A new head coach. A new QB. A new hope. 2020 had it all–except for the results. Matt Rhule came into the 2020 season as the hot new name in the NFL. Along with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Rhule and the Panthers were going to be revitalized. In a division with the New Orleans Saints and eventual Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it did not happen. This does not mean progress was not achieved.
They realized early that Teddy Bridgewater and his check-down mentality was not the answer and they smartly moved on from the mistake by trading him to the Broncos. They were also playing at a major disadvantage. as their best player, perhaps the best player in the NFL, Christian McCaffery missed the majority of the season with a lower-leg injury. Coming back this season, he will be not only healthy but also rejuvenated after multiple seasons of being the offense in Carolina.
With all of these factors in mind, what can we expect from the Carolina Panthers in 2021 for your fantasy teams? Let us go to the chalkboard and find out. (Wait, do people use chalkboards anymore?)
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Teddy Bridgewater had the chance to take over this job in 2020. Although Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson had solid seasons, Bridgewater was a disappointment. In 15 games, Bridgewater managed only 15 TDs and threw 11 interceptions. Although he passed for 3,733 yards, an average of 248.8 yards per game, and 69.4% completions, this was not enough to make a mark. The team still went 4-11 in his starts. With these numbers not doing the trick, the Panthers decided to move on and take a chance on another underwhelming QB, New York Jets castoff Sam Darnold.
Darnold came into the NFL with a lot of hype. Thought to be the Cleveland Browns’ pick at number one, but they decided to go with Baker Mayfield instead. This allowed Darnold to fall to number three, and quite honestly, with Adam Gase at the helm, doomed him from the get-go. Unlike good coaches, Gase did not tailor the game plan around the strengths of his players. He felt like they should be able to just do whatever he wanted them to do. This has condemned many a coach and talented players. In this case, both. Now, with Matt Rhule in Carolina, Darnold will get the leadership needed to find out just how talented he truly is. For his sake and the sake of Carolina, I hope it works out. Even as a Saints fan.
Darnold’s numbers last season were not great. In fact, they were much worse than those of Bridgewater. In 12 starts, he only threw for nine TDs while completing 11 passes to the other team. He also only managed 59.6% completions and 6.1 yards per attempt. While Bridgewater had 248.8 yards per game passing to the likes of Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson, and D.J. Moore, Darnold had only averaged 184 per game throwing to Jamison Crowder and Denzel Mims. Ouch. The feeling is these numbers will increase greatly in 2021. If the Panthers want to show any improvement, they will need to.
Not only is Darnold in a much better situation, but he also has a far superior surrounding cast. A cast we will get into in further sections of this write-up. Curtis Samuel may be gone to Washington, but the team is not depleted in any way.
Does this mean that Sam Darnold is going to be elite? No. He may not even make the Top 15 at the position for fantasy. But even if he manages to finish in the Top 20, this is leaps and bounds better than he ever was in New York. He is not a recommended starter for single-QB leagues at this point. In Super-Flex or two-QB leagues though, he would make a wonderful late-round QB2. A player who has the talent and the surrounding cast to surprise…and one you can likely get with your last pick in fantasy drafts unless you still play with kickers and D/ST. In that case, he would be your last positional player as you should never, and I mean never, take either of the other positions before the last two rounds.
After a strong start to the 2020 season, Christian McCaffrey missed a majority of the season. This allowed Mike Davis to play well enough to garner a free-agent contract from the Atlanta Falcons this off-season. No worries. McCaffrey is back and based on his current draft price of, well, 1.1, he is still undoubtedly considered the best player in the NFL. This will bode well as the Panthers try to succeed in a tough NFC South division. It will also be important for the hopeful progression of Sam Darnold, the QB whom Carolina will be counting on after passing on Justin Fields and Mack Jones in the draft.
In his last full season of work in 2019, McCaffrey was an All-Pro. On top of rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 TDs, he also caught 116 of 142 targets for 1,005 receiving yards and four more TDs in the passing game. He is, by far, the best dual-threat out of the backfield in the league. This makes him a clear top pick in fantasy drafts. It is no doubt then that he is right there at number one overall.
