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How We Got Here
2021 Season Recap

I will try to keep this section brief, no reason to relive past trauma. In fact, let’s go ahead and slap a trigger warning on this section:

WARNING: The following material includes references to and information from the 2021 NFL season that may trigger certain Carolina Panthers fans. We advise you to proceed with caution and, as always, Keep Pounding.

Most NFL teams go into a season with hope and promise and that was the case for the 2021 Carolina Panthers. The second year under Matt Rhule was kicked off by a strong draft headlined by new GM Scott Fitterer’s deluge of draft day trades. 

Selecting South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn with the 8th pick of the draft might have disappointed fans who would have rather seen Carolina address the quarterback position, but the front office was content to roll with maligned, former Jets QB, Sam Darnold who they acquired in a trade before the draft. 

The Panthers earned some goodwill from the fans later in the offseason by locking up Pro Bowl right tackle Taylor Moton to a long-term deal. However, a season that started with hope and promise quickly turned into disappointment and then eventually into despair.

There is no need to go through a week-by-week recap of the entire 2021 season. Instead, let’s stick to the few highlights and lousiest lowlights of the 2021 campaign. 

The Panthers’ defense was an early season highlight, Shaq Thompson was finally playing up to his speed and pedigree on the field after switching to number 7, the addition of Haason Reddick added a real threat opposite Brian Burns off the edge, and defensive coordinator Phil Snow challenged opposing offenses with unique formations and blitz packages. 

Unfortunately, the defense ended up being the equivalent of a single mother being forced to raise the family without help from the offense. Carolina’s gamble on Sam Darnold never panned out and looked especially bad after superstar running back Christian McCaffrey went down with an injury in the first half of their week 3 game against Houston. Losing that security blanket plus standing behind an offensive line that could not handle simple defensive actions like twists – that’s when the defensive end fakes outside then curls around behind the defensive tackle to attack the interior — was a perfect storm that lead Darnold to regress into bad habits.

The week 5 game against the Eagles was a perfect microcosm of the season-long issues the Panthers faced. A strong defensive performance kept the Panthers in the lead for 57 minutes until a blocked punt set up a short field touchdown with two minutes to go and gave the Eagles a 21-18 lead that would stay unchanged when the game ended. The Darnold-led offense was only able to put together a single, sustained drive that lasted nine plays and went 62 yards for the Panthers’ lone touchdown on the day. In what was a sign of things to come, the offense disappeared in the 3rd quarter. Here is how each of their drives ended: punt, punt after starting at midfield, interception after starting at midfield, a punt from the 40-yard line, and then one rush for eight yards that got called back 10 yards because of a holding. Those four drives and that one play totaled just 45 yards. In fairness, that one play belonged to a drive that extended into the 4th quarter and would result in a field goal.

RELATED: Panthers drop their second straight game, lose to Eagles 21-18

The Panthers’ defense made one mistake all game, a blown coverage on a 3rd down that led to a 53-yard pass and an eventual touchdown two plays later to put the Eagles within two points. This was the trademark of the Panthers’ season—an overworked defense faltering late in the game due to an inept, stale offense that was never able to capitalize on good field positioning and solid play. Special teams did not help either, the Panthers went through three kickers in the first three weeks of the season before finding a reliable leg in Zane Gonzales and the punting situation was even worse. Last year, between turnovers and bad punts, the Panthers gave opposing offenses the best starting field position in the NFL, nearly five yards worse than the league average.

 OPPONENTS AVG STARTING FIELD POSITION:

  • Panthers: OWN 33.5
  • League Avg: OWN 28.8

Back to that offense that was harder to watch than those ASPCA commercials with the Sarah McLaughlin soundtrack, they averaged the 3rd lowest yards per drive and had the 4th worst score percentage in the league. It was so bad that Cam Newton’s triumphant return only made them watchable for a few weeks. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady was canned during the bye week after a particularly dismal showing against the Dolphins but his replacement Jeff Nixon actually faired worse, somehow, during the remainder of the season. Unfortunately for Nixon, he took over during the impossibly hard end-of-season stretch that saw the Panthers play the Bucs twice, the Saints, and the Bills, all of which were in the top-5 in points allowed at the end of the season.

I promise I will stop piling it on but the offense truly was that bad. They finished last in yards per play and interceptions, second in total turnovers and touchdown passes, and finished in the bottom five in multiple other offensive categories that would be too long to list. It was an abject failure but completely unfair to place the blame on the shoulders of Brady or Nixon. The front office took a chance on a quarterback who has consistently been one of the worst in the NFL since he entered the league in 2018 and failed to meaningfully address the offensive line. That is a combination that reaches a toothpaste and orange juice level of bad.

The result was a third straight five-win season and a disgruntled fan base who kept pounding…their keyboards demanding for head coach Matt Rhule to be replaced. A season that started with hope and promise ended with despair and hopelessness that Panthers fans have become all too familiar with. Heading into the offseason, changes were not just expected—they were required.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
Off-season Recap

Matt Rhule’s January 10th press conference had the mood of a coroner’s report as he faced questions about the 2021 season and the future of the Carolina Panthers. He said going from 3-0 to 5-12 was “agonizing” but that also they knew what was needed to improve and make sure “5-12 doesn’t happen again.” 

“We do have a long-term plan, we want to build this thing piece by piece, brick by brick.” — GM Scott Fitterer

The offensive line was a clear point of emphasis for Rhule and GM Scott Fitterer, who spoke shortly after the head coach and shared his sentiments about building the team in a methodical manner. Rhule insisted that every choice he makes is in the best interest of the Carolina Panthers. Despite rumors that he is on the hot seat, he won’t “sell the farm” for a quick fix even if that means losing his job. It’s a noble idea but one I am not entirely sure tracks, especially knowing what we know now in regards to their aggressive attempts to land Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson in consecutive offseasons. 

The open offensive coordinator position was also a focal point of Coach Rhule’s press conference. After firing Joe Brady in week 13, Rhule turned over playcalling duties to longtime cohort Jeff Nixon who failed to impress during his interim stint. Rhule said he’d prefer someone with play-calling experience at the NFL level but was going to meet with a number of candidates, choosing the best fit for the Carolina Panthers.

Rhule and Fitterer said everything you would want to hear as a Panthers fan, but words in the NFL are like lottery tickets; pointless unless they match the winning numbers. Here is a look at the moves made by the Carolina Panthers in the 2022 off-season.

New Coordinators

Matt Rhule got his man, hiring former New York Giants head coach and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. McAdoo is not exactly the “rockstar” offensive coordinator that owner David Tepper was rumored to want but he does have NFL playcalling experience for better or for worse.

McAdoo comes from the Mike McMcarthy coaching Mc-Tree, serving on his staff in New Orleans, San Fransico, and Green Bay. While with the Packers, McAdoo coached tight ends until 2011 then quarterbacks before becoming the Giants’ offensive coordinator in 2014. In New York he put together an impressive offense that revitalized QB Eli Manning’s career and helped a rookie Odell Bechkam Jr break out, winning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2014. McAdoo was promoted to Giants head coach in 2016, leading them to an 11-5 record and their first playoff appearance since 2011 but was fired a year later after starting the season 2-10.

Historically, McAdoo runs an offense that is similar to what we have seen during the Matt Rhule tenure. It is a QB-friendly offense that is predicated on getting the ball out quickly and into the hands of playmakers. McAdoo also prefers an up-tempo style, so expect to see a quicker pace on the offensive end and more no-huddle offense. However, his offense has been described as “vanilla” which might make it easier for defenses to plan for as the season goes on. The hope would be he has learned from his previous mistakes and adjusts after getting a second chance as a play-caller.

The Panthers also replaced Special Teams coordinator Chase Blackburn, who was one of the only carryovers from the Rivera administration. It was not an entirely surprising move considering how disappointing that unit has been since Matt Rhule took over. Longtime coordinator Chris Tabor will take over after serving in the same role for the Bears since 2018. At face value, it appears to be an upgrade, the Bears’ special teams have ranked in the top ten in EPA the last two seasons.

