My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top — cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures — and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Panthers 2020 Recap
The Panthers (5-11) faced the toughest schedule in the NFL and did so with one of the youngest rosters and coaching staffs. Both sides of the ball appeared to be well-coached despite the inexperience, enough so to feel that the Panthers’ rebuild is one year ahead of schedule aside from quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater was 19th out of 32 quarterbacks in passing EPA per dropback despite having one of the best three-receiver sets in the league, and he stalled in the red zone, finishing 28th in percentage of red zone trips with a touchdown. With Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Robby Anderson all returning, a quarterback upgrade could have the Panthers mixing for a Wild Card spot in 2021. Defensively, the Panthers started multiple rookies after spending the entire 2020 draft class on defense. A unique three-safety defense led by DC Phil Snow will be interesting to track now that the Panthers have one of the better defensive lines in the league.
Panthers 2021 Offseason
Panthers Cap Space
$12.2 million (16th)
Panthers Draft Picks
1.08, 2.39, 3.73, 4th, 5th, 6th, plus compensatory picks
Panthers Cut Candidates
DT Kawann Short ($8.6M cap savings), DE Stephen Weatherly ($5.9M), C Matt Paradis ($4.9M), SS Juston Burris ($3.9M)
Panthers Depth Chart
Offensive Coordinator: The Panthers managed to keep OC Joe Brady around for one more year. In his first NFL season calling plays, Carolina finished 16th in passing EPA and 22nd in rushing EPA despite having a below-average quarterback and playing without Christian McCaffrey. Brady’s offense was slow-paced (29th) and didn’t use much play action (24th), but he maximizes each player’s talents better than most coordinators. Teddy Bridgewater, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, and Mike Davis all set career-highs in yards last year. That’s impressive. The unique wrinkle in Brady’s offense is his use of empty sets, something a more aggressive quarterback can take to the next level. I’d be surprised if Brady didn’t land a head coaching job next offseason. He’s on that level as a 31-year-old.
Passing Offense: Coach Matt Rhule wasn’t impressed with Teddy Bridgewater down the stretch, telling ESPN that Bridgewater “has to have a tremendous offseason.” This could be a mini version of the Jared Goff fiasco, enough so to think that Bridgewater may not be the 2021 quarterback. His contract essentially prevents him from being cut (at least until June 1st), but he can be traded with only $10 million in dead cap. A trade also opens up $12.9 million in cap savings. Adding to the fire is that fact that Carolina offered at least the No. 8 overall pick for Matthew Stafford in January. At receiver, the Panthers have a quality one-two punch in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. They’ll take on a larger target share in 2021 with Curtis Samuel headed for free agency. Both are high-floor WR2s with WR1 ceilings, especially if the Panthers get “luckier” in the red zone (28th in RZ touchdown rate). 2018 fourth-rounder Ian Thomas only had 145 yards across 16 games. He’s not a starting-caliber receiving tight end.
Rushing Offense: Impending free agent Mike Davis (1,015 total yards and eight total TDs) did a reasonable job in relief of Christian McCaffrey last season, but a fully healthy CMC will be clutch to have with gadget WR Curtis Samuel heading to free agency. Another 300-plus touch season is on deck for McCaffrey if he can stay healthy as a 25-year-old. He averaged 19.67 carries and 6.33 targets in his three games last year. Unfortunately, McCaffrey could be playing behind one of the worst offensive lines. LT Russell Okung, RT Taylor Moton, LG Chris Reed, RG John Miller, and a few other depth pieces are all free agents, and veteran C Matt Paradis is a cut candidate ($4.9M cap savings). 2019 second-rounder Greg Little (358 career snaps) and 2019 sixth-rounder Dennis Daley (821) project as the current starters at tackle. It’s a bad situation on paper at all five spots heading into the offseason.
Defensive Coordinator: Under DC Phil Snow, the Panthers are still figuring out what works and what doesn’t work in the NFL. Their three-safety defense from last season was alright given the team’s youth and lack of offseason practices, and with the entire 2020 draft class coming on the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers should improve their defensive standing in 2021. They were 18th in points allowed last season. Where someone like Jeremy Chinn will line up and how much they stick with their Cover 3 zone defense — they were first in Cover 3 rate last year (40%) — will partially depend on who is brought in this offseason. Like every defense, Snow said the end goal is to be able to rush with four and cover with seven. I think they’ll have the defensive line to do so as soon as next year.
Passing Defense: All three of their primary safeties (Jeremy Chinn, Tre Boston, and Juston Burris) return, leaving corner and linebacker as the two holes in their back seven. CB1 Donte Jackson is a fine starter, but Carolina needs to sure up their CB2 and slot CB spots with Rasul Douglas and Corn Elder headed for free agency. As long as the Panthers continue to play with three safeties, the Panthers can get away with only having two respectable corners. They arguably didn’t last year, as evidenced by their No. 24 passing EPA defense. Up front, the Panthers have some quality young pass rushers in OLB Brian Burns, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, and DT Derrick Brown with other veterans to round out the group. They were 21st in adjusted sack rate last year. That should tick up in 2021.
