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State of the 2021 Carolina Panthers: Sam Darnold, Matt Rhule must take next step together

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Panthers organization, Panthers fans around the world and those who know that Steve Smith Sr. is an automatic entrant into the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

Just over a year-and-a-half ago, Carolina started anew, dismissing a very popular coach (Ron Rivera) and replacing him with a college coach known as a program-builder. And heading into the second season of the Matt Rhule era ... well, we're still not quite sure where the Panthers are at. Their star running back missed most of last season. Their starting quarterback from 2020 is in Denver. But it feels like the foundation is there -- now it's a matter of raising the rest of the structure.

How the Panthers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Beating the Chargers on the road in Week 3. The first victory of the Rhule era kicked off a three-game winning streak that put the team over .500 (at 3-2) for the only time all season.
  • Having four different players top 1,000 scrimmage yards for the first time in franchise history. (DJ Moore had 1,215, Robby Anderson had 1,111, Curtis Samuel had 1,051 and Mike Davis had 1,015.) It was also just the fifth time any team has done that in the Super Bowl era.
  • Beating Ron Rivera in his would-be revenge game. Carolina topped Washington, 20-13, in Week 16.

The lows:

  • Getting just three games out of Christian McCaffrey. Last April, coming off a 1,000/1,000 campaign, McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million extension -- then missed most of the season. And it wasn't because of one major injury. Perhaps more frustratingly, McCaffrey ended up dealing with a series of injuries, such that it perpetually seemed like he was on the brink of playing, only to end up not seeing the field. (This is probably the fantasy player in me complaining right now.)
  • Suffering through a five-game losing skid that ruined a 3-2 start. The Panthers also closed out the season losing four of their final five games.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Matt Rhule. As I alluded earlier, Rhule's resume pegs him as a program-builder. And the Panthers are committed to him, having just given him a seven-year contract last year. You don't hire Gordon Ramsay to cater your dinner, then begin chirping at him when he's just getting started; you have to give him some time to do this thing. Similarly, we need to give Rhule a chance to work here. (Though I don't think Rhule is going to yell at you.) I thought the coach did pretty well, considering the injuries, the disappointment of Teddy Bridgewater (who I really wanted to succeed) at QB and a total rebuild on defense. Even taking all that into account, the Panthers were competitive, and it never felt like Rhule was out of his element. Aside from a couple of rough patches (the season finale against the Saints kind of got out of hand, and the Bucs ran roughshod over Carolina in the second half in Week 10), the Panthers were that annoying team that just hung around and pestered the better squads. I want to see where Rhule goes from here -- not that my opinion matters in Charlotte, anyway.

Quarterback: Sam Darnold. Full disclosure: I'm a huge Sam Darnold guy. I have been, going all the way back to his time at San Clemente High School, right down the road from me here in Southern California. I can objectively say that Darnold was not well served in New York, with then-Jets coach Adam Gase doing the former No. 3 overall pick no favors. Now, we don't have to look far for an example of a player who enjoyed a career renaissance after leaving Gase; Ryan Tannehill struggled under Gase in Miami, then became a stud in Tennessee. That said, even as an ardent Darnold supporter, I have to acknowledge that Darnold is now out of excuses, playing for a great coach (yeah, I said it) and a great offensive coordinator (Joe Brady) on a roster teeming with talent. Sam will either prove he's the quarterback we thought he was when he was with the USC Trojans (or San Clemente Tritons) or slide into a long career as a backup who elicits the I had no idea he was still in the league response when he gets into a game nine years from now.

Carolina's coaching staff obviously believes in him; we can see this not just in the decision to trade a second-round pick for him, but also in the decision to pass on QB prospect Justin Fields with the eighth overall choice in the draft. As Rhule said on the Rich Eisen Show: "I love those guys and I think that they're gonna be great NFL players. I just think for us, when we got Sam and knowing he's 23 years old, just turned 24, we just felt like Sam plus another player would be better for the team overall."

