2019 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,469 (19th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 37 (19th)
Offensive Plays: 1,077 (5th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 691 (2nd)
Rush Attempts: 386 (24th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 155 (6th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 74 (18th)
After nine seasons in charge, Ron Rivera was relieved of his duties as Panthers head coach. In steps Matt Rhule, who has turned around collegiate programs like Temple and Baylor in his past. Rhule nearly joined the NFL head coaching ranks in 2019 with the Jets, but Jets brass reportedly wanted to hand pick his assistants. It’s clear Rhule is committed to his guys, bringing along defensive coordinator Phil Snow after working with him at Baylor and Temple, and previous relationships are evident when reading down the staff list. Rhule also plucked 30 year-old Joe Brady away from the National Champion LSU Tigers, where he held the title of passing game coordinator - catapulting names like Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Justin Jefferson into the first-round. Rhule’s roots dig deeper than just the coaching staff - he has vowed to implement a state-of-the-art sports science program and his tendency to value athleticism was noticeable during free agency and in the Panthers’ draft selections outside of the first round. Finally, Rhule’s roster is noticeably younger than previous iterations, claiming he wants to acquire players whose “best ball is hopefully ahead of them.” The term “process” was used frequently by Rhule and owner David Tepper this offseason. Translation: Do not expect many wins in 2020.
QB: Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker, Will Grier
WR: D.J. Moore, Seth Roberts
WR: Robby Anderson, Pharoh Cooper
WR: Curtis Samuel, DeAndrew White
TE: Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz
After starting nearly every game in the opening two years of his career, Teddy Bridgewater has not been a locked-in starter since the horrific knee injury suffered in practice just before the 2016 season. Despite that injury history, it is clear the Panthers made this decision - at least in part - due to their dwindling belief that Cam Newton could complete a full season healthy. Bridgewater operated as Drew Brees’ backup for the last two seasons, including overlapping with new Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady in New Orleans in 2018. That relationship likely contributed to the three-year, $63 million contract Bridgewater signed, including $33 million in guarantees. It certainly was not Teddy B’s league lowest 6.2 average intended air yards per throw.
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With a new head coach and play-caller in place, it might be difficult to project exactly what this passing offense will look like. In a stunner, the Panthers ranked second in the NFL with 633 pass attempts last season - directly tied to the fact that they held the lead on just 22 percent of their offensive snaps while also being one of the more pass-happy teams in the league in neutral game scripts. Expect the Panthers to live in three-receiver sets with Brady in charge. LSU’s offense progressed from a run focused, two receiver attack to a four-wide all-out air assault last season, attempting 100 more passes than the next closest SEC team. On paper, the Panthers’ defense is rough and possibly the worst in the league. This should force the offense into negative game scripts, constantly working from behind on the scoreboard. So while Bridgewater is not among the extravagant or flashy throwers in the NFL, volume and pass-catching talent alone should land him among the QB2 group in fantasy drafts.
D.J. Moore hopes to turn his second-year breakout into a third-year explosion. Even while working with Kyle Allen and Will Grier for the majority of the season, Moore saw the 10th most targets in the league (135) and turned those opportunities into 87 catches for 1,175 yards and four touchdowns. Positive touchdown regression should be in his future, as Moore’s expected receiving touchdown figure was closer to 5.5. He remains one of the best yards after catch threats in the NFL, forcing the seventh-most missed tackles among all receivers in 2019.
If we can look at Joe Brady’s last two stops in LSU and New Orleans, one receiver on each team dominated the target volume - Michael Thomas and Justin Jefferson. Thomas posted an average depth of target of 8.0 yards while running 36% of his routes out of the slot. Jefferson’s average depth of target was 9.4 yards while spending 93% of his time in the slot. If any player on the Panthers is going to command the same amount of volume, it is Moore, although his role might shift because of it as his average depth of target last season was 11.1 yards while seeing just 16% of his snaps out of the slot. Brady will alter his offense to whatever creates the best results, but the point stands that Moore’s skillset on short to intermediate routes best situates him to draw production from Teddy Bridgewater compared to his peers - possibly even finishing among the top five in targets this season. For these reasons, D.J. Moore is already being drafted as a WR1.