While those were the two biggest hires, Matt Rhule filled out the rest of his staff with some promising names that feature decades of NFL experience. The one Panthers fans will be most familiar with is Steve Wilks, who served on Ron Rivera’s staff in Charlotte, eventually becoming defensive coordinator in 2017. James Campen, a well-respected offensive line guru, will take over as offensive line coach and be in charge of the newly rebuilt position group. Robert Kugler, Joe Dailey, Kevin M. Gilbride, and Paul Pasqualoni fill out the rest of the new hires.

What is most exciting about this group is the sheer amount of NFL experience, a departure from the first few staffs Coach Rhule has put together in Carolina. I believe this shows some growth from Rhule, who relied heavily on his former college staffers when he transitioned to the NFL, and hopefully, these hires will have an impact on the on-field product. 

Roster Changes

It was always going to be hard for the Panthers to resign the likes of Haason Reddick and Stephon Gilmore when you consider the premium price two proven vets require at those positions. Reddick and Gilmore will be two major losses in terms of on-field production, Reddick led the team in sacks and veteran leadership in the locker room. While GM Scott Fitterer publicly claimed he was open to the idea of Cam Newton returning, it seems unlikely now that the Panthers have traded for Baker Mayfield. Ultimately while these losses will hurt, there are young players in a position to step up in the absence of these proven vets.

The Panthers were able to retain a few pending free agents from the 2021 team, most notably cornerback Donte Jackson. Jackson made major strides last year in the run game and his pure speed allows him to cover some of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL. His game is not without faults as he has a tendency to get beat deep from time to time. But he has improved year over year and there are no signs of that growth stopping.  

Linebacker and special teams ace Frankie Luvu will also return after a standout season and will do his best to mitigate the loss of Haason Reddick. Finally, kicker Zane Gonzales will return after solving the Panthers’ kicking woes last season. Gonzales was twice selected as the NFC special teams player of the week and while he doesn’t have the strongest leg in the NFL his accuracy is a welcome sight for Panthers fans. Update August 30: Gonzales suffered a severe groin injury during the last preseason game against the Bills. He has been replaced for the season by Eddy Pineiro.

Now to exciting new faces. Rhule and Fitterer came through with their promise to beef up the offensive line signing Super Bowl champion Austin Corbett to fill in a right guard. While also signing former Baltimore Ravens center Bradley Bozeman to compete for the starting center job. The addition of All-Pro punter Johnny Hekker will sure up special teams and help flip the field, he finished in the top five in average net yards per punt last season.

Another guy you’ll want to keep your eye on is defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis. The former 1st-round pick played for Phil Snow and Matt Rhule at Temple, so he has a familiarity with the scheme and language they use on that side of the ball. Injuries have kept his stats from the last few seasons from living up to his pedigree but when he is healthy he can be an excellent interior pass rusher, a perfect match for the run-stuffing Derrick Brown. D’onta Foreman will help lighten the load for Christian McCaffrey, the powerful back has great hands and filled in for another All-Pro running back, Derrick Henry, last year for the Titans.

The Panthers did not make any waves with any of their signings but you have to remember that cats don’t like water in the first place. I am not in the business of handing out grades but it is my opinion that the Panthers handled free agency fairly well. There was a slim chance they could afford to retain the services of Reddick or Gilmore due to the open market value at their respective positions. Carolina used their money wisely, accomplishing their goal of bolstering an offensive line while adding depth and competition in other key areas on the roster. In doing so, their signings gave them much-needed flexibility with the next big event of the offseason: the 2022 NFL Draft.

The Draft

The NFL Draft is perhaps the most impressive achievement of the NFL’s marketing department. As soon as the Super Bowl ends draft season begins. Draft “experts” do their best Zoltar impressions and release droves of mock drafts. The draft has something to offer for every type of team, no matter where they finished in the season standings. For the good teams, draft picks can be used as capital in trades to get them one step closer to the Lombardi trophy. Teams stuck in the middle have hope that their new draft picks are just what they needed to push them over the hump. Then there are the bad teams who place the future of their franchise squarely on the shoulders of their new players. 

Unfortunately for Panthers fans, Carolina has found itself in the latter category for the last few seasons. The 2022 Draft Class was an interesting one for Carolina to navigate. There was no consensus on who the Jaguars would take with the first overall pick. The draft was top-heavy on defensive talent and light on positions that could change the course of the Panthers franchise.

Shortly before the draft, I looked at 26 mock drafts from a carefully curated selection of experts. Some were the most well-known like ESPN’s Mel Kipper, others, like Brendan Donahue, had been the most accurate over the last several drafts. Half of the mock drafts had Carolina selecting a QB with the other half predicting the Pathers would land one of the top 3 offensive tackles. Carolina had the worst pass offense according to Football Outsiders. They had also focused on the defensive side of the ball in the previous two drafts. It made sense that the Panthers were likely going to address one of those two positions with their top pick. 

The first five picks could not have gone any better for the Carolina Panthers. For the first time since 1991, the first five picks of the draft were all defensive players. That meant Carolina had their pick of the litter; all of the top offensive line and quarterback prospects were still available. The Panthers selected NC State’s Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu with their 6th overall pick. The former Charlotte native exploded up the draft boards after an insanely athletic performance at the NFL combine, even being considered for the number one overall pick. Ekwonu is just 4th offensive lineman taken in the first round by the Panthers in their history. The hope is that he will stop a revolving door at left tackle that’s been spinning since Jordan Gross retired in 2013. It’s been a black hole of a position for Carolina and that is not an exaggeration. If Ickey becomes the starter in 2022 it will be the ninth consecutive season with a new starter at left tackle. Let’s hope he breaks that streak and becomes a long-term solution at the position.

Due to the Sam Darnold and CJ Henderson trades, the Panthers entered the 2022 draft without a 2nd or 3rd round selection. However, GM Scott Fiterrer made another draft-day trade to move into the third round to select Ole Miss QB Matt Corral, who the Panthers reportedly had a first-round grade on. Corral was not taken to push Darnold for the starting role on day one but viewed as more of a long-term solution to the position after he develops and adjusts to the NFL game. Corral has a lightning-quick release and enough athleticism to make plays outside the pocket. Mix that with the success he had in one of the top conferences in college football and you might have a recipe for a solid NFL starter.

Matt Rhule is a coach who loves physical traits and he believes if they draft players with impressive traits they can teach them the game. Their later-round selections in the 2022 draft follow those principles. Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith, Virginia Tech edge rusher Amare Barno and Baylor cornerback Kalon Barnes all finished in the top five at their position in the 40-yard dash. Barnes and Barno finished in the top ten overall in the dash. That sort of raw speed makes each of them invaluable on special teams, especially in kick-off and punt coverage. If they can develop the finer aspect of their games they can contribute positively on the defensive end as well.

While Cade Mays didn’t blow the doors of the combine with his physical traits he offers something else Coach Rhule loves, versatility. In College, Mays started or played at every offensive line position except for center. That makes him an ideal plug-and-play depth player if injuries were to ravage the Panthers’ offensive line.

The Panthers 2022 draft class got positive reviews from most of the major sports publications. I tend to agree, especially considering the lack of draft capital Carolina had entered this draft. I will admit, I was worried the Panthers brass would be talked into taking Kenny Pickett or Malik Willis with their first-round pick. Nothing against those players personally, I actually think Willis will have a solid NFL career. For me, it came down to positional value, and after most of the QBs slide to the third round or beyond, I feel pretty good about my convictions. However, it’s impossible to truly comprehend the impact of a draft class before they play a snap in the NFL. It really takes a few seasons to truly asses the players that get selected which is why this upcoming season will be the true test of Matt Rhule’s first, all-defensive draft from 2020, but more on them later.   

After a strong free agency and a promising draft class, the Panthers entered OTAs with a roster that I felt was the strongest in the Matt Rhule era. There was just one thing holding them back and it just so happens to be the most important position in all of sports: quarterback. 

The Trade

In a press conference after following free agency Scott Fitterer was asked about Sam Darnold and the future of the quarterback room in Carolina. His answers would have made any politician proud as the general manager walked the tightrope between giving Darnold the benefit of the doubt and promising to add competition to the room. 