I hope Rhule is right. (Although he jumped the gun a bit on Darnold's 24th birthday, which is coming this weekend, on June 5.) And I hope this isn't a situation that causes Panthers fans to look back with regret in the future.

Projected 2021 MVP: Christian McCaffrey. Look, I know plenty of fantasy enthusiasts got a kick out of scooping Mike Davis off waivers last year after McCaffrey suffered an early-season high ankle sprain. Davis put up numbers in McCaffrey's place, even looking good enough at times that you began to wonder if the Panthers really missed CMC at all. Well, maybe not you -- but the running backs aren't important people were out there.

Spoiler alert, though: Running backs are important! The us-against-the-world mentality that can power a team through the absence of a star player usually only goes so far. At some point, the luck runs out. McCaffrey is pretty damn good at football, and the Panthers need him to operate at the highest level in their offense. Let's not get too cute here.

2021 breakout star: Jeremy Chinn. Chinn led all rookies with 116 tackles. The second-rounder became the first rookie since 2000 with two defensive fumble touchdowns (look, they didn't count those before 2000), more than 100 tackles and at least one forced fumble, fumble recovery, sack, interception and tackle for loss. That all seems highly specific, but hey, the Panthers' team site sent that out, so I wanted to share it with you. Chinn also twice won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month. As this Panthers defense grows, I'm looking for Chinn to take a huge leap this season, wherever he plays.

New face to know: Jaycee Horn, cornerback. In 2020, the Panthers spent all of their draft capital -- seven picks in total -- on defense. So maybe it was a bit of a shock that they opened the 2021 NFL Draft with defense again, selecting Horn eighth overall. And that's on top of the surprise of Horn going ahead of Patrick Surtain II, who was presumed by many to be the first cornerback off the board. Still, Horn has the size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and length to make it on the NFL level. He was a standout for three years at South Carolina. And he projects to be a traveling cornerback in the NFL.

You should also know: Brady Christensen, tackle. The Panthers went with a defender (Horn) and a playmaker (receiver Terrace Marshall Jr.) with their first two picks, then scooped up Christensen with their third. He was a great pick, someone who could end up starting at left tackle this year. The offensive line -- which also features franchise-tagged right tackle Taylor Moton -- is going to be very important if CMC and Sam are to succeed.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: WARMING UP. Rhule won enough games (five) to keep the Panthers out of the NFC South cellar, but he didn't win more than Carolina did in Ron Rivera's final season at the helm. I would surmise the public gives Rhule at least one more year to see where this thing is going -- to see if, like Parks and Rec, he just needs some time to develop. At some point, he'll have to deliver; it just might not need to happen in 2021 for the Panthers.

Three key dates:

Week 1 vs. New York Jets. Sam Darnold revenge game in Week 1? You love to see it. I mean, it would have been cool to give Sam a bit more time to understand the Carolina offense. But I'll take it. 

Week 4 at Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers open with the Jets, Saints and Texans, meaning they've got a good chance to start the season 3-0 -- setting up this game as a test and, potentially, an opportunity.

Week 8 at Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers and Falcons both possess the most reasonable opportunity for a turnaround this season in the NFL, and this matchup should be key in determining which one of these division rivals can make a run in the playoffs.

Will the Panthers be able to …

See a return on all the draft capital they've dropped on defense over the last two years? As I mentioned, the Panthers went strictly defense in the 2020 NFL Draft. (Sorry, just dropping the CliffsNotes here, in case you missed some of the previous sections.) Though the strategy to focus on that portion of the roster did not pay off immediately (Carolina ranked 18th in yards allowed), there were some highlights last season. You know we love Chinn. Shaq Thompson had more than 100 tackles. 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns had a career-high nine sacks and forced three fumbles -- that tied him for fifth among NFL defensive ends. Derrick Brown, chosen seventh overall last year, was a presence at defensive tackle, as well, leading all rookies at the position with 20 solo tackles, including eight tackles for loss.