Curtis Samuel could not turn his 2019 offseason stardom into in-season production ... but was it all his fault? Kyle Allen ranked last across the league in deep ball accuracy, including Samuel drawing 20 uncatchable targets 20-plus yards downfield. If just five or seven of those deep shots were completed, it would have drastically altered his 54 catch, 627-yard, six touchdown line. Samuel did spend 28% of his snaps in the slot last season, so maybe he is the one who sees that number increase. The talent is obvious, even taking 19 carries for 130 yards and a score, but the time is now for Samuel to turn potential into play as 2020 is his contract year.
As previously explained, Matt Rhule is bonded to his guys. That includes Robby Anderson signing a two-year $20 million contract, who Rhule coached in college. Anderson’s vertical skills have been among the best in the NFL while averaging 15 yards per catch over the past three seasons, yet it is fair to question the fit in this offense. Of his 196 attempts in 2019, just 14 of Bridgewater’s passes traveled 20-plus yards in the air (7%) and just 42 traveled 10-plus yards (21%). Anderson’s impact might be felt more on the field in terms of dictating defensive coverage than on the stat sheet, outside of a few spiked weeks thanks to deep ball completions. Anderson and Samuel’s ADPs are nearly identical in the WR5 area. Each has the talent to land in the WR3/4 area, but it is unlikely both do.
It takes time for young tight ends to hit their stride in the NFL - Ian Thomas will have his opportunity in 2020. Longtime mainstay Greg Olsen is gone, as are his 82 targets in 14 games last season. The Panthers declined to bring in any competition, so the job is there for Thomas to take. We have seen him maximize previous opportunities, posting lines of 5-57-1, 9-77-0, 4-48-1 and 5-61-1 in his past in full-time duty. Thomas is among the many high ceiling, athletic TE2s this season.
RB: Christian McCaffrey, Reggie Bonnafon, Jordan Scarlett
OL (L-R): Russell Okung, Dennis Daley, Matt Paradis, John Miller, Taylor Moton
There is one name in the Panthers’ backfield: Christian McCaffrey. The player who led the NFL in touches last season (403), produced just the third 1,000/1,000 campaign in NFL history and contributes an immediate 10-point advantage per game in fantasy football compared to every other back. McCaffrey’s time on the field actually increased in 2019, playing 93% of the team’s snaps. There are natural questions whenever a new playcaller takes over and how it might impact a star player’s usage. In McCaffrey’s case there should be no questions, as Joe Brady featured running backs in the passing game at a remarkable rate at LSU. Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s 55 receptions last season were the most by an SEC running back since 2000, and he was the first in conference history to achieve a season with 1,000 rushing yards and 50-plus receptions. McCaffrey remains the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy football.
For as much as the Panthers invest in McCaffrey, including a four-year, $64 million extension this offseason, they have essentially punted the backup job for years. On the depth chart sit names like Reggie Bonnafon, former fifth-round pick Jordan Scarlett and Mike Davis. There is no stand-alone value here, nor is there a true handcuff. If McCaffrey misses multiple weeks due to injury, it would not be surprising to see the Panthers search for a replacement that is currently not on the roster.
Offensive line talent, continuity and play is pivotal to rushing success. Comparing the Panthers’ lines from 2018 to 2020, only one starter remains - RT Taylor Moton. Marty Hurney traded 27-year old Trai Turner for 31-year old LT Russell Okung. Matt Paradis, a priority 2019 free agent signing, played well below average last season and will turn 31-years old in October. Former sixth-round pick Dennis Daley likely slots into one guard spot, as does former Bills and Bengals starter John Miller. Former second-round pick LT Greg Little is already on the outside looking in. This is a questionable group, to say the least.
Win Total 5.5
This will only be the second mention of “process” in this feature, which is an achievement after the Panthers organization uttered the word 2,000 times this offseason. It sets expectations low. The Bengals and Panthers are tied for the third-lowest projected win total after Jacksonville and Washington. The Panthers’ offense should be entertaining to watch on a weekly basis, but the defense is littered with questions and likely replaceable talents. The NFL is an offense-based league - yet this is likely an impossible mountain to climb, especially in a loaded NFC South. Give me the under on 5.5 wins.