christian-mccaffrey-1-1400.jpg

Few NFL teams are as intriguing entering the 2020 season as the Carolina Panthers. The NFC South contenders said farewell to franchise legends like Cam Newton and Ron Rivera, only to say hello to a renowned program builder in ex-Temple and Baylor coach Matt Rhule. Their divisional competition is sure to be steep, but what, exactly, does 2020 have in store for the new-look Panthers?

Breaking the club's two-year playoff drought will surely prove to be a struggle. But there's other reason for hope in Carolina, where Rhule has welcomed a feel-good story in new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, locked up star playmaker Christian McCaffrey and promised to install an entirely new culture moving forward.

As the season draws close, here are three bold predictions about how 2020 will unfold for the Panthers:

Christian McCaffrey breaks the RB receiving record (again)

You can call this unoriginal, but it's still bold, because only 17 players in NFL history have ever caught more than 116 passes in a single season -- the number McCaffrey would have to top in order to set the running back receptions record for a third straight year. It's certainly doable. This is a guy who caught 80 balls as a rookie, when he only started 10 games, and has now hauled in 107 and 116 the last two seasons. You're telling us that fresh off a record-breaking contract, he won't remain a central ingredient to the Panthers' offense, not to mention an easy target for a more conservative quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater? Fantasy owners, rejoice.

Panthers trade for All-Pro Patriots guard Joe Thuney

Carolina emptied its interior O-line of some star power by dealing Trai Turner to the Chargers early this offseason, and that looks like even more of a mistake now that left tackle Russell Okung, the return prize, might be done with football. It probably won't take long for Rhule to realize his ground-first approach -- not to mention the health of Bridgewater -- requires more sturdiness up front. There'd be no better solution than calling up the Patriots, who could be eager for draft picks with a rebuild on the horizon and can no longer extend the franchise-tagged Thuney, to give Carolina an All-Pro for the long term. (Bonus: Thuney played at North Carolina State!)

Derrick Brown is a finalist for Defensive Rookie of the Year

The Panthers have so many moving parts on defense that it'd be a genuine surprise if Phil Snow's unit is able to find its footing in Year One of the Rhule regime, especially with six games against high-powered NFC South foes. Brown, however, is exactly the kind of big-bodied presence Carolina needed in the heart of its D-line. Next to guys like Kawaan Short and Brian Burns, a popular breakout candidate, the rookie should see plenty of opportunities to disrupt the backfield under Snow's aggressive instruction. Five of the last 10 DROY winners have come from the front four, and Brown was the top lineman other than Chase Young to come out of the draft.