The Panthers still continued to add pieces, including Horn. Free agent Haason Reddick -- who played with Rhule at Temple -- parlayed a breakout season in Arizona into a one-year deal with the Panthers, while former Charger Denzel Perryman looks like an interesting pickup, too. The Panthers' defense could develop into one of the league's best.

Replace Curtis Samuel? Samuel was a pretty good player for the Panthers last season, one of the four to top 1,000 scrimmage yards, as I mentioned previously. He also scored five total touchdowns. But he's now a member of the Washington Football Team. Returning McCaffrey will help make up for Samuel's absence, but I also like Terrace Marshall -- one of my favorite draft picks -- to step up. He was an absolute stud for LSU's championship-winning team in 2019, when he scored 13 touchdowns despite sharing targets with the likes of future first-round picks Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Marshall became the focal point of the Tigers' offense after those receivers (and QB Joe Burrow) left for the NFL, and he ended up scoring 10 times before opting out in November. You put him on a team with CMC and DJ Moore, and Marshall has a chance to become a huge part of the offense.

Make a star out of Dan Arnold? Maybe this is just me, the fantasy enthusiast who wants to make this a legitimate thing. But I kind of like Arnold, who signed with the team in March. I was surprised the Saints got rid of him back in 2019, because it seems like they never have a shortage of rando tight ends. One of them even plays quarterback. (Kidding!) Arizona was kind of a bad fit for Arnold last season, too. But he managed 45 targets with the Cardinals in 2020 and scored a career-high four times. Two of those TDs came against the Rams in Week 13 (they were also his only two receptions in that game). The Rams were one of the best teams against tight ends in fantasy all of last year, so don't act like you started Arnold that week, because I won't hear it. But all that said, I like what Arnold could bring to the table in Carolina, even with Ian Thomas and third-round pick Tommy Tremble in the mix.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: Robby Anderson and Sam Darnold's shared history. Anderson, who signed with Carolina last offseason, and Darnold played together with the Jets in 2018 and '19. Take a minute, right now, to think of the worst place you ever worked in your life. Now think of how, whenever you get together with some of the people you worked with there, you bond over the shared bad experience and whatnot. So I'm sure Sam and Robby will have a pretty good chuckle thinking about their time together in New York. And, in fact, Anderson had the best year of his Jets career with ... well, actually, it was with Josh McCown in 2017. But Anderson and Darnold did have some chemistry, even if I don't have a handy stat to prove it.

… people are overthinking: Who will back up CMC? Yes, Mike Davis is gone, having moved on to Atlanta. And I'm happy for him! I talked about this more in my Falcons piece, because I'm excited for his opportunity. But even though he played a big role in CMC's stead last season, don't fret -- the Panthers are in good enough shape at this spot on the depth chart, looking ready to roll with rookie Chuba Hubbard as the backup this year, with Reggie Bonnafon in the mix. And yes, as a fantasy dork, I'm aware the "overthinking" here is likely largely being done by those of us who are weighing whether to draft CMC first overall again this year.

For 2021 to be a success, the Panthers MUST:

  • Start winning more close games. The Panthers got into a lot of close contests last season, with 11 of 16 games being decided by one possession -- and they lost eight of those. The Panthers need to develop a closer's mentality. Oh, and they also really need to figure out where Darnold is in his development. Fifth-year option aside, is he the quarterback to make this offense shine opposite a loaded-up defense?

In closing

I'm not going to pick the Panthers to make the playoffs at this point. HOWEVER. If you're looking for a team that could pull off a surprising run to the postseason, like the 49ers in 2019, the Panthers have all the right ingredients in place. (Whoa -- great Gordon Ramsay callback.) Or maybe the Titans from that season are the better blueprint: You have a former Gase quarterback, a strong ground game and a frisky defense. Again, I'm not calling the Panthers to the playoffs right now. But they will be very competitive in the NFC this year.

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