The final whistle of the Super Bowl marks the end of the 2021 season. That solidifies all draft positions and gets us looking to free agency as the next chance for teams to make significant changes to their rosters. In this series, I’ll break down the needs and goals of every team as it relates to the 2022 offseason. Included will be cap space, cut candidates, positions of need, and plenty of other useful stats and notes as we prepare for free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft. Special thanks to Over the Cap, Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, and Ben Baldwin’s RBSDM.com for all of the useful stats they track and house.
Panthers 2021 Recap
Well… it turns out Sam Darnold isn’t the answer. Darnold, put on a new team with better receivers and a sharper staff, was supposed to be the savior of Carolina. If it worked, the Panthers could have acquired a franchise quarterback for the low price of just a few draft picks. Instead, the team got exactly what they paid for and received the same player that had struggled for three years in New York. Darnold made the same mistakes he always has while failing to make progress with his accuracy or decision-making. To rub salt in the wound, Christian McCaffrey barely played because of multiple injuries and the team parted ways with offensive coordinator Joe Brady before the calendar turned to 2022. On the bright side, after spending an entire draft class on defensive players, Carolina’s defense made a massive turnaround. If the Panthers can find any answers on offense, their defense will be the backbone of an ascending team.
Key Offensive Stats
- Points per game: 17.9 (29th)
- Dropback EPA: -.16 (32nd)
- Passing yards per game: 191 (29th)
- Rush EPA: -.09 (19th)
- Rushing yards per game: 108 (20th)
Darnold posted a career-low touchdown rate of 2.2 percent while getting intercepted on 3.2 percent of his throws. His sack rate of 7.9 percent was slightly above his career average and while his mark of 6.2 yards per attempt was also below his norm. Carolina got all of the bad and none of the scarcely-seen good with him. As if this wasn’t frustrating enough, Darnold wasn’t even close to being the worst quarterback to start a game for the Panthers. Among 54 quarterbacks with at least 50 plays this year, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker ranked 51st and 52nd in EPA per dropback. With McCaffrey going down for all but seven games, Chuba Hubbard took on the starting role. He didn’t do much to write home about as a rookie, averaging 2.63 yards after contact per carry while topping 100 yards once.
Key Defensive Stats
- Points per game: 23.8 (21st)
- Dropback EPA: .03 (13th)
- Passing yards per game: 192 (4th)
- Rush EPA: -.11 (9th)
- Rushing yards per game: 114 (18th)
The Panthers were a below-average defense against the run and pass in 2019. To fix that, they spent all of their draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on defensemen. They then followed that up with first-round corner Jaycee Horn last year. Not all of the picks have panned out but Horn was solid in his debut and safety Jeremy Chinn has played nearly every defensive snap for Carolina over the last two years. The Panthers doubled down on their defense during the season, acquiring Stephon Gilmore from the Patriots and C.J. Henderson from the Jaguars. The defensive rebuild has Carolina in a good place, though multiple moves will be needed in free agency to keep the band together.
Panthers 2022 Offseason
Total Draft Value
Notable Free Agents
CB Stephon Gilmore, OLB Haason Reddick, QB Cam Newton, CB Donte Jackson, DT DaQuan Jones, ILB Jermaine Carter, C Matt Paradis, RG John Miller
CB A.J. Bouye ($3.5 million in savings), OG Dennis Daley ($2.5 million)
Notes: Carolina's total draft value is the sum of the value of every pick they own using the Fitzgerald-Spielberger NFL Draft Trade Value Chart. The values are only estimates until the NFL announces compensatory picks. Cap savings are listed assuming the player is cut before June 1st.
The Panthers enter the offseason light on resources. The numerous trades they made left them with an underwhelming amount of draft capital and the cap situation isn't great either. Most of their modest cap space will be spent on re-signing free agents.
Unfortunately, the Panthers don’t have an easy solution at the NFL’s most important position. Carolina management was eager to pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option after trading for him, guaranteeing the struggling quarterback $18.9 million and a roster spot in 2022. The incoming quarterback class is considered especially weak but if someone they like makes it through five picks, the Panthers will certainly consider bringing him to Charlotte.
The Panthers will likely sort this out in free agency but they are projected to lose hundreds of snaps at corner. Gilmore is nearly a lock to be re-signed as he was a midseason acquisition and played at a high level in Carolina. After that, some depth will still be needed as Jackson and impending free agent Rashaan Melvin will leave behind 966 defensive snaps if both find new homes.
All reports have pointed to Rhule focusing on running the ball more in 2022. He’ll need a good line to do that next year but only right tackle Taylor Moton was graded as an above-average offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus. With Paradis and Miller hitting free agency, the entire interior of Carolina's offensive line needs to be taken care of.
Rhule bought himself another year by jettisoning both of the line coaches, a special teams coach, and Brady, the wonderboy from LSU. All positions were subsequently filled but Brady’s replacement will be the most impactful. The team brought in Ben McAdoo to replace the architect of LSU’s record-setting offense. As Brady was being fired, Rhule reportedly wanted the team to run 30 or more times per game en route to hitting an arbitrary number of completions plus rush attempts.
The hiring is interesting in a number of ways. McAdoo was fired after horribly bungling his first head coaching gig in New York. He has since rehabbed his image with a stint as the Jaguars’ quarterbacks coach plus a year as a Dallas staffer. Despite Rhule’s desire to run more, McAdoo wasn’t known for being an “establish-it” coach in New York. His biggest calling card was an extreme pace. The Giants finished inside the top 10 in seconds per play in every season under McAdoo as an offensive coordinator or head coach. His pass-rate fluctuated from year to year but McAdoo’s teams tilted toward the pass when within one score during his two-year stint as a head coach. McAdoo’s west coast style got two top-10 seasons out of Eli Manning before the latter imploded. If Carolina gets someone other than Darnold under center, McAdoo could complete the ultimate rebranding by getting the Panthers’ offense on track.
With Rhule on one of the hottest seats in the NFL, it’s unlikely that Carolina acts as a rebuilding team this offseason. They’ll be spending loads of their cap space to keep the defense together and may even opt to ride with Darnold for another year. The No. 6 pick could be a spot for them to find his replacement but Rhule could see fixing Darnold while adding a day-one starter in the first round as the path of least resistance. If that’s the case, the Panthers will look to ride their defense to low-scoring wins in a Brady-less NFC South. No matter who is under center, they will likely be hidden behind easy throws to McCaffrey and D.J. Moore.
From owner David Tepper’s view, letting Darnold fly high or crash and burn also makes some sense. They either solve their dilemma at quarterback or put themselves in a position to do so in the 2023 NFL Draft. Another down year would also guarantee that Tepper replaces Rhule, allowing him to pair a new coach with a rookie quarterback. Barring a miraculous turnaround from Darnold, the question is not if the Panthers embark on another rebuild. It's when does it start.