teddy Bridgewater couldn't do for him and the Panthers in Rhule's first year as head coach in Carolina, but there's no debate on Darnold being QB1. From there, keeping Walker behind him just makes sense -- if only for consistency's sake -- and the rest of the offense shapes up fairly nice around the former Jet. He'll reunite with Robby Anderson and enter Charlotte as all-world talent Christian McCaffrey returns from injury. One of the more interesting things to watch here will be the development of Tommy Tremble, who might shock a few people in training camp and take the lead tight end role in rotation with Dan Arnold and Ian Thomas.
Darnold will need time to find all of these targets though, and the Panthers hope adding veteran talent like Cameron Erving will help shore up the O-line beyond what it was in 2020.
|DE||Brian Burns||Morgan Fox||Marquis Haynes|
|DL||Bravvion Roy||Daviyon Nixon*|
|DL||Derrick Brown||DaQuan Jones ||Caraun Reid|
|DE||Yetur Gross-Matos||Austin Larkin|
|LB||Shaq Thompson||Frankie Luvu|
|LB||Denzel Perryman||Paddy Fisher|
|LB||Haason Reddick||Jermaine Carter|
|CB||Donte Jackson||A.J. Bouye|
|CB||Jaycee Horn*||Troy Pride|
|S||Jeremy Chinn||Delano Hill|
|S||Juston Burris||Sam Franklin|
Sound the Horn
There's a nice mix of veteran talent and impressive youth present in Carolina, and landing cornerback Jaycee Horn with the No. 9 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft only deepens that point. Horn was arguably the best college CB in the country -- going head-to-head with Patrick Surtain, II for that honor -- and is expected to hit the ground running in familiar territory (considering he played ball at South Carolina), his abilities likely teaming well with those of Jeremy Chinn. The latter was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2020, and should level up in Year 2, making for what should be an improved secondary that lost James Bradberry to free agency one year ago; and added what they hope is the best version of A.J. Bouye in 2021.
Their jobs will be made easier if the pass rush can get home on opposing QBs on a consistent basis, and all eyes are on players like Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos (along with free agent additions, etc.) to make that a reality.
Special teams (3)
The longest tenured player on the roster, long snapper J.J. Jansen, might be on the way out. He signed a new deal with the Panthers this offseason, but it's only of the one-year variety and might've simply been draft insurance. Seeing as the team went on to draft Thomas Fletcher, and it being highly unlikely they use two roster spots at LS, Jansen's time in Carolina may be at its end.
And as is always the case ahead of training camp, he's not the only veteran fighting to stay in town.