Going into every NFL season, I always have one team that intrigues me more than any other, in part as I find it challenging to predict how they will perform in their respective seasons. Examples include the 2017 Minnesota Vikings who reached the NFC Championship game that season and the 2019 Denver Broncos, who finished the season 4-1 under rookie quarterback Drew Lock.
Going into 2020, my team is the Carolina Panthers and as a result, I will provide an in-depth preview for them.
The Panthers have been a tale of two halves their last two seasons. Respectively, they started 6-2 and 5-3 and finished 1-7 and 0-8. The Panthers’ season in 2019 marked the end of the Cam Newton-Luke Keuchly era as Newton missed the last 14 games of the season and left to sign with the New England Patriots. Keuchly, their long-time stalwart at middle linebacker, abruptly retired after the season ended. Change is further emphasized as Ron Rivera, their head coach for the past nine years, was fired in early December. The cherry on top is long-time tight end, Greg Olson, left for Seattle in free agency.
As the Panthers transitioned into the future, they needed to establish their new leader and quarterback as the shape of the team will look dramatically different. First, they addressed the leadership role as Baylor head coach Matt Rhule was hired to replace Rivera. LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady was hired to be the new offensive coordinator, replacing Scott Turner.
Free agency was a busy time for the Panthers, adding veterans to bolster their depth and provide competition for starting spots. Notable signings included linebacker Tahir Whitehead, guard John Miller, wide receiver Robby Anderson and cornerback Rasul Douglas. This period also including trading guard Trai Turner to the Los Angeles Chargers for tackle Russell Okung. However, the distinguished move was acquiring former New Orleans Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
They signed Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million deal, hoping to provide stability after Kyle Allen started for the team after Newton’s injury in 2019. Bridgewater started five games for the Saints as Drew Brees dealt with a thumb injury. Bridgewater went 5-0 as the starter by throwing nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. He was efficient, proving he can be a viable starting option in the NFL.
The Panthers turned to defense for the 2020 NFL Draft as all eight of their selections came on that side of the ball. Their top two selections, Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown and Penn State defensive end, Yetur Gross-Matos, look to have an immediate impact defensively this season. This will be needed as outside of linebacker Shaq Thompson, defensive tackle Kawann Short and safety Tre Boston, the defense is full of youth and inexperienced, which is a bad sign in a stacked NFC South.
Offensively, this team rides and dies with the best running back in the NFL in Christian McCaffrey, an all-purpose monster. He gained over a thousand yards both rushing and receiving, which included 116 receptions. He signed a four-year extension worth $64 million in April, making him the highest paid running back in the NFL.
The other main weapon to watch is wide receiver DJ Moore, who caught 87 passes for 1,175 yards. His quick route-running and athleticism will provide Bridgewater with a dependable option out wide.
The Panthers are in a division with the juggernaut Saints, the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the experienced core of the Atlanta Falcons. While winning games in the division will be difficult, the Panthers will find success outside the division, especially against the AFC West. I believe Bridgewater will produce a career year statistically and the Panthers’ defense will do just enough to support Bridgewater.
The Panthers will be a wild card contender at least, regardless of the many experts expecting them to finish in last place as one of the NFL’s worst teams. The Panthers will surprise people, making them must-watch television.