“The whole key is bringing Sam along. You know, we threw him in last year, he had limited OTAs and everything that we had…We have to develop our own guys, PJ Walker as well. But I think we will look to add to the group as well. I think that’s one emphasis going into this whether it’s through the draft, trade, whatever it may be we are going to add to the room.”

“Sam’s on the roster. As I sit here right now, he is on the roster. He’s in the lead for that job. We want him to take it and run with it. But we are going to add a lot of competition to that room. The whole emphasis is to stabilize the quarterback position and play winning football. That’s what we are working towards.”

Trading for disgruntled Browns quarterback and Progressive insurance spokesperson Baker Mayfield. Mayfield was disgruntled because the Browns traded for controversial quarterback Deshaun Watson in March, an interesting sliding doors moment for the Panthers. Carolina was on Watson’s shortlist but they were unwilling to give him the ridiculous, and unprecedented, 5-year $230M fully guaranteed contract he desired. In retrospect, that was a smart decision as Watson faces a potential year-long suspension for his sexual assault scandal involving massage therapists. 

Even more interesting is the star-crossed history that Mayfield and Darnold share. Both quarterbacks were part of the 2018 draft class with Mayfield going number 1 overall to the Browns and Darnold going 3rd to the Jets. Which made the Pathers just the second team since 1967 to have two quarterbacks drafted in the top 3 of a draft on the roster at the same time. That worked out pretty well for the 1980 Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders. While Darnold started right away for the Jets, Mayfield would not see the field for the Browns until starter Tyrod Taylor was forced out of a game due to injury. Mayfield rallied the Browns from a fourteen-point deficit to defeat, you guessed it, Sam Darnold and the New York Jets.

The arrival of Mayfield in Carolina sets up the first true QB battle since 2002 when the Panthers brought in veteran Rodney Pete to push starter Chris Weinke. Both Darnold and Mayfield come with their own strengths and weaknesses but Darnold will have an early head start simply because he has been around. Darnold participated in OTAs and mandatory mini-camp, key offseason activities when learning and installing a new offense. Mayfield has had the better career thus far although it’s worth wondering if he has been a product of much better circumstances in Cleveland.

Looking at the stats over their respective 4-year careers Mayfield has a clear, if slight, edge. Despite throwing more interceptions than Darnold, Mayfield’s stats are better in almost every other statistical category. The higher interception totals could even be chalked up to the fact that Mayfield has played in 10 more games than Darnold. In fact, Mayfield has a lower percentage of his attempts that end in interceptions, 2.9% to Darnold’s 3.2%. To Darnold’s credit, his time in New York was mired by poor coaching and even worse surrounding casts that left him little room for success. However, Darnold’s best season pales in comparison to Mayfield’s. 

GM Scott Fitterer and coach Rhule hope this competition will bring out the best in both QBs and set the Panthers up for success. Coach Rhule held a press conference just before training camp began. After thanking the front office for putting together a solid team he spoke about the competition in the QB room, and intentionally mentioned all 4 players by name. 

“Not many teams have 4 quality players like that and it’s going to be a lot of great competition. And to be quite honest with you Nick it will be really good for our team.”

Coach Rhule has been adamant about not rushing the decision in regards to QB1. For Panthers fans, that has been frustrating after getting the full Darnold experience in 2021. The problem with Darnold has never been the talent but rather the consistency and the trust in himself, and his offensive line, to get the job done. Happy feet might be a beloved children’s movie but it’s a derisive term for quarterbacks and throughout his career Darnold’s feet have been awfully happy. Mayfield has a rare grit, that was clear as he played through a shoulder tear and a slew of other injuries in 2021. He is a gunslinger at quarterback in all the best, and worst, ways. Where Darnold is too slow or cautious to pull the trigger, Mayfield lives dangerously. The competition is good for both quarterbacks but I don’t see why you trade for a QB unless you plan for him to be the starter. However, making Baker earn a chance to face his former team in week one is probably good fuel to add to his fire.

Update August 22nd: Matt Rhule finally announced Baker Mayfield as the starting QB. Rhule had mentioned over and over again in post-practice press conferences that when the staff knew, they would make the decision. There was a lot of criticism of how Rhule handled the competition specifically with Rhule taking first-team reps from Mayfield. I agree somewhat with that sentiment but I can understand why Rhule would want Darnold to get some reps with the ones. Rhule had made a comment about how most teams started 2 different QBs last year due to some circumstance. Getting Darnold the reps with the ones will be difficult in season so getting them done now likely makes him more prepared to step in if something were to happen with Baker. Either way, Baker is now the starting quarterback and will have 20 some days to work out the kinks and establish chemistry with the starting offense. 

RELATED: Baker Mayfield named Panthers starting QB

What To Expect When Your Expecting
What’s in store for the 2022 NFL Season

Welcome back to the future! You are now all caught up on the ins and outs of the Panthers’ 2022 off-season. Now the real fun begins. Starting September 9th, when the Rams and Bills kick off the season, the games start to count. The Panthers are entering a pivotal season that determines the future of the franchise. This year, they either prove that they are ready to compete or the reset button is hit once again and Carolina is right back where they were in December of 2019.

I would not say there are high expectations for the 2022 season but they are dire, especially for head coach Matt Rhule. Rhule was a program builder in college, turning teams around by the 3rd season. 2022 is Rhule’s third season with the Panthers and the NFL has a famously short leash when it comes to mediocrity. Go to any betting sight and you’ll find Coach Rhule as the odds-on favorite to be the first coach fired. I think a successful season would save his job, but what does that even look like?

First, it’s progress and not just in the win column. The team has to prevent a 3rd consecutive late-season slide. The defense made great strides last year and now it’s the offense’s turn to go from unwatchable to reliable. Second, Carolina has to be in the playoff picture late in the season. Competing for an NFC South division title would be nice but is probably too much too fast for this team. Competing for a wild card spot is a very reasonable goal, especially considering the 2021 Panthers were alive in the playoff race before losing to Miami in week 13. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the Panthers have to be watchable. Fans have to care enough to turn on the television on Sundays or show up at home games. I went to 2 games last season, one for work and one for fun, both times the seats at Bank of America stadium spoke volumes in their emptiness. The seats that were occupied were a 55-45 split in the Panthers’ favor at best. Regardless of the record, if the team is fun to watch and competes week in and week out, that will be a success. 

That is not to say winning doesn’t matter. If all of the above stipulations are met, the Panthers are likely winning games. Another 5-win season won’t cut it. A 7-win season likely isn’t good enough either. 8+ wins is the benchmark for success. How likely is that? There are two factors, on-field performance is the obvious one, but in the NFL it is just as much about who you play as it is how you play. 

The Schedule

I posted the schedule just a little bit above but you could have found that schedule all by yourself. If you have followed my work for the past few seasons you know I am not interested in merely telling you who the Panthers are facing. Much like WFMY’s Ben Briscoe, I like to Dig In 2 It. Below you will find a quick preview of each of the 14 opponents for the 2022 season. Their strengths, their weaknesses, and how they match up with the Panthers. One quick caveat, these are going to be projections. Injuries happen, players are traded and surprises change rosters all the time. Even year-to-year regressions are hard to project–maybe this is the year Tom Brady looks like the 45-year-old man he is. So keep that in mind as you browse the Panther’s opponents for this season.

Week 1 – Cleveland Browns – Home

Someone in the NFL scheduling office must be a precog. The schedule was released before the Panthers made the move to acquire Baker Mayfield and now it looks like the former Browns QB will get the pleasure of playing host to his former team. The Browns will be without Deshaun Watson meaning backup Jacoby Brisset will get the start. Overall, the Browns’ roster is no better or worse than they were last year. Injuries to Baker Mayfield is what dragged them down a season ago and I am not sure a healthy Brisset makes them that much better.

Strengths: Run Game, Offensive Line, Myles Garret, Secondary

The Browns’ strength on offense comes from its run game. They have the best running back room in the NFL with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D’ernest Johnson, all of whom have pass-catching abilities. Their offensive line has multiple All-Pro caliber players from left to right. Their coach Kevin Stefanski runs a creative offense that is essentially a 2022 version of smashmouth football. Chubb, who has been the feature back in the system has rushed for three consecutive 1000-yard seasons. Defensively, Myles Garrett might be hitting his prime. The defensive end is coming off a career-best 16 sacks. Outside of Garrett’s phenomenal talent, the secondary that plays behind him locks down wide receivers long enough for him to go by, or through, anything standing in his way. 

