The 2021 NFL season gets underway on September 9 with the defending Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys in a Thursday night game at Raymond James Stadium. A full Sunday slate follows on September 12 with some eye catching matchups including Bills vs Steelers, Saints vs Packers, and Panthers vs Jets. All eyes will be on number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence and first-year head coach Urban Meyer as the Jacksonville Jaguars look to build a championship team behind one of the most hyped rookie QB-head coach duos in league history. With all the quarterback movement this offseason, including former top five picks Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford, Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz all being traded, there will be plenty of franchises entering the new season with renewed hopes. The Panthers will certainly be one of those teams with a positive outlook after trading for the former number three overall pick Darnold to replace Teddy Bridgewater, and adding some top talent in the draft too.
After finishing 5-11 and missing the playoffs last season in head coach Matt Rhule’s first year in charge, Carolina will be hoping to rebound strongly with a much improved roster heading into 2021. The addition of Darnold, as well as free agent signings including offensive linemen Cam Erving and Pat Elflein, tight-end Dan Arnold, receiver David Moore, and the return of All Pro running back Christian McCaffrey who played just three games last season due to injury, stands the offense in good stead to improve and under Rhule and OC Joe Brady in the pair’s second season in charge. Fourth-round draft pick Chuba Hubbard also adds depth in the backfield, whilst the main prize from the 2021 draft for the Panthers was number 8 overall selection Jaycee Horn. The former South Carolina corner joins 2017 pro bowler AJ Bouye as key offseason additions to the secondary, whilst free agent signings Haason Reddick and Denzel Perryman add some much needed physicality to the front seven.
Tackle Taylor Moton was a key re-signing, giving Darnold a bookend protector for years to come. The Panthers offense, with Darnold, McCaffrey, Arnold, and returning receivers Robby Anderson and DJ Moore, could be extremely effective and they will have a great chance to string together some early wins with a relatively weak schedule in the first half of the season. For those that bet on NFL games, Carolina opens as a -4.5 favourite in week 1 at home against Darnold’s former team, the New York Jets. The Panthers then host the Saints, who are rebuilding after the retirement of Drew Brees, before facing seven straight matchups against teams who finished with records below .500 in 2020 including the Texans, Eagles, Falcons and Cowboys. Rhule’s team will have a real chance to get out to a hot start and make a playoff push with these early fixtures and he will certainly hope the offense in particular can show dramatic improvement from last year and help gain important wins in key divisional games in particular against the Falcons and Saints. The Panthers ranked 21st in total offense in 2020, gaining only 349.5 yards per game with Teddy Bridegwater at QB struggling behind a weak offensive line and armed with a limited running game in the absence of McCaffrey.
The defensive side wasn’t much better, with the Panthers defense ranking in the bottom half of the league in nearly every key statistical category including points per game, yards per game, passing yards per game and rushing yards per game. This overall mediocrity is what led to the 5-11 record, and is what has prompted such wholesale changes on both sides of the ball going into 2021. Carolina is primed to be better in all aspects, having drafted well and recruited smartly in free agency. Returning defensive leaders Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn are now surrounded by more first round talent with Horn and former Cardinals first-round pick Reddick bolstering the defense on all three levels, whilst 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown will be looking to build on what was a promising start in limited time on the field last season. The key to the team’s success will lie with Darnold though. If Rhule and Brady can get the best out of the former first round pick out of USC, this roster could well be a playoff team. Darnold’s early struggles with the Jets are concerning, but there is context to those struggles in that the Jets did not surround him with much offensive talent or protect him well, and his talent is clear for all to see. Now, having linked up with two brilliant offensive minds in Rhule and Brady, and reunited with wideout Robby Anderson, with whom Darnold enjoyed a solid connection in New York, the Panthers QB can start to become the franchise leader that he was drafted to be. Christian McCaffrey’s presence in the backfield will be a huge help to Darnold too, and this, amongst many other factors, should give Panthers fans good reason to feel excited ahead of the new season.
After two straight 5-11 seasons, this roster has the personnel to kick on to bigger and better things, and a forgiving schedule in the first half of the year gives the Panthers a great chance to push for a playoff spot in 2021.
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