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NFL Draft

Panthers Will Have Successful 2021 Season If…

  • The Draft Network
  • June 30, 2021
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For some teams, realistic season goals don’t come in the form of division titles or championship runs. Sometimes you have to be honest with where you are in your journey and set goals appropriately.

The Carolina Panthers likely won’t be competing for a Lombardi Trophy in the final game of the upcoming NFL season. Though they will certainly do everything they can to win as many games as they can—and Cinderella stories of the past lend themselves to the possibility of a magical run—the Panthers seem to be on the uphill climb toward their mountain top; not quite there yet.

Matt Rhule is entering his second season as an NFL head coach. In 2020—quite the year to make your debut as an NFL coach, given everything that was different with the COVID-19 pandemic—the Panthers finished with a record of 5-11, third-best in the NFC South. When you understand the context of what happened to the Panthers organization before the 2020 season and Rhule’s arrival, you have to consider that a win.

Carolina was coming off a tumultuous calendar year where they voluntarily, unexpectedly, or just unfortunately said goodbye to some of their franchise’s cornerstone individuals. It started with the firing of head coach Ron Rivera. It went from tough to worse when future Hall of Fame linebacker Luke Kuechly announced his surprising retirement. As the months went on, the team also moved on from long-time franchise players in tight end Greg Olsen and quarterback Cam Newton. As stated before, these were pillar individuals for the franchise, and losing them all within a few months was bound to create a disaster of a rebound mission. But Rhule embraced the challenge and made the most of the 2020 season to the tune of encouraging days ahead.

Going into 2021, the Panthers have worked hard to put themselves in a position to build off momentum no one thought they would have. They have a new quarterback in town, as Sam Darnold will take over after a year of Teddy Bridgewater. The Panthers, who had a top-10 selection in the draft yet opted to not go the quarterback direction, have stated how much they believe in Darnold and how they see the best days ahead of a still young quarterback who struggled with his first team as a member of the New York Jets. A big reason why they think they might be able to get the best “bang for their buck” with Darnold is because offensive coordinator Joe Brady is back for another year. The offensive line seems to be improved, and they added talented young players like Terrace Marshall and Tommy Tremble. Plus, the big domino for them is hopefully getting their star running back Christian McCaffrey back for a full season after losing him for most of last year due to injuries. 

The defense is still very young and only got younger when they selected cornerback Jaycee Horn No. 8 overall, likely to be a starter from day one. He’ll join the likes of Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Jeremy Chinn as the next wave of Panthers defensive players who hope to be the cornerstones of one of the league’s top defenses once again.

For the Panthers, progress will continue to be the goal. Every game starts 0-0, and with that, the Panthers could make a run at the division title and maybe even a wild-card spot. But in reality, it still feels like they are a year or two away from really being a postseason contender. The biggest win for them this upcoming season would be a big leap for Darnold. If that’s the case, they can be justified in their move to acquire him instead of drafting a quarterback, and it will give them a very important piece to build around on offense. On defense, the goal has to be progression. There are a handful of really talented defensive players on the Panthers who have very high ceilings. They each have to continue to take steps toward that. I’m looking for the first double-digit sack season of Burns’ career, eight or so sacks from Brown, more takeaways from Chinn (who they mentioned will play more safety this year to make an impact on the ball), and a solid year from Horn as a rookie starter.

If the Panthers can do those things, they’ll be right around or maybe even above .500 on the season. That should be the goal for them in 2021, and if they achieve it, the bar will be even higher in 2022 with their sights set on some hardware for their trophy case.

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