Weaknesses: Wide Receivers, Interior Defensive Line, Quarterback*

Their weaknesses have less to do with talent than it does with depth and experience. Jacoby Brissett, who will start at QB while Watson serves his suspension, is a Teddy “Two-Gloves” type quarterback. He doesn’t turn the ball over but he isn’t going to make the SportsCenter top ten either. Outside of Amari Cooper, the receiver room is comprised of two rookies and two young, but slightly more experienced, receivers with a combined 58 catches in their short careers. It is the same story on the interior of their defensive line. Taven Bryant is the elder statesman with five years of experience but most of that came as a rotational player as opposed to a starter. The Browns are leaning heavily on rookies and unproven contributors at these positions and statistically not all of them are going to pay off.

On defense, the Panthers should have no problem defending the pass but I am worried about the run. The Panthers’ front 7 will have to step up big time in this one to limit the damage done by Chubb and Hunt.

On offense, blocking Myles Garrett will be priority one and a tall task for rookie LT Ekwonu, he will likely need some help. The Browns’ secondary matches up well against Carolina’s wide receivers. Christian McCaffrey will, as usual, be a big driver of offensive production. 

Week 2 – New York Giants – Away

The 2021 New York Football Giants won just 4 games, one of those was against the Panthers and it wasn’t even that close. Their biggest move this offseason was landing Bills OC Brian Daboll as head coach. Daboll was the mastermind behind the Bills’ offense that groomed Josh Allen and turned him into a star. That is a huge upgrade over former head coach Joe Judge but due to cap complications, they were unable to meaningfully improve their roster via free agency, heavily relying on the draft. Panthers fans should be familiar with this experience because Dave Gettleman, the Giants previous GM, left the Panthers in the same position.

Strengths: Offensive Weapons, Defensive Line

What the Giants do have is a ton of offensive weapons, headlined by former number 2 pick Saquon Barkley. The Penn State running back has struggled to stay healthy since being drafted in 2018 but early reports from training camp say he is as explosive as ever after a disappointing 2021. The Giants also have solid talent at wide receiver with pieces like Kenny Golladay and Darius Slayton. Although there is an argument that they overspent in that area, they have the most expensive wide receiver room in the NFL spending around $40 million. Defensively, their defensive line should cause some serious havoc. Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawerence, Azeez Ojulari, and rookie Kavon Thibodeaux are all big-time talents, 3 of which were taken in the first round. 

Weaknesses: Interior Offensive Line, Secondary, Quarterback

Every team has a weakness and unfortunately for the Giants, they have one of the worst weaknesses an NFL team can have: quarterback. You will still find some Daniel Jones truthers out there, he has the size, arm talent, and athleticism to be an effective quarterback. He just hasn’t been yet. It is not entirely his fault, after an impressive rookie season he had to deal with a new system and COVID in 2020 followed by an injury-riddled 2021. Maybe Daboll works his magic but for now, he is a weakness. It doesn’t help that his offensive line could be one of the worst in the NFL, especially if rookie Evan Neal does not pan out. On defense, the secondary was decimated by the departures of starting safety Jabril Peppers and corner James Bradburry. They will be forced to rely on some homegrown talent that has not seen a lot of field time which is always unpredictable.

The Panthers’ offense, provided they can give the quarterback some time to throw, should have a good day against the Giants’ unproven secondary. Ben McAdoo will be highly motivated to have a good showing against his former team.

Carolina’s defense will have their hands full with the Giants’ offensive weapons but should be able to exploit a weak interior offensive line with some patented Phil Snow blitzes. If they can capitalize on some likely mistakes from QB Daniel Jones, it could be an inspiring performance from the defense.

Week 3/18 – New Orleans Saints – Home/Away

The New Orleans Ain’ts…I am sorry, Saints, are one of the more interesting teams in 2022. Sean Payton has stepped away from the NFL for the time being, despite the Dolphins’ best efforts to reel him in, meaning for the first time since 2006 someone else will be calling the plays. Jameis Winston returns from a torn ACL and rumor has it Michael Thomas will stop punching teammates and start playing on Sundays again. No word on whether Alvin Kamara will stop punching civilians. Jokes aside, the Saints have always been a team that spends to win now and worries about the consequences later and the roster they have put together can still compete at a high level.

Strengths: Defense, Offensive Weapons

Their defense, despite losing safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins, looks just as good as ever recently being ranked in the top five by ESPN. They were fortunate enough to replace Williams with the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu, which is at worst a lateral move. Cam Jordan returns as well to terrorize offensive lines and he headlines a solid group of pass rushers. Demario Davis, their superstar linebacker, will look to power the run defense to a fifth consecutive season with a top-four run defense. Their offense is once again flush with dangerous playmakers. It appears Alvin Kamara will go the whole season without facing a suspension and Michael Thomas will return to the field for the first time in two seasons. The Saints also expect rookie Chris Olave to contribute right away.

Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Depth, Coaching Change

The Saints are not without their weaknesses. When you build a team to compete every year, you often do so while sacrificing depth. That bill has finally come due for the Saints, they are thinner at running back, defensive line, and offensive line than they have been in previous seasons. Speaking of the offensive line, losing All-Pro Tyron Armstead this offseason leaves New Orleans in a new era with some unproven pieces set to protect Winston. They have also lost one of the most creative offensive minds in all of football. Sean Payton is no longer their head coach and that has to mean something. That is no hit to Dennis Allen or current OC Pete Carmichael Jr. Payton was an offensive genius who was always able to adjust his scheme to his roster. Dennis Allen was chosen to be head coach because of his familiarity with the team and the organization but it is to be seen if the Saints will have the same offensive punch in 2022.

The Panthers will get two shots at the Saints this year and I think it is very likely they split. The Saints’ defense loves teeing off on the Panthers’ offense. They have the talent to match up with Carolina at every position and it will be a tough fight on that end of the ball.

Defensively, Carolina has the secondary to match up with the Saints passing attack. If Yetur Gross-Matos can take advantage of the rookie Trevor Penning off the edge, the pass rush may be significant. As always, Alvin Kamara will be their X-factor and will test the Panthers linebackers in coverage and on the ground.

Week 4  – Arizona Cardinals – Home

The Panthers will play the Cardinals for the 4th year in a row and look to extend a 6-game win streak dating back to the 2015 playoffs. Carolina just has Arizona’s number, boasting a 14-5 all-time record versus the Cardinals. Maybe that’s because North Carolina’s state bird is the Cardinal. The last two season’s in Arizona mirror Carolina’s in the sense that hot starts are met with disappointing finishes. The Cardinals are 19-14 in the last 2 seasons, but just 7-11 in games played after November 1st. The Cardinals return most of their roster from 2021, outside of star pass rusher Chandler Jones, but a suspension to star wide receiver Dustin Hopkins cast a large shadow over the first 6 weeks of the season.

Strengths: Offensive Weapons, Safety

The Cardinals’ offense is not short on weapons, quarterback Kyler Murray is perhaps their biggest one. Murray can make plays with his feet or with the cannon attached to his right shoulder. Arizona has a nice stable of running backs, a sure-handed tight end in Zach Ertz, and an exciting group of receivers. Defensively they have few playmakers as talented as Budda Baker. Baker makes an impact all over the field, recording at least 2 interceptions and 2 sacks in the last two seasons. The secondary will rely heavily on Baker, and maybe a little on inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons, to improve on their pass defense after allowing 30 touchdown passes in 2021, 8th most in the NFL. 

Weaknesses: Cornerbacks, Offensive Line, Defensive Line

The secondary is a young group and their success in this area will depend on how those young players grow. The defensive line is in the same boat after losing Chandler Jones, the Cardinals are banking that JJ Watt and Markus Golden can lead a young, inexperienced group. Watt has struggled to stay on the field during his time in Arizona, he will be 33 this season and in his 12th year so he is not getting any healthier. The offensive line returns 4 of five starters from last season so the consistency and chemistry will remain. The group was average last season but one injury could send the offensive line into a tailspin, leaving Murray running around more than coach Kingsbury would like. 

