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In the midst of their 5-11 season last year, the Carolina Panthers, at times, looked better than their record showed.
There were moments when the Panthers looked like they were a team capable of making the playoffs, and at other times they looked like they were a couple of years away from being competitive.
But the defense was young, and the offense was missing its best player in Christian McCaffrey. Now, with some new pieces and a healthy McCaffrey, the Panthers have a chance to perhaps compete for a playoff spot.
But the biggest question lies at quarterback, and whether Sam Darnold can rejuvenate his career after a rough three years in New York.
Here are five reasons to be optimistic the Panthers can earn a playoff spot, and five reasons to be pessimistic that they won’t.
Reasons to be optimistic
1. Defense received an upgrade
In 2020, the Panthers defense showed it had talent and some pieces to build around. It shut out the Detroit Lions and also held NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers to less than 200 yards.
But the defense was lacking experience, depth and a consistent pass rush. New general manager Scott Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule addressed it in free agency.
They signed pass rusher Haason Reddick, defensive lineman Da’Quan Jones, linebacker Denzel Perryman and veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye, all of whom are expected to play significant snaps in 2021.
They also continued to bolster their secondary by drafting Jaycee Horn, who was the first defensive player taken off the board in the 2021 NFL draft.
And Jeremy Chinn, Derrick Brown and Brian Burns, who will be the Panthers’ defensive foundation for many years, are entering their second, second and third seasons, respectively.
The Panthers were 18th in the league in both total defense and points allowed per game in 2020. For a team that relied on so many rookies and young players, 18th wasn’t bad. But in 2021, the defense should be better.
2. Christian McCaffrey is healthy
McCaffrey missed all but three games last season. And if you put that into perspective and how he was used in 2019, the Panthers were missing nearly 2,400 yards of total offense and 24 touchdowns.
McCaffrey is healthy now, and Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said last month that he doesn’t plan to use McCaffrey any less just because of his previous injuries.
McCaffrey means so much to the Panthers offense. He’s their running game, which the Panthers did not have last season, he’s a threat in the passing game and a decoy. The fact that teams have to game plan around him makes him dangerous.
“My mindset has not changed with Christian McCaffrey,” Brady said. “You can obviously feel the difference when Christian is out on the football field. I told Christian, ‘I don’t need him to be anything more than Christian McCaffrey.’ ”
“When he’s coming out here, the work ethic he’s putting out there, it’s impressive.”
3. New quarterback
The Panthers traded for Darnold prior to the NFL draft, hoping to get an upgrade from Teddy Bridgewater. While Darnold’s first three years in New York didn’t go well, he also didn’t have the pieces around him to succeed.
His offensive line was horrible, and his weapons weren’t great either.
Last season, the Jets dealt with injuries to two of their best playmakers in Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder.
But Darnold has weapons in Carolina with McCaffrey, DJ Moore and former Jets teammate Robby Anderson, who had a career year in 2020. There won’t be as much pressure on him to carry the offense.
In 2019, Darnold was 7-6 as a starter.
“He’s only 23 years old,” Fitterer said of Darnold in April. “A lot of these quarterbacks don’t mature and hit their prime until they are 24, 25 and 26.”
4. Year 2, same system, OTAs
The 2020 season was an anomaly, and it was particularly harmful to teams with new coaches and young players such as the Panthers.
There were no OTAs or minicamp because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no preseason. All of those are opportunities where the younger players can develop and the team can learn the new system.
It showed in the mistakes the Panthers made throughout the season. They struggled in fourth-quarter situations and with the two-minute drill.
But this year, with restrictions relaxed in the NFL, the Panthers were able to participate in voluntary OTAs and mandatory minicamps. Players have said they’ve been able to develop chemistry with each other this offseason.
“With OTAs this year, and minicamps and being out here and doing what we’re coaching is a huge advantage,” Panthers defensive coordaintor Phil Snow said. “Plus, most of the guys we’ve had for a year. We’ve come a long way in a year.”
5. 85% vaccination rates
As of last week, the Panthers were among 10 NFL teams who had a vaccination rate of 85% or higher, according to a league source with knowledge of the numbers.
