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2020 Stats (rank)
Total Offense: 5,592 (21st)
Offensive Touchdowns: 35 (25th)
Offensive Plays: 993 (26th)
Pass Attempts: 550 (22nd)
Rush Attempts: 407 (21st)
Unaccounted for Targets: 200 (5th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 213 (6th)
Matt Rhule and Joe Brady are coming off a peculiar debut season that felt promising but yet led to just five wins and a hard reset of the QB position. The 2020 season also delivered mixed signals on Brady's fantasy potential as a coordinator going forward. Christian McCaffrey was transcendent in his limited three game sample and Mike Davis was a strong RB2 in relief. And the offense supported three wide receivers at 14+ PPR points per game, which was matched only by Tampa Bay. But the offense also disappointed in its slow-paced approach.
Departing QB Teddy Bridgewater recently revealed that the team barely practiced the two-minute drill in 2020… and it showed. The Panthers were 29th in situation neutral pace and ranked 26th in total plays. In 2021, with their QB again in his first year in the system, the Panthers are likely to play deliberately once again.
In 2020, Teddy Bridgewater finished 20th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and 17th in QBR, and added very little with his legs. So despite supporting three viable fantasy wide receivers, it’s not hard to understand why Rhule and Brady are thinking bigger. That said, while pursuing improved QB play makes sense, it’s not entirely clear why the Panthers viewed trading for Sam Darnold as a better option than drafting Justin Fields. In 2020 Darnold was 34th in ANY/A and 33rd in QBR. And although he offers more athleticism than Bridgewater, Darnold actually had fewer rushing yards per game.
It’s also worth considering that Bridgewater was actually quite good in specific areas last season. He led the league in on-target percentage on short throws and against man coverage. Bridgewater’s accuracy dropped considerably on intermediate throws, but he was still far better than Darnold. Everyone was actually. Darnold’s intermediate on-target percentage was the lowest in the NFL. Darnold was also bizarrely ineffective on play action. And considering that Bridgewater struggled with play action as well, Darnold shouldn’t be considered a lock to dramatically improve on play action under Brady. Darnold’s biggest bright spot was Bridgewater’s weakest attribute: deep throws. Darnold’s 57% on-target percentage on deep throws was above league average, tied with Tom Brady and better than Russell Wilson. He was very accurate on short throws as well.
The Panthers are ultimately betting that Darnold can give them what they were getting from Bridgewater on short throws, but with an added deep element to the passing game. They're also hoping that Darnold’s abysmal numbers on play action and in the intermediate areas of the field had more to do with Adam Gase than with Darnold himself. Finally, they’re hoping that their offensive line plays better than expected. It’s an inexperienced unit and Darnold struggled badly under pressure last season.
If it sounds like I’m skeptical of Darnold’s ability to succeed in Carolina, it’s because I am. But even if Darnold ultimately fails in Carolina, he may be able to support multiple high end fantasy assets this year. Last season’s Panthers had one of the most condensed target trees in the NFL and this year’s version could be even more focused on the top options. WR3 Curtis Samuel, who had a breakout fourth season, is now in Washington. And Mike Davis, who emerged as a highly competent receiving running back, is in Atlanta. They have been replaced by second round rookie Terrace Marshall and fourth round rookie Chuba Hubbard. Marshall is a good prospect, but he is coming off of foot surgery and may struggle to make an early season impact. He should be kept in mind for best ball leagues and high stakes formats however, as he has paths to a significant late season role and profiles as a high upside receiver. Hubbard meanwhile is more of a two-down running back, who is unlikely to have a significant role in the passing game while McCaffrey is healthy.
The Panthers tight ends are also unlikely to see a ton of volume. In 2020, starting tight end Ian Thomas finished 69th--dead last among tight ends--in targets per route run. He ran the 10th most routes among tight ends; he finished 45th in targets. In fairness to Thomas, backup TE Chris Manhertz was equally bad. He finished TE68 in TPRR. There’s some hope that free agent addition Dan Arnold can breathe some life into the position, but I remain doubtful. Arnold’s 14% TPPR in 2020 was far better than Thomas’ 6%. But Thomas’ lack of targets was likely due in part to offensive scheme. Thomas had a decent 15% TPPR in 2019. His extreme inability to draw targets a year later was likely a result of running empty calorie routes where he wasn’t an early read on the play. Arnold is probably a better receiving option, but not such an upgrade that we should expect to see a philosophical shift in the Panthers' tight end deployment.
That leaves a huge portion of the passing offense for three players: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and McCaffrey. Moore ran a route on 93% of dropbacks last season, a truly elite mark that is unlikely to change given the Panthers alternatives. Anderson wasn’t far behind at 88%, and his role is also unlikely to shrink. McCaffrey ran a route on 60% of dropbacks, and in the games that McCaffrey was inactive, Davis ran a route on 69% of dropbacks. Both of these are elite marks for running backs. With Davis out of the picture, only health stands in the way of McCaffrey seeing an elite receiving workload.
This receiving game is so condensed that Moore, Anderson and McCaffrey can form a strong fantasy trio even if the passing offense overall is middling to below average. If the offense plays faster this year or if Darnold is better than expected, there could be enough production to support a top 12 wide receiver season.
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Christian McCaffrey is locked in as this year’s 1.01. But that’s due more to his receiving prowess than his ability as a rusher. McCaffrey was RB38 in PFF’s elusive rating last year and RB35 in 2019. McCaffrey does shine in one area on the ground, however: inside the 10-yard line. Which, as luck would have it, are the highest value carries in football. McCaffrey has had an absolute lock on these high value carries, which are what drive fantasy production.
In three games played last year, McCaffrey had nine high value carries, losing one to Alex Armah, one to Teddy Bridgewater and zero to Mike Davis. So while the Panthers running game is unlikely to be near the league lead in efficiency, McCaffrey can still be a fantasy force through his lock on the rushing touchdowns it produces.
New backup running back Chuba Hubbard is a bit of an enigma. He was outstanding as a junior in 2019 and would likely have been a Day 2 pick if he had declared after 2019. But he returned for his senior season and his production fell off dramatically. Hubbard dropped from 6.5 to 4.8 in YPC, from 96 to 44 in PFF’s Elusive Rating and from 49% to 33% in PFF’s Breakaway Percentage. With a career YPRR of 0.90 he profiles as a change of pace on early downs more than a three down running back in waiting. And given his inconsistent rushing resume, it’s tough to predict how much punch Hubbard will even offer off the bench. Given McCaffrey’s historical usage, don’t expect Hubbard to see anything more than rotational backup usage.
The Panthers have an over/under of 7.5 wins on PointsBet.
Per Warren Sharp they have a middle of the road schedule, and are coming off a season where they won just five games and finished with the 24th ranked defense in total DVOA. So there appears to be some optimism that Darnold can take the offense to new heights and/or the Panthers' young defense can take a step forward.
And I can see a path to the Panthers hitting the over. They did get a bit unlucky in close games last year and no quarterback will see a bigger coaching upgrade this year than Darnold will by moving from Adam Gase to Joe Brady. Still, given Darnold’s early career results, major question marks on the offensive line and a defense that is still likely a year away, 8+ wins seem just out of reach.