The Panthers seem to play well against the Kliff Kingsbury Cardinals, beating them in each matchup. Carolina’s defense is well constructed to match the strengths of the Cardinals’ offense, especially with Deandre Hopkins missing the game due to his suspension. 

Offensively the Panthers should be able to find some success through the air. McCaffrey always plays well against the Cardinals, I don’t see anyone outside of Simmons on the Cardinals roster capable of guarding him in open space.

Week 5 – San Francisco 49ers – Home

No team likes playing the San Fransico 49ers. One of the most physical teams in the NFL, San Fransico grinds down your defense with an exotic zone run scheme and suffocates your offense with a great pass rush. Kyle Shannahan is regarded as one of the most clever offensive minds in the NFL and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is a rising star. This team nearly made the Super Bowl last season and their roster is one of the most talented in the league. The Panthers will know exactly where they sit in the NFC after this week 5 game.

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Strengths: Defense, Run Game

There is a long list of things I could include for team strengths but I am going to try and limit myself. Their run game, from personnel to scheme, is one of the most effective units in the NFL. Few teams run it more than the 49ers and no team makes it harder to stop. They have the best blocking tight end in George Kittle, their running backs are dynamic, and Deebo Samuel can do whatever you need him to on the field. Now they are adding in the running ability of young quarterback Trey Lance. Between the motion and formational trickery, opposing defenses won’t know who has the ball until they are running past them. Nick Bosa leads a more than capable group of pass rushers and All-Pro Fred Warner may be the best linebacker in football. The secondary will have to lean on some new talent in 2022 but the rest of the defense is good enough to hide any weaknesses from that group.

Weaknesses: Interior Offensive Line, Unproven QB

Trey Lance will assume the starting quarterback position this season and while his athletic ability will create a new dynamic in the run game for the 49ers, he is still an uneven passer. Lance played in two games last season and didn’t impress through the air but he showed potential. Lance, like most young quarterbacks, will have his flashy moments but also some disastrous ones too. He won’t get any help from the interior offensive line. Two key starters departed the team after last season with no clear replacements on the roster. They are expected to be replaced by a rookie and a 2nd-year player who played all of five snaps in 2022. The San Francisco run game is dependent on the line to control the line of scrimmage and in 2022 they will be relying on unproven commodities to do so. 

I really do not like this matchup for the Carolina Panthers. Maybe the 51 points the 49ers put up against Carolina in their last meeting has me too pessimistic but I just think San Francisco’s strengths play into the Panthers’ weaknesses.

Defensively, the secondary will have to play solid in the run game to help limit its effectiveness. I do think catching Trey Lance early is an added bonus.

Offensively, if the Panthers can protect the quarterback, and that seems like a big if, there should be some success through the air. The 49ers typically focus on preventing deep shots so there should be room underneath for players like DJ Moore or McCaffrey to make plays.

Week 6 – Los Angeles Rams – Away

2021 Record: 12-5, Super Bowl Champions

The Rams, fresh off a Super Bowl-winning season, are right back in the mix in 2022. They will look to be the first back-to-back champions since the 2004 New England Patriots. They just might be able to because of a team and organizational philosophy that relies on star power. Their main contributors are back in 2022 and they added two big-time veterans in Allen Robinson II and Bobby Wagner. An injury to one of their stars could spell trouble for them in 2022 but as long as they are healthy they will be one of the best teams every Sunday.

Strengths: Stars, Offense

In 2021, the Rams were tied for second with 6 yards per play, meaning they averaged a first down every 2 plays. Head Coach Sean McVay is an offensive guru who dragged Jared Goff to a Super Bowl but swapping him out for Matthew Stafford unlocked a new level for the Rams’ offense. Cooper Kupp put together one of the best single seasons by a receiver in recent memory and young running back Cam Akers will be fully healed from the knee injury he suffered last preseason. Add in Allen Robinson II, who has played with a who’s who of bad QBs, and you’re looking at an offense that may be better in 2022. I have already mentioned their star power and it does not matter more than on defense. They have a bonafide stud at all three levels. Aaron Donald is perhaps the best defensive tackle of all time, Bobby Wagner has been a top linebacker since entering the league, and Jalen Ramsey is on the shortlist for the best corner in the NFL. The Rams rely heavily on their stars and it worked so well in 2021 that they are running it back in 2022

That’s it. The only issue with this roster is that it lakes depth, and that’s only in certain areas. Everywhere but wide receiver and in the secondary is relatively thin on talent. Injuries to the offensive or defensive line could have dramatic implications for their season. Matt Stafford had some shoulder issues last year and if he misses time…well let’s just say that backup QB John Wolford might not have the same impact. This is the gamble you take when you build an entire offense and defense around a few key players but last year that gamble paid off.

The Rams have a more talented roster than the Panthers but I think Carolina’s defense matches up really well with LA’s offense. Carolina has the secondary to challenge the Rams but it will be up to the front seven to hold the line in the run game.

The other side of the football is a different story, Aaron Donald is unblockable and no one knows that better than his former teammate Austin Corbett. The Panthers are going to have a tough time moving the ball either through the air or on the ground. It’s early, but it feels like this one might be a low-scoring affair.

Week 7/17 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Home/Away

The Bucs are the only team in the NFC South division that is undefeated against Matt Rhule’s Panthers. They have outscored Carolina 150-63 over the last two seasons, although if you actually watched those games you’d know that two of them were much closer than the final score indicated. A few months ago, this game looked very different, but then Tom Brady had to abandon his family and unretire–can you believe that guy? Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles took over head coaching duties and a few of their key veterans left in free agency but when Brady is your quarterback unfortunately anything is possible. 

Strengths: Quarterback (duh), Defense

Let’s get this out of the way, no matter how you have been personally victimized by the man, Tom Brady is both a medical marvel and the greatest person to play quarterback ever. He just wins. He elevated this franchise to a whole new level after joining them in 2020 and until father time proves otherwise let’s just pencil him in for another great season. Speaking of great, Tampa’s defense has been the best at stopping the run the last few seasons. Losing Ndamukong Suh will likely have an impact but they still have Vita Vea, who has the size and strength of 4 men. Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White return as well, their speed and agility make them dangerous and dominant in both the run and pass game. They are relying on younger pieces this year but that is not always bad and Bowles is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL right now.

Weaknesses: Interior Off. line, Depth

If there is one thing Tom Brady hates, it’s pressure up the middle, and up until this season, he did not have to worry about that. He was protected by one of the best offensive lines in football. However, after an unexpected retirement and a training camp injury to their starting center, the interior of their offensive line could be a work in progress. This also highlights their other biggest weakness: depth. No team can withstand injuries to key players but the Bucs could be in real trouble if they continue to see players miss time.

This is another tough matchup for the Panthers–the week 7 game concludes a streak of playing the last 3 teams to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Their best chance to win is at home in week 7 before the Bucs really start to gel down the stretch

Offensively, the Panthers will likely struggle to run against this defense–because everyone does. There is a chance they have success through the air, especially with their quick passing game.

The more pressure the Panthers can put on Tom Brady the better this will go. Brian Burns and Derrick Brown will have to make his day miserable. The Bucs don’t really have a running back to be scared of so slowing Brady’s pass attack will be the key to victory.

Week 8/10 – Atlanta Falcons – Away/Home

The Falcons attempted to compete in 2021 but that did not work out for them. They tried to trade for Deshaun Watson and that didn’t work out either. In the process, they pissed off Matt Ryan who requested a trade and eventually ended up in the bluer pastures of Indianapolis. Now 2nd year head coach Arthur Smith has been reunited with Marcus Mariota and the Falcons are looking to start the next chapter of their franchise. They will have to do so without young star WR Calvin Ridley, who for some reason was suspended for an entire season for betting on games he was not involved in. He even bet on his own team. That just goes to show you how much the NFL cares about its brand and how they will come down hard on bad actors–as long as they aren’t quarterbacks.

