Think back to early February when the Carolina Panthers had a long list of concerns.
Coming off consecutive five-win seasons, coach Matt Rhule sat on a blistering hot seat. Owner David Tepper firing Rhule would have been understandable, even warranted. It surprised some that he wasn’t. Few knew how Tepper felt. He hadn’t made a public comment on Rhule or his Panthers in over a year.
Cam Newton departed after an energizing return which climaxed in his first game with a roaring “I’m back” in Arizona. Sam Darnold retook the starting job during blowout losses in Weeks 17 and 18. With his fifth-year option picked up nine months prior, Darnold and P.J. Walker were the only quarterbacks under contract. The team had no offensive coordinator after firing Joe Brady during the bye week. The offensive line was in shambles. Carolina allowed 52 sacks, the fourth-most in the league.
The team ranked 30th in total offense and had 22 pending free agents, including Haason Reddick, Stephon Gilmore and Donte Jackson. In desperate need of a quarterback, Carolina held the No. 6 pick in an underwhelming quarterback class.
Circumstances considered, general manager Scott Fitterer and Rhule formulated an offseason priority list and began executing it. First, Rhule injected his coaching staff with decades of NFL experience, highlighted by hiring offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and defensive backs coach Steve Wilks, both former NFL head coaches. Then Fitterer invested capital into the offensive line by signing guard Austin Corbett, center Bradley Bozeman and drafting rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu No. 6 overall.
Between the draft and free agency, the team gained critical depth and could feature as many as 11 new starters this season. Then on July 6, Carolina traded for quarterback Baker Mayfield, adding him to their collection of Darnold, Walker and rookie Matt Corral.
As expected, oddsmakers do not predict Carolina to make a Super Bowl run this season. Vegas does not even have the Panthers as a playoff favorite. But a team can only accomplish so much in one offseason. Aside from Deshaun Watson choosing to play in Cleveland over Charlotte, the Panthers fulfilled their top roster-building priorities.
Yet there is still much to prove. As ominous questions swirl around Tepper Sports and Entertainment, the Panthers are only a losing streak away from similar chaos sweeping through Bank of America Stadium again this fall.
Winning remedies all. Carolina could be a playoff team after their productive off-season. But some glaring concerns loom.
As the Panthers begin training camp this week in Spartanburg, S.C., here are the biggest questions the team still faces:
Quarterback is still a major concern
Trading for Mayfield hasn’t solved anything. On paper, the team improved by adding the former Heisman Trophy winner. The trade made business sense as Carolina parted with a conditional fifth-round pick (becomes a fourth-round pick if Mayfield plays 70% of snaps) and is only paying $4.8 million of Mayfield’s $18.9 million contract. Cleveland is picking up $10.5 million and Mayfield agreed to trim $3.5 million, which he can earn back through several on-field incentives.
Mayfield enters an open competition against Darnold. Both quarterbacks are playing for their fifth offensive coordinator in as many years. The advantage for Darnold is that he had nine weeks of OTAs and a mini-camp headstart with McAdoo compared to Mayfield, who was studying on a jet just days away from training camp.
“It’s not like this is my first time around having to learn something new,” Mayfield said. “The time crunch is the difference.”
Limited evidence suggests McAdoo’s shotgun-centric, pass-happy system will be best for Mayfield. His scheme drastically differs from what the Browns ran under Kevin Stefanski. It’s more comparable to Freddie Kitchen’s let-it-rip philosophy. Mayfield broke the rookie passing touchdown record with Kitchens in 2018 but drastically regressed the following year. Stefanski replaced him in 2020.
Darnold beating out Mayfield would be a surprise. Forty-nine career starts signal it’s clear who he is. Darnold throws more interceptions than touchdowns, makes too many mistakes and does not instill winning conviction into a locker room. Darnold can prove that assessment wrong in Spartanburg. Until then, Mayfield should be the favorite to start Week 1 against the Browns.
These Panthers quarterbacks still have everything to prove.
“We want any quarterback, whether Sam or anyone else, to take command of the offense, make it their own, own it, have everything down,” Fitterer said during Mayfield’s introductory press conference. “Don’t turn the ball over, just make smart decisions with the football. That’s what we want out of that position.”
Health of Christian McCaffrey
In their two seasons together, Rhule and star running back Christian McCaffrey have not shared the field much. Since becoming the highest-paid running back in the NFL, McCaffrey has missed 23 of the last 33 games. He’s been unavailable to Rhule or exited the game early more than 70% of the time.
When healthy, there is not a player comparable to McCaffrey. He’s a math-changing, matchup-busting offensive nightmare, as he showed in 2019 when his 400-plus touches totaled nearly 2,400 scrimmage yards.