Rushing Defense: It was horrendous in 2020 because of their linebacker play. Shaq Thompson was just fine in the first year of his big contract, and there was little behind him. The Panthers need to find another starting linebacker this offseason, assuming former fifth-rounder Jermaine Carter projects as nothing more than a rotational piece long term. The interior defensive line is set with DT Derrick Brown, DT Kawann Short, and NT Zach Kerr. To improve their No. 20 rushing EPA unit, Carolina only seems to need more development from their 2020 draft picks, an upgrade at linebacker, and for Short to play more than three games. That’s a reasonable ask.
Panthers Team Needs
1. Quarterback – Teddy Bridgewater is a low-end starter, and the Panthers are treating him as such. They were in on the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes and will chase Deshaun Watson if he’s available. Bridgewater is unlikely to be cut outright, but the Panthers can save $12.9 million against the cap by trading him and that will only come with $10 million in dead cap. Bridgewater is 30th in passing EPA per dropback among 48 qualifying quarterbacks since 2014, his rookie year.
2. Offensive Guard(s) – 2020 starters LG Chris Reed and RG John Miller are both free agents this offseason, and their replacements aren’t on the roster unless Greg Little and/or Dennis Daley kick inside. Overall, the Panthers are losing six of their top seven offensive linemen in 2020 snaps to free agency. It’s a major storyline for Carolina.
3. Offensive Tackle – Both LT Russell Okung and RT Taylor Moton are headed for free agency, and so is backup LT Trent Scott. 2019 second-rounder Greg Little and 2019 sixth-rounder Dennis Daley are the current starters. Due to injuries, both are total unknowns, and there’s been speculation that they could slide to guard long term.
4. Outside Corner – The Panthers are losing CB2 Rasul Douglas and slot CB Corn Elder to free agency, leaving CB1 Donte Jackson and little else at the position. With the defense utilizing lots of three-safety looks, Carolina really just needs to find Jackson one running mate. 2020 fourth-rounder Troy Pride projects as a starter right now.
5. Linebacker – Shaq Thompson is signed long term, but the team really missed Luke Kuechly in 2020. They ranked 20th in rushing EPA defense despite having a solid defensive line. Right now, 2018 fifth-round MLB Jermaine Carter is projected to start alongside Thompson. There’s room for an upgrade, or at least competition.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Christian McCaffrey (RB1) – The offensive line and quarterback question marks are concerning, but CMC is the favorite to lead the NFL in valuable touches next season. He averaged 19.67 carries and 6.33 targets in his three games last season, and Mike Davis and Curtis Samuel are set for free agency. McCaffrey should be fully healthy going into the year. He’s in the 1.01 mix.
D.J. Moore (WR2) – The 2018 first-rounder has exactly 1,215 total yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. He was the WR29 per game on WR25 fantasy usage last year, two numbers that could easily improve with Curtis Samuel out the door. Moore, 24, is heading into the prime of his career and is already averaging 9.4 yards per target through three seasons.
Robby Anderson (WR2) – The 2020 free agent signee set career highs in targets (136), receptions (95), and yards (1,096) in his first year with Carolina. Like Moore, his numbers could tick up with Samuel’s projected absence. Anderson also is a positive touchdown regression candidate after only finding the end zone three times in 2020. The Panthers were 28th in percentage of red zone trips ending in a touchdown. He was the WR23 per game despite the poor luck last year.
FA Curtis Samuel (WR3/4) – Samuel heads for free agency coming off a career-high 1,051 total yards. It took OC Joe Brady to maximize Samuel’s skill set as an underneath target who can also be used in the backfield. That type of player doesn’t fit in every offense, however, so Samuel’s fantasy stock will be very dependent on where he lands. The WR3/4 border feels right after finishing as the WR31 per game in 2020.
Teddy Bridgewater (QB3/4) – Bridgewater is not a lock to start in 2021. The Panthers have reportedly been involved in Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson sweepstakes, and they are in rookie quarterback striking distance with their No. 8 overall pick. Bridgewater’s contract can be traded, but there are only a few teams that would be in the market for Bridgewater after a very average season with plus playmakers. He was the QB23 per game in a very fantasy-friendly offense last season.
FA Mike Davis (RB5) – Multiple Christian McCaffrey injuries allowed Davis to flash as a fill-in. He was an efficient player, both as a rusher and receiver, for the first two months as a starter, but Davis fell off late in the season. The 28-year-old one-year wonder would be an ideal cheap veteran to bring in as a No. 2 committee back. It’s unclear which team will make that happen.
Ian Thomas (TE4) – Thomas lumbered his way to 145 yards in 16 games last year. He’s unlikely to enter the fantasy mix with his career 5.6 yards per target average.