CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – Coming off of a 5-11 season, the Carolina Panthers will look a lot different in 2020 than in they did in 2019.
Aside from the numerous changes caused by the coronavirus the Panthers have had to adjust to a new quarterback, new coaching staff, and a new system. With Matt Rhule leading the charge in his first NFL head coaching job let’s take a look at the makeup of the 2020 Panthers.
Obviously the big news surrounds quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who comes to Charlotte from New Orleans amid the departure of Cam Newton. Despite only logging six starts over the last three years, Bridgewater was at his best in 2019. Filling in for an injured Drew Brees he completed nearly 68 percent of his passes, and tossed nine touchdowns to just two interceptions while leading the Saints to a 5-0 record during that stretch. The 27-year-old has familiarity with the system as he and new offensive coordinator Joe Brady worked together back in 2018. Brady helped engineer the best offense in college football last year with the national champion LSU Tigers.
Christian McCaffery returns as one of the most dynamic players in football. His heavy workload is expected to continue as he was on the field for a staggering 93% of snaps in his first pro bowl season last year. The Panthers have a lot of young talent in the receiving corps highlighted by D.J. Moore who’s coming off of a thousand yard season. He’s joined by fourth-year wideout Curtis Samuel, and newly acquired Robby Anderson, who will provide a necessary deep threat. With Greg Olsen gone they’ll turn to Ian Tomas as the primary tight end. The offensive line allowed a league-high 58 sacks in 2019, however they should improve in that category with the arrival of veteran left tackle Russell Okung. The rest of the unit remains the same.
When taking a look at how the team’s offense fared last season it’s clear that there’s significant room for improvement. The Panthers were below average in most categories, notably fourth-worst in the league on third-down conversions. And trips to the red zone were often underwhelming. Rhule’s run-heavy philosophy combined with Brady’s innovative approach could help reverse the trend in 2020.
On defense the team is relatively young at every level. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is the lone veteran on the line as he returns from injury. Big expectations lie with the first-rounder from Auburn Derrick Brown, who joins Short on the interior. Brian Burns hopes to build off of his 7.5 sack performance in his rookie season. Burns and second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos will start at defensive end. Their most experienced unit is in the second level. Luke Kuechly’s retirement paves the way for the newcomer from Oakland, Tahir Whitehead, to step in as the mike linebacker, with Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter serving as the outside backers. Eric Reid and James Bradberry are out, so the Panthers will be relying on several young players to carry the load in the secondary. Donte Jackson and fourth-round pick and Greer native Troy Pride Jr. are listed as the team’s starting corners heading into the season. Tre Boston and Juston Burris provide a solid duo at safety, and Jeremy Chinn is a quality option in sub packages. Phil Snow comes in as the team’s defensive coordinator after leading the defense at Baylor under Rhule, and will look to turn things around for the Panthers.
The team struggled to get off the field in 2019, and gave up the second most points per game in the league. They need to improve in situational football as well, as they allowed offenses to convert nearly forty percent of their third downs. They were able to force an eleventh best 21 turnovers, and ranked second in the NFL with 53 sacks. Two areas where the team is positioned to have great success once again.
On special teams Joey Slye returns as the team’s top kicker. His 78% field goal percentage was bottom half of the league last year, although he also recorded a league-best eight field goals from fifty-plus yards. His struggles on extra points, however, will be an area of focus. Their rookie punter from South Carolina, Joseph Charlton, enters the mix and looks to build on what has been an above average unit.
In their 2020 schedule the Panthers take on five teams coming off of a playoff berth. They draw some potentially advantageous matchups through the first six weeks of the season, but their toughest stretch comes right in the middle. From weeks seven through ten, they take on three division opponents plus the defending super bowl champions. All are considered playoff contenders ahead of the season, so that turn from October to November figures to be Carolina’s biggest test in a year where overall expectations are low. The Panthers open up the season at home when they take on the Raiders Sunday, September 13th.