McCaffrey enters this season fully healthy after recovering from hamstring and ankle injuries. The Panthers’ offense needs double-digit games from their top offensive player to maximize their winning potential.
At Oklahoma, Mayfield dominated college defenses by involving future Bengals running back Joe Mixon in the passing game. Mixon is a talented pass catcher but McCaffrey is in his own tier. Mayfield has never played with a weapon like McCaffrey and would benefit from his consistent availability.
The team knows it cannot build an offensive system around McCaffrey. Instead, McAdoo is installing a scheme McCaffrey will fully complement when available.
Can the pass rush and safeties complement cornerback play?
In 2020, Carolina struggled at forcing punts. Opposing offenses converted 49% of their third-down tries, 31st-worst in the league. The team responded by drafting Jaycee Horn at No. 8 overall last year. The rookie played in only three games due to a broken foot, but in those games, he allowed one catch for 8 yards on 95 coverage snaps.
Horn is back healthy and will pair with Donte Jackson, who the team re-signed to a three-year, $31.5 million deal in free agency. The team also expects former 2020 top-10 pick C.J. Henderson to play significant snaps. The trio of Horn, Jackson and Henderson should allow Carolina to deploy man coverage, especially on third downs.
Receivers need more time to open versus sticky coverage, giving Brian Burns and the pass rush more disruptive opportunities at the quarterback.
Burns is coming off back-to-back nine-sack seasons and is seeking a lucrative contract extension. Reaching double-digit sacks would help his case. But he’ll face double teams and chips as the Panthers keep searching for Haason Reddick’s replacement. Reddick led the team in sacks (11) and quarterback hits (18) last season. He signed a three-year $45 million deal with Philadelphia in free agency.
There is little proven depth behind Burns. Jeremy Chinn represents similar top-heaviness at safety. Carolina believes Chinn is a future All-Pro, but there is a gaping hole at the opposite safety. The team signed veteran Xavier Woods but he missed most of OTAs and minicamp with an excused absence.
Woods must have a strong training camp and quickly establish himself as a veteran free safety.
More takeaways, fewer giveaways
Linebacker is a concern, too. Carolina hopes Damien Wilson or Cory Littleton can become a three-down linebacker next to Shaq Thompson. The team does expect Wilson to be a full participant at training camp, according to a league source; he was arrested in April after his ex-girlfriend said he threatened to kill her.
The Panthers can compensate for their lack of safety and linebacker depth by generating more turnovers.
With Darnold and Newton at quarterback, the Panthers ranked tied for second in giveaways with 29. Only the Giants (30) had more. By reducing turnovers and the defense forcing more takeaways, the Panthers could swing from worst to at least average in turnover differential.
“We’ve got an outstanding group,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said in April. “If we want to be a championship defense, we have to get more turnovers and we got to play better in the red zone.”
Carolina must also be better against the run. Finding a linebacker or edge rusher who consistently sets the edge is key. Stopping the run starts up front with defensive tackles Derrick Brown and Matt Ioannidis. But expect the team to sign at least one more pass rusher or three-technique during camp.
Panthers’ long-term plan at QB
Fitterer sounds like a man with a plan.
“Our whole focus is bringing Baker in to compete with Sam. We’re gonna take it up to training camp and this as far as we’re gonna take it,” Fitterer said about naming a starter. “We’ll let it play out throughout the season. We’ll make decisions later in the season, whether it’s November, December, at that point, once there’s a track record behind them, and this offense in this organization.”
When trading for Mayfield, the team called third-round rookie quarterback Matt Corral to assure him he is still a part of their future.
Adding Mayfield eliminates almost any possibility of Corral starting because of injury early this season. The goal is to let Corral learn the offense similar to how Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes sat behind proven starters as rookies — until he is fully ready to start. Since Darnold and Mayfield are playing on expiring contracts, the team can evaluate both at year’s end and make a comfortable decision knowing Corral is available long term.
The Panthers are implementing a dart-throwing strategy to solve their quarterback situation. First Teddy Bridgwater, then Darnold, followed by a short Newton stint and now Mayfield. Such methodology worked for Denver, which landed Russell Wilson this offseason via trade. Eleven different quarterbacks (including Bridgewater) have started for the Broncos since they won Super Bowl 50 six years ago.
Seven quarterbacks have started for Rhule since 2018. Only Walker (2-0) has a winning record. Soon Mayfield will likely be the eighth. Perhaps Corral eventually is the ninth.
History suggests trial and error will continue until Carolina finds their concern-cleansing version of Mahomes, Wilson or Josh Allen.