Perennially exclaiming, “I can fix him”, Panthers GM Scott Fitterer once again found a reclamation project at quarterback in the 2022 offseason. This time it was Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. The former No. 1 overall pick quickly proved not to be the answer, much like Sam Darnold had done in the previous season. He was ultimately benched for Phillip Walker before being cut. Amidst the quarterback chaos, Matt Rhule was fired and replaced by defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Darnold eventually returned from injured reserve to play arguably the best football of his career. He took care of the ball while the Panthers pounded opponents with an elite rushing game and a strong defense. The late-season surge was stymied by the Bucs in Week 17, ending the Panthers' hopes of a playoff berth despite the promising finish.
Key Offensive Stats
- Points per game: 20.4 (20th)
- EPA per play: -0.03 (21st)
- Dropback EPA per play: -0.06 (26th)
- Passing yards per game: 176.2 (29th)
- Rush EPA per play: 0 (6th)
- Rush yards per game: 130 (10th)
The Panthers had a slew of moving parts throughout their season, so it's difficult to cleanly describe their successes and failures. At quarterback, Darnold looked like a new man, leading the team with 8.2 yards per attempt and a five percent touchdown rate. Walker and Mayfield were both below seven yards per throw with touchdown rates under three percent. With no consistency at quarterback, D.J. Moore posted his worst season by receiving yards (888) since his rookie campaign. Under Wilks, Carolina's run game took over. They averaged 150 rushing yards over their final dozen contests. D'Onta Foreman alone posted 80 rushing yards weekly after Chrisitan McCaffrey was traded. Chuba Hubbard pitched in for another 48 yards per game.
Key Defensive Stats
- Points per game: 22 (19th)
- EPA per play: 0.01 (18th)
- Dropback EPA per play: 0.07 (25th)
- Passing yards per game: 227.5 (22nd)
- Rush EPA per play: -0.08 (14th)
- Rush yards per game: 122.6 (18th)
Carolina fielded an average defense by most measures. The good news is that a lot of the production they did generate was from young players. Brian Burns, who still has a year left on his rookie deal, terrorized quarterbacks for 12.5 sacks. Second-year corner Jaycee Horn continued his march toward stardom with three interceptions and seven passes defended in 13 games. Interior defender Derrick Brown also played a major role in getting the Panthers above league-average in run defense. The third-year tackle ranked third among all defensive linemen in Pro Football Focus's run-defense grade. Carolina showed that they have building blocks to work with on defense but too many holes to be a consistent unit.
Draft Picks (Top-150)
1st, 40th, 94th, 115th, 133rd, and 148th
Notable Free Agents
RB D'Onta Foreman, QB Sam Darnold, DT Matt Ioannidis, and RT Cameron Erving
LB Shaq Thompson ($13.2 in savings), C Pat Elflein ($4.3 million), LB Damien Wilson ($3.6 million)
Shaq Thompson still played well last year, but the Panthers are over the cap and don't have as many paths to getting under as most other teams. Their biggest restructure candidates are D.J. Moore and Taylor Moton. Restructuring both deals with grant the Panthers $23.9 million in cap space this year.
The Panthers have a solid roster but a different quarterback has led them in passing yards in each of the past five seasons. Having made their move to get the top of the draft, this won't be a need for much longer.
Though the Panthers could use someone opposite ascending corner Horn, they could just as easily opt for a slot corner in free agency or later in the draft. This would allow Jeremy Chinn to move back to the linebacker/safety hybrid role he excelled in before 2022.
Bradley Bozeman is set to hit free agency and will likely command a multi-year deal after a successful, one-season stint with the Panthers. Pat Elflein is a suitable backup but shouldn't enter the 2023 season as a starter.
The Panthers ousted Matt Rhule five games into what was sure to be another losing year. He was replaced by Frank Reich, who was relieved of his duties as the head coach of the Colts in the middle of the 2022 season. Reich had found varying levels of success with every quarterback he had worked with in Indianapolis until he met his match in Matt Ryan. Though Reich may be a seasoned veteran as a head coach, he surrounded himself with rising stars of the coaching ranks. Rams assistant head coach Thomas Brown is his offensive coordinator and Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero took the same role in Carolina.
The Panthers went all in on their new coaching staff by trading two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and D.J. Moore to acquire the No. 1 overall selection. Betting markets have C.J. Stroud as a massive favorite to be the pick. The move puts wide receiver near the top of the team's needs but it allows the Panthers to get a fresh start by building the offense from the ground up. Reich was a sharp offensive mind in Indianapolis but consistently failed to hit on the most important position in football. Now he has the face of his franchise. Expect Carolina to eye wide receivers and linemen early in the draft in addition to their needs on defense.