Strengths: Secondary, Off. Weapons

It is a true youth movement in Atlanta, a lot of their best and brightest are the younger pieces on their roster. 3rd-year cornerback AJ Terrell has been sensational and he will be joined by longtime vet Casey Hayward in the secondary which has some promise going into this season. On Offense, the unicorn currently known as Kyle Pitts is expected to have a huge second season. While not much of a blocker, the 6’6 Pitts is unguardable with his combination of speed and size. Rookie receiver Drake London should contribute right away and the Falcons hope swiss army knife Cordarrelle Patterson will follow up his breakout 2021 season with another solid outing.

Weaknesses: Off. Line, Def. Line

Despite their best intentions last year, Atlanta is a team that is rebuilding. They have to do it piece by piece and they have just not addressed either offensive or defensive lines in a meaningful way. They have a few solid pieces already on the roster and they have spent draft capital in this area but nothing has panned out quite yet. Longtime stalwart Grady Jarrett leads a bland group of defensive linemen but with his contract set to expire Jarrett may be more valuable to Atlanta as a trade chip. 

The Carolina Panthers should sweep the Falcons. Even though I feel that way every year, it has never been more true. The Panthers roster is in a better place and if both these teams go into either of these games fully healthy Carolina has a clear edge.

While the Falcons’ secondary poses some interesting matchups for the Panther pass catchers they just don’t have enough muscle up front to stop the run. Last year, Carolina had trouble moving the ball against this defense but with a revamped offensive line and a (knocks on all the wood) healthy CMC, that should change this year.

Carolina’s strength up front on defense could mean huge problems for Atlanta if they do not figure out their starting offensive line. Mariota doesn’t take many risks so the Panthers’ secondary should be able to hold up well against the Falcons.

Week 9 – Cincinnati Bengals – Away

2021 Record: 10-7 Super Bowl runner-up

The Bengals were the improbable darlings of the 2021 playoffs. Joe Burrow and co. orchestrated a ridiculous comeback to beat the Chiefs in the AFC title game then came one or two plays from winning a Super Bowl. The biggest sticking point for the team last year was their offensive line which they spent money on this offseason. Teams traditionally underperform the season after losing the Super Bowl but they probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place which makes me think they will be an exception to that rule. 

Strengths: Quarterback, Off. Weapons

Joe Burrow, small hands and all, is a fantastic quarterback. His connection with Jamaar Chase is otherworldy. The Bengals had one of the most explosive offenses in 2021 and all they did this offseason was bring everyone back and improve the offensive line. Chase is joined out wide by Tee Higgins, who would likely be the number one wide receiver on 25 other NFL rosters. The Bengals’ offense is just so much fun to watch and I haven’t even mentioned running back Joe Mixon who is deadly run between the tackles or running routes past linebackers. Another year of chemistry and experience likely means this offense is only going to get better–which is terrifying.

Weaknesses: Cornerback, Tight End

These weaknesses are nitpicky. I will be the first to admit that but I needed at least two for every team and looking over their roster these were the two biggest holes I could find. The cornerbacks on this roster are either uninspiring or unproven but that doesn’t mean they will be bad. Maybe one of their younger players, like rookie Cam Taylor-Britte, will step up and contribute right away. Either way, it’s a fine group that won’t win them many games but probably won’t lose them too many either. Tight end Hayden Hurst is on his third team in his young NFL career and his inability to hang on anywhere is a bit concerning. Although in the larger scheme of their offense he won’t be asked to do too much. Again, Hurst does not excite but he will get the job done, and when you have a Jamaar Chase on your team that is all you need to do. 

Theoretically, Carolina’s secondary is built for a team as pass happy as the Bengals. However, I think the talent that Cincinnati has might be too much to bear. Even if the Panthers pressure Burrow we have seen him make incredible throws under duress. The Bengals’ offense may have too much talent to slow down.

Cincinnati’s defense played really well in the playoffs but was an average unit all season long. The Panthers have the talent on offense to push the Bengals’ defense but I don’t think they are built to outscore Cincinnati’s offense. 

Week 11 – Baltimore Ravens – Away

Don’t let their record fool you, the Ravens are a very talented team. Injuries set them back last season and it’s unlikely for that to happen again. The Ravens are one of the only run-first offenses in the NFL but that is to be expected when Lamar Jackson is your QB. Baltimore upgraded an offensive line that gave up a franchise record of 57 sacks last year. With the return of some key players in 2022 the Ravens looked poised to bounce back.

Strength: Secondary, Quarterback

The Ravens made a big investment in their secondary this offseason by signing safety Marcus Williams in free agency and using their first pick on Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton was regarded as one of the best players in the draft class and only fell due to positional value. Williams and Hamilton join Chris Clark, an impressive safety in his own right. Combine those three with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters and you have a formidable secondary. As for Lamar Jackson, what is there to say about the former MVP? Jackson is the only QB to rush for more than 1,000 yards twice and even though his passing stats aren’t the best he continually puts pressure on the defense. This offense is built around his strengths and when this unit is fully healthy it can be very dangerous.

Weakness: Wide Receiver, Pass Rush

After trading WR Hollywood Brown to the Cardinals on draft night the Ravens left their wide receiver cupboard bare. Only 2021 draft pick Rashod Bateman appears to be an impact player next season. That might not matter much with the Ravens’ scheme but at some point, they will be compelled to throw the ball with not a lot of options out wide. Tyus Bowser is the best pass rusher on the roster but an injury late last season has led to a very slow ramp-up in training camp and he will likely miss the first few games of 2022. The rest of the pass rushers on this team are young and unproven and will need to take a big step forward for this Ravens’ defense to get back to its dominating ways. 

The Panthers’ secondary will not have a problem covering the receivers but I will be interested to see who gets the job of covering Jackson’s favorite target TE Mark Andrews. Carolina’s defense is not built for the heavy-run style that Baltimore is so good at which could cause issues as they get worn down later in the game.

The Ravens’ defense is a perfect match for what this Panthers’ offense is going to want to do. Carolina’s offense will have to be methodical in its approach, taking whatever the defense gives them and capitalizing on every turnover the Panther defense causes. 

 Week 12 – Denver Broncos – Home

The Broncos defeated the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 and since then, neither franchise has gone in the right direction. For the first time since the late 60s, the Broncos have had five straight losing seasons. They will have a new coach in 2022, first-timer Nathaniel Hackett, and a new QB, a persistent thorn in the Panthers’ side Russell Wilson. Hackett was the OC at Green Bay the last few seasons and they hope the combination with Wilson will bring their offense back to life. A quick side note, while you want to play at home most of the time, Russell Wilson has been phenomenal at Bank of America Stadium over the course of his career. Wilson is 5-1 at Bank of America and averages 288.5 yards, 1.67 passing touchdowns, and completes 71% of his passes, per pro-football reference.

Strengths: Quarterback, Off.Weapons

The Broncos instantly upgraded their fortunes when they traded for Wilson in the offseason. Wilson has an incredible deep ball and a knack for keeping plays alive with his feet before finding the open man. Wilson is just one season removed from throwing a career-high 40 touchdowns in 2020 and the Broncos are not short on offensive weapons. Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams are bruising running backs that can catch. Cortland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy had disappointing seasons in 2021 but that was largely due to subpar QB play. Wilson should be able to maximize their talents this season. 

Weaknesses: Defensive Line, Linebacker

Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory have the potential to be a dynamic pass-rushing duo but both of them have had injury issues in past seasons. Beyond those two, the defensive line will rely on unproven talent. DJ Jones was a nice run-stuffing pick-up this off-season but in comparison to the rest of the roster, this group is a weakness. Their group of linebackers is perhaps the only position group in worse shape. They are not the worst collection of linebackers in the league but there are no standout performers either. It is a position group more equipped at stopping the run than defending a pass but Denver’s secondary is good enough to cover that up most of the time. 

This is another intriguing matchup for the Panthers. On the one hand, Carolina’s offense should be able to move the ball against the defense on the ground but may struggle in the passing game. Think long, methodical drives over explosive chunk plays.

On Defense, the Panthers’ have the horses *wink-wink* to hang with the Broncos’ offensive weapons. But Wilson is talented enough to capitalize on even the slightest mistake and seems to relish beating the Panthers. Should be a close one right before the Panthers take their bye week.