The Associated Press, which was the first to report the news, also reported that at least two teams had less than 50% of their players vaccinated.
Getting vaccinated was important for the Panthers’ staff. Rhule said they didn’t require it, but they encouraged it. The vaccine significantly reduces infection and the severity of the virus.
“I don’t tell anybody, ‘Do it,’ ” Rhule said last month. “I’ve told our team this is better for our team if we’re vaccinated.
“We’ve certainly given our players a lot of information. We certainly presented it like, ‘Hey, this is what we’d like the team to do.’ But at the same time, it’s a personal decision for each guy.”
The Panthers were one of a number of teams in 2020 that dealt with players who had to miss games because of COVID protocols. In December 2020, the Panthers placed eight players, including five starters, on their COVID protocol list. While some of those players ended up playing, the potential to not have those players can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Throughout sports, you’ve seen players like the Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul miss NBA playoff games or athletes missing the upcoming Olympics because they either tested positive or came in contact with someone who tested positive.
Reasons to be pessimistic
1. Sam Darnold
While Darnold has better pieces around him this season, he still hasn’t shown yet that he can be consistent starter.
His 2020 season was just bad. And while the Jets’ 2-14 record can’t be pinned all on him, he threw nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions and completed only 59.6% of his passes.
And while his first two seasons were better statistically, they weren’t much better. He’s 13-25 for his career as a starter.
The Jets felt it was best to part ways with him and find his replacement. Darnold often struggled with his mechanics when he was under pressure.
That’s something quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said he has addressed with the quarterbacks this offseason. If Darnold isn’t able to overcome his deficiencies, then the Panthers will be in for another disappointing season.
2. Left tackle still a mystery
Perhaps one of the biggest unanswered questions heading into training camp is who will start at left tackle. Last season, Russell Okung missed nine games because of injury, and in those games the Panthers struggled to find a quality replacement.
Greg Little hasn’t performed up to his 2019 second-round selection yet, so the Panthers went out and grabbed former Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Cameron Erving.
But Erving was injured most of this offseason and was in a red noncontact jersey for all of mandatory minicamp. Rhule likely won’t name his starter until after training camp.
Rhule even indicated he was considering right tackle Taylor Moton at left tackle.
3. Defense still young
The defense definitely got better on paper. But it remains young. And whether Brown, Chinn and Yetur Gross-Matos can make a big leap from Year 1 to Year 2 remains to be seen.
After all, it’s only Year 2.
Veteran A.J. Bouye will also miss the first two games of the 2021 season because of a suspension. So the Panthers will immediately have to rely on rookie Horn.
There’s also the safety spot. Chinn will be used in a hybrid role, playing both safety and linebacker. It’s unclear who will play the primary snaps at safety when Chinn moves down in the box with the front seven.
Second-year players Sam Franklin and Kenny Robinson are potential options, but neither are viewed as starters.
4. NFC South
Four of the Panthers’ toughest games will come from within the division.
The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last year and are returning all 22 of their Super Bowl starters. So it’s no question that they are the team to beat in the NFC South.
With that continuity, the Bucs might even be better this season.
Then there’s the Saints, who the Panthers haven’t been able to get past since the 2015 season. Although future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees retired, the Saints still return a top-five defense from last year.
The Panthers have to get past those two teams first.
5. Fourth-quarter troubles
The Panthers were one of the worst teams in the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks and late-game situations.
Their game against the Minnesota Vikings was their biggest gaffe. The Panthers had multiple opportunities to win it, including when they had the ball at Minnesota’s 9-yard line with 2:18 left in the game. They led 24-21 and could have ended the game. But Bridgewater threw an errant pass to a wide open DJ Moore in the end zone.
Then when Minnesota got the ball back, trailing 27-21 with 1:54 left, the Panthers failed to stop them.
Sure, Bridgewater is no longer the Panthers’ quarterback. But as a team, the Panthers were not able to figure out how to win late in games. And learning how to win those games comes with experience.
“We had a lot of two-minute opportunities last year and we didn’t — I didn’t get the job done,” Brady said. “We’ve just got to be better in those situations.”