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 preseason ends and the regular season prepares to get under way, the Panthers are readying for a very real look at Darnold, but also their latest group of free agents and rookie draft picks alike. There's a lot on the line in Charlotte in 2021, and it's paramount they build the final roster in a way that's capable of competing with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- the new kings of the NFC South.
Let's take a look at each section of the roster and give it a go.
|Terrace Marshall Jr.
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.
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 Panthers cut ties with kicker Joey Slye, which appears to open the door for Ryan Santoso, who was acquired last week from the Giants for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. The longest tenured player on the roster, long snapper J.J. Jansen, might be on the way out if Rhule believes Fletcher is ready to be handed the keys. Jansen 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 Fletcher, and it being highly unlikely they use two roster spots at LS, Jansen's time in Carolina may be at its end.
Is Sam Darnold the right fit for Carolina? The Panthers are looking to make noise in the NFC and the CBS Sports app has everything you need to follow their 2021 season. Download the CBS Sports app and get the latest news, insights, and surprising predictions from our team of experts. If you already have the app, make sure to favorite the Panthers to get the latest news quickly.