Week 14 – Seattle Seahawks – Away

There is no way around it, the Seahawks are a worse team this year than last. Not just because they traded QB Russell Wilson but they also lost key pieces of their defense like All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner. After being a perennially dangerous team this feels like the first year the Seahawks may be playing for draft position instead of the playoffs. During the Newton-Wilson years, the Seahawks and Panthers had an unofficial rivalry. However, now that both QBs are gone, along with other key players, I think it’s safe to say that the unofficial rivalry is officially over. 

Strengths: Wide Receivers, Safety

DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are on the shortlist for the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. Metcalf is a physical marvel, the 6’4 235 pound wideout has speed to burn and is a certified jump ball winner. Lockett, the ever-crafty veteran, is entering his first season without Wilson at QB. The two had unbelievable chemistry, especially on broken plays, but I expect his awareness and IQ to translate to whoever wins the starting job in Seattle. On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks have two dynamite safeties that complement each other very well. Jamal Adams is a physical, free-blitzing safety that plays downhill, making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Quandre Diggs is a classic center field safety, patrolling the field and making turnover-worthy plays in coverage. Both safeties missed time last season due to injuries but will need to bounce back strong to aid a thin Seahawk secondary. 

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Weaknesses: Quarterback, Off. Line

The battle between Drew Lock and Geno Smith for the starting quarterback position feels more like a war of attrition. Smith is a veteran presence that is not as mobile as he once was but typically makes safe and sound decisions with the football. Lock is a young gunslinger with great arm talent that is hindered by his decision-making. The QB situation is a pick your poison for Seattle’s offense and not in a good way. It doesn’t help that whichever QB wins will play behind a shaky offensive line. The interior of the line will be above average if Gabe Jackson and Damien Lewis can play at the same level they did last year. The tackle position is what is most concerning. The left tackle will be rookie Charlie Cross while the right tackle comes down to second-year tackle Jake Curhan. Curhan started just 5 games last year and if he does not win the job it will be rookie Abraham Lucas playing at right tackle. Cross and Lucas could end up being very good players but adjusting to the speed and talent in the NFL is always a learning process and it could be a rough few weeks for the Seahawks’ starting QB.

Seattle is one of the only teams on Carolina’s schedule that is projected to finish with a worse record than the Panthers. Even though this game will be played in Seattle, I just don’t see the Panthers losing to this one.

The Panthers’ defense should be able to terrorize the quarterback for most of the game. That will limit the effectiveness of the Seahawks’ amazing receivers and may even cause a few turnovers to set up the offense with easy points.

Speaking of Carolina’s offense, DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson should have a big impact on this game. CMC will also be a huge factor in the passing game, especially in the short to intermediate areas.

Week 15 – Pittsburg Steelers – Home

Mike Tomlin is the most underrated coach in the NFL. He has never had a losing season in his 15-year head coaching career. He has also spent his entire career with Ben Roethlisberger at QB but this year things will be different after Big Ben retired in the off-season. Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett will compete for the starting job but as of right now it seems Trubisky has won the competition. Who is to say that is how things shake out before Week 15 when the Steelers pay a visit to Bank of America stadium. I feel like this is the proper time to mention that David Tepper used to be a minority owner in the Steelers and hails from the steel city. 

Strengths: Wide Receivers, Def. Playmakers

I truly do not know how the Steelers do it but every year they have a new wide receiver break out and have a huge impact on the offense. Chase Claypool and Dionte Johnson, two of the aforementioned breakout receiver, now lead the room and rookie George Pickens seems destined to be this year’s breakout. However, it will probably be someone near the bottom of the depth chart that no one has heard of before. Either way, each and every year the Steelers seem to have talented wide receivers and they do a great job of maximizing their abilities. Pittsburgh’s defense is what butters their bread. TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are two key playmakers on that side of the ball and they may be the best at their respective positions. Watt led the NFL with 22.5 sacks in 2021 and there are no indications he is slowing down just yet. Fitzpatrick is a do-everything safety who has a knack for grabbing the ball out of the air. While his turnover numbers have declined over the past few seasons there is always the possibility he rebounds this year. They also acquire Myles Jack this offseason who has the speed, awareness, and hands to make big plays for them in 2022.

Weaknesses: Quarterback, Off. Line

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The Steelers have upgraded their QB this season but that was a low bar to cross. Roethlisberger had a great career but a pretty subpar final 2 seasons. Trubisky had a solid rookie season in Chicago before becoming a disappointment that seemingly could not throw to the left side of the field. The rookie Kenny Pickett dazzled the ACC last year but the NFL defenses are a lot better than any he faced in college. Whether it is Trubisky or Pickett, the Steelers’ QB play will be inconsistent and they just have to hope that either QB won’t lose them games. Their offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL last season but also one of the least experienced. They signed two veterans to help shore things up inside but this unit is still projected to be one of the worst in the NFL with Pro Football Focus ranking them 30th in their preseason offensive line rankings.

Matchup: 

The Panthers are just 1-6 all-time against the Steelers, they seem to truly have Carolina’s number. While the Steelers have more top talent the Panthers have a better all-around roster.

On Offense, it will come down to limiting TJ Watt as much as possible and getting the ball out quickly to the playmakers like DJ Moore and CMC. This Steelers’ defense will get better as the season goes on so they will likely be in top shape for this matchup.

Defensively the Panthers should be able to counter the Pittsburgh offense. Brian Burns could have a nice game rushing off the edge against lesser competition and there are no major coverage mismatches in the passing game.

Week 16 – Detroit Lions – Home 

The Lions were selected over the Panthers as this year’s Hard Knocks team and after the first few episodes, I can’t say that it was a bad choice. Head coach Dan Campbell is a fiery personality and his coaching staff is filled with former players from the NFL I grew up watching. This is a team on the rise looking to turn around one of the sorriest franchises in the NFL. The thirteen losses on their record last year do not tell the full story, five of those losses were decided by 5 points or less. This is a more talented team this year and some of those close games are bound to go their way. The defense got a youth injection this off-season as Detroit spent 6 of their 8 selections on that side of the ball.

Strengths: Off. Line, Off. Weapons

If the offensive line stays healthy they will be one of the best in the NFL in 2022. The Lions have been building this unit for the last few seasons and this is the year it should all come together. Each of the projected starting five weighs north of 300 pounds and are 6’4 or taller. They should give QB Jared Goff plenty of time to make decisions and open up huge holes for their running backs. If Deandre Swift can live up to his immense potential, he and fellow back Jamal Williams will be a special 1-2 punch in the run game. Tight end TJ Hockerson returns fresh off a Pro Bowl caliber season and rookie sensation Amon-Ra St Brown looks to build off a terrific 2021. The addition of underrated wideouts Josh Reynolds and DJ Chark should help this offense reach new heights in 2022.

Weaknesses: Defensive Line, Linebackers

The Lions ranked 30th in sacks last season which prompted them to select defensive end Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick in the draft. His raw talent immediately improves that unit but most of the players from 2021 return this season. There is a possibility that improvement from the younger players prevents this unit from being a weakness but until they prove it on the field it will remain a question mark. The Lions’ linebackers are a group of promising young players and veterans who have historically played a reserve role. Without one of the younger players coming on strong this defense will be limited by the abilities of their linebackers.

On paper, the Panthers have a more experienced and better overall roster. However, I would rather play this team early in the season when the younger players are still adapting to the NFL.

The Panthers’ offense should be able to take advantage of a weaker front seven, especially on the ground. While Detroit’s secondary is in good shape it is not a dominant unit so Carolina’s wideouts should be able to make a few plays

The defense will have their hands full with Detroit’s offense, especially the hog mollies that make up their offensive line. The Panthers are built more for speed than power on their front seven so they may get pushed around quite a bit in this one.

In the last few seasons, the average preseason over/under win total for the Panthers sat at 5.5. Vegas hit the nail right on the head. This year they set the over/under win total at 6.5, a one-game improvement. I am slightly more optimistic. I think the Panthers will win closer to 8 games this season as long as Christian McCaffrey plays in a majority of the games. Of course, that win total can swing up or down based on roster health, player performance, or even some good ole fashioned luck. 