His backup is a bit muddled. The position can go in many directions. McCaffrey carries more of the load for his team than any other back in the league. This means, unless an injury happens, there will not be much value in anyone. Therefore, we will only talk about one of them here. The rookie Chuba Hubbard.
After a 2019 college season in which he led the country with more than 2,000 yards, 2020 was a disaster for the star tailback. After a contentious off-season with his head coach, and a threat to leave the team, he was then marred behind an oft-injured offensive line which left him exposed. This caused his stock to drop from a potential second-round pick to a fourth-round selection.
As one of only two 2,000-yard RB who returned to school while being eligible for the draft, the other being Bryce Love, His stock fell just as dramatically. He now will backup a stud in McCaffrey. This may give him a good chance to learn and take over in a few seasons, but it completely demolishes his value for the next two years. As much as many love him as a prospect, his landing spot means he is not to be drafted in redraft leagues. Even in dynasty, he is not more than a third-round selection at best.
Goodbye, 77 receptions for 851 yards and three TDs. This is what walked out the door with Curtis Samuel signing in Washington. Despite this, Carolina can be even more confident in their pass game than in 2020.
D.J. Moore is going to be playing to prove he deserves a big contract. Robby Anderson, on the last year of his deal, will also be playing to show they should re-sign him in Carolina. Both of these factors mean that they will be playing their butts off to maximize their value in a more robust financial off-season in 2022.
Sam Darnold has a good downfield arm. This will allow Anderson to continue the stellar and surprising play he had last season. Add to this his familiarity with Darnold from their Jets days and he could be a breakout this season in Carolina for sure. Rookie Terrace Marshall will have a lot of work to do. Not only will he be behind two veteran WR and McCaffrey in the pecking order, but he will also have to prove he loves the game.
After winning the National Championship with LSU in 2019, Marshall started 2020 as the Tigers WR1 with Jamar Chase opting out. Then the team started slow and Marshall himself decided at halftime of a game to himself opt-out. This display of giving up soured a lot of teams on him. A lingering knee injury that came out before the draft also lowered him in the ranks. This allowed him to free-fall into the 2nd round. He was only taken there because Joe Brady, his offensive coordinator in 2019, vouched for him to Matt Rhule. Otherwise, there is no way to know how far he could have fallen.
If he is what Brady thinks he is, then this was a great pick and will allow the Panthers to move on from one of their other receivers after this season. As for this season, Moore and Anderson are still the Panthers’ receivers to draft. With Moore costing you a higher pick, it could be beneficial for you to wait until later and take Anderson. His connection with Darnold could make him a sneaky play to finish Top 24. Being able to get him in the 7th or 8th round would be great if it happens.
Moore on the other hand could be a top-15 WR but he will also cost you a top-15 price. This means, if he does have a down year for some reason, you will be far more disappointed. This should not happen though and a third or fourth-round pick is not too much to spend on him in drafts. For a team that will likely not win more than half their games, the Panthers have a lot of players to like at the receiver position. Is that not always the way when you are constantly having to come from behind?
Ian Thomas. What more needs to be said? A darling of many in dynasty leagues, he disappointed more than almost any other player in 2020. Playing in 16 games, Thomas amassed a whopping 20 receptions for 142 yards and one TD. This led to the Panthers taking a TE in the 2021 NFL Draft in Tommy Tremble. Neither of these players will cause opposing defenses to be trembling in their boots. The position of mediocrity for most of the NFL is even worse in Carolina.
While there is a litany of tight ends in the league who could all finish in the Top 12 at the end of the season, neither Thomas nor Tremble seem to even be on this level at present. Neither is worth a roster spot and certainly not a draft pick in your startup drafts. Taking a flyer on someone like Irv Smith Jr. in Minnesota or even Chris Herndon IV from the Jets is likely to be more beneficial for you than wasting any collateral on a Panthers TE. Do yourself the favor and skip this Panthers’ group entirely for this offense. There are far better options on the team at other positions.