Players To Watch

Speaking of player performance, I feel there are a few players that will have a major hand in determining how successful the 2022 season is for the Carolina Panthers. Some of them are known commodities that need to play up to their potential and some are new faces who could help get the Panthers on the right track. Unlike basketball or rock bands, one person cannot single-handedly carry a group to success. Winning in the NFL is a collaborative effort but everyone’s role and impact are not equal. I have chosen 8 players who I believe will determine the success of the Panthers’ 2022 season.

Baker Mayfield –  Quarterback

This is the most obvious thing in this guide. Quarterback is the most important position, not just in football, but in all sports. Mayfield does not have to play like an MVP candidate this year for the Panthers to have a good season, he just has to be league average or better. Unfortunately, the Panthers haven’t had that consistent level of play from the QB position. It really is as simple as getting the ball to their playmakers and not making too many mistakes along the way. Don’t let his stats from last season fool you, he played through multiple injuries in an effort to show his commitment to the Browns so they would sign him to a long term deal. This preseason he has shown he is a different QB when healthy and as his chemistry with the offense improves so too will his play on the field. 

Christian McCaffrey –  Running Back

Look, I know. It doesn’t get more obvious than the quarterback and the best offensive player. I promise that there are some more under-the-radar names below. BUT I am not here to give you fantasy sleepers or anything like that. The cold hard truth is that McCaffrey is the most important player on the team that doesn’t play QB. CMC has to do more in 2022 than stay healthy, he has to approach the level of play he had in 2018, and 2019. McCaffrey is a game changer and his presence on the field alone raises the potential of the offense. 

DJ Moore –  Wide Receiver

Did you know DJ Moore has had 3 straight 1000-yard seasons? Well, it’s true and he has done so with a revolving door at QB. The Panthers need more of that consistency in 2022. He should shine in Ben McAdoo’s offense, Moore has always been a physical runner with the ball in his hands. In his rookie season, playing in a Norv Turner-style offense that has similar principles to McAdoo’s, Moore averaged 7.7 yards after the catch according to pro-football-reference. Moore is Steve Smith’s heir apparent but to truly ascend to agent 89 territory he will need to find his way into the endzone more often in 2022.

Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu – Left Tackle

The Panthers went into the off-season with a focus: to improve the offensive line. They did so through free agency and the draft. They spent the resources and now the players have to deliver. Ickey has to pan out. He does not have to be perfect in his rookie season, few linemen are, but he has the most important job on the offensive line and that protecting the quarterback’s blind side. He does not need a Sandra Bullock to tell him how important that is. His physical gifts are impressive and he is a mauler in the run game but reports from training camp and preseason have made it clear he has some growth to go in pass protection. If he can make those strides in season this offensive line will be an above-average unit in 2022 and that alone could be worth a few wins.

Matthew Ioannidis – Defensive Tackle

Ioannidis was one of my favorite pickups from free agency and he has a chance to have a big season in 2022. First and foremost, he is familiar with how Phil Snow calls defense, playing for Snow and Rhule at Temple for his last 3 years as an Owl. Second, he gets the privilege of playing beside the massive Derrick Brown and the attention-grabbing Brian Burns. In 2019, Ioannidis had 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss and that kinda play from the interior is something Carolina has not had since KK Short’s 2017 season. Ioannidis adding that pass-rushing element to the defense could help push them to another level. 

CJ Henderson – Cornerback

The Panthers acquired Henderson from the Jaguars last season after Jaycee Horn was lost due to a foot injury. It was a bumpy adjustment for the former Gator but early reports indicate he has more than acclimated to his new home. Henderson is the kind of fast and lengthy cornerback you need in the modern NFL and if he emerges as an impact player the Panthers’ secondary could be a dominant unit. That would also allow Snow to get more creative with his secondary looks like sliding Horn to the slot where his physicality would be a huge asset. 

Frankie Luvu – Linebacker

Luvu came to Carolina as a special teams ace and he shined in that area of the field in 2021. He also shined in his time filling in on defense for Shaq Thompson, earning a contract extension and a starting spot alongside Thompson for 2022. He has big shoes to fill, taking over Haason Reddick’s spot from last year, but Luvu does not have to do a Reddick impersonation. He just has to do what he does best: see ball, hit ball. Luvu flies around the field with reckless abandon and if he can sustain what he showed in flashes last year the defense should be just fine.

Yetur Gross-Matos – Defensive End

First and foremost, his first name is pronounced “Yee-tore” and his development may be the single most important factor on the defensive side of the football. We have talked about Luvu taking over Reddick’s position on defense but he will need help from Gross-Matos to replace Reddick’s production. The 3rd year end out of Penn State has never played more than 48% of defensive snaps but has produced when on the field. His 3.5 sacks was third best on the team last year and he was only on the field 38% of the time and played in just 14 of the teams 17 games. Staying healthy will be key for Gross-Matos in 2022 but he has shown, in limited action, that he can produce when on the field.

                                                                                                                                 

Final Thoughts

If you can’t tell by now, I am a Panthers fan. While this guide is to keep you informed, I likely would have done all this research on my own–for fun. I am self-aware enough to realize how crazy that is and that I’m likely on the extreme side of the spectrum of fandom. However, being a fan is, at its core, irrational. We dress ourselves up in the biggest, boldest and brightest outfits, congregate inside bars or arenas, and drive ourselves hoarse while chanting battle cries. A frustrating game can ruin our day. A bad season generates apathy towards sports in general. But when it’s right, when your team is winning and has a real shot to win it all, that is a feeling unto itself. There truly is nothing like it in the human experience. Unfortunately for Panthers fans, we’ve been dealing with the former for three consecutive seasons. 

Despite that, every August like clockwork, our irrational sports fan brains hope that this season, this year, is our year. I don’t know if 2022 will be the Panthers’ year but I do know that the roster is in the best place it’s been since Matt Rhule took over in 2020. The offensive line has been rebuilt, the skill position players are in an offense that values getting them the ball quickly and in space, and the defense should continue to ascend as the young players Matt Rhule and co. have invested in step up and show what they are made of.

History often repeats itself and Panthers’ history is something I have been thinking a lot about as I was writing and researching this guide. Carolina has made the NFC championship four times; 1996, 2003, 2005, and 2015. Other than the 2005 team, those teams came out of nowhere, which is to say their preseason expectations were not very high. Each of those years was preceded by a losing season. The Panthers have been amazingly cyclical, usually taking 5-7 years to establish a core group that makes the playoffs. Seven years after the ’96 team the cardiac cats clawed their way to a Super Bowl. Five years after the last playoff appearance (2008) of the Jake Delhomme-Steve Smith-Julius Peppers nucleus, the Cam Newton-Greg Olsen-Luke Kuechly regime won the NFC South division. Two years later they would go 15-1 and make the Super Bowl. That was, you guessed it, seven years ago. We are five seasons removed from that group’s last playoff appearance. 

In addition to being a Panthers fan, I am also a Cubs fan, something about a lovable underdog just speaks to me I guess. For 108 years, Cubs fans lived and breathed one of the most melancholic phrases in all of sports: “There is always next year.” In 2016, next year finally came as they won the world series for the first time in most Cubs fans’ lives. I say this because for the last 4 seasons Panthers fans have been stuck waiting for next year. Little about the last two seasons inspires the possibility that the 2022 season is the year for the Carolina Panthers but it might not have to be. In 2015, the year before breaking the drought, there was just something about the Cubs, it felt different. It felt like next year might actually be the year, and it was. 

It may be that early fall-late summer hope that annually alters the minds of all NFL fans but something feels different about this team. The lack of expectations, the blossoming young talent, the firecracker quarterback. It’s got the flavor of the Cardiac Cats of 2003. Their schedule is tough and the margin for error is thin but the Bucs are not as dominant as they have been and that final wild card spot in the NFC is a wide-open race. 

Maybe this is it, the year Rhule’s process comes to fruition and the Panthers compete and make the playoffs. The year the “Keep Pounding” chants at Bank of America drown out the fans of the visiting team. The year that pushes the last few seasons out of our minds.

And if not, there is always next year.

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