What to expect from 2021 Panthers? Second-year coach, first-year GM have completely reshaped the team in hopes of postseason run
By Richard Walker
When the Carolina Panthers made four postseason appearances in five years from 2013 to 2017, many of the team’s fans expected playoff football to be an annual enjoyment.
But, as the cliche’ about the real meaning of the NFL goes, “Not For Long” has led to three straight seasons of struggles as the Panthers have gone a collective 17-31 the last three years and not been a serious postseason contender.
Will that change in 2021?
Two seasons of roster churn have left the Panthers with the second-youngest roster in the league – an average age of 25.53 years – and second-year head Matt Rhule and first-year general manager Scott Fitterer hope their efforts will land Carolina back in the NFL postseason.
With owner David Tepper pushing for success – and currently investing more than $1 billion into a year-round training facility in Rock Hill, S.C. – many Panthers fans are optimistic.
How dramatic has the team’s roster changed under the direction of Fitterer?
Hired away from the Seattle Seahawks in January earlier this year, Fitterer has made 162 transactions, including eight trades since taking over.
It’s meant Carolina is currently slated to have four new offensive starters and five new defensive starters after Rhule put his imprint on the team with 15 new starters – seven on offense and eight on defense – in 2020.
The biggest offseason move came when the team acquired starting quarterback Sam Darnold from the New York Jets in April.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft out of Southern California, Darnold had 38 career starts for the Jets.
In Carolina, he’ll benefit from the return of running back Christian McCaffrey after an injury-plagued 2020 season that cost him all but three games.
The No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Stanford, McCaffrey in 2019 became only the the third running back in NFL history with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.
Other talented offensive weapons include a receiving corps of wide receivers D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall and tight ends Dan Arnold, Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble.
Up front, left tackle Cameron Erving and left guard Pat Elfein join returning Panthers starters in center Matt Paradis, right guard John Miller and right tackle Taylor Moton are the projected starters.
Of the expected 2021 starters, only McCaffrey, Moore, Paradis and Moton remain from the 2019 season.
Defensively, the Panthers have made even more changes as Shaq Thompson is the only projected starter that remains from the 2019 starting lineup.
Carolina is expecting defensive ends Brian Burns and Morgan Fox and tackles Derrick Brown and DaQuan Jones to form an imposing front four.
Thompson will lead a linebacking group that also includes Jermaine Carter and Haason Redick.
And 2020 breakout rookie star Jeremy Chinn (free safety) leads a secondary that is slated to also start Donte Jackson and rookie Jaycee Horn at cornerbacks and Juston Burris at strong safety.
Veteran Ryan Santoso is the new placekicker after he was a late winner of a preseason battle with slumping veteran Joey Slye.
As has been the case in recent years, the Panthers’ postseason hopes are challenging if for no other reason than they play in the ultra-competitive NFC South, which has produced nine seasons with more than one playoff team since 2002 and is the current home to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For that reason, it’s hard to project the postseason for the 2021 Panthers.
But a winning record in the NFL’s first 17-game season would be progress – and provide hope for the future.
Here is the Panthers’ 2021 regular season schedule:
Sept. 12 New York Jets, 1 p.m.
Sept. 19 New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Houston, 8:20 p.m.
Oct. 3 at Dallas, 1 p.m.
Oct. 10 Philadelphia, 1 p.m.
Oct. 17 Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Oct. 24 at New York Giants, 1 p.m.
Oct. 31 at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Nov. 7 New England, 1 p.m.
Nov. 14 at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Nov. 21 Washington, 1 p.m.
Nov. 28 at Miami, 1 p.m.
Dec. 5 BYE WEEK
Dec. 12 Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Dec. 18 or 19 at Buffalo, TBD
Dec. 26 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Jan. 2 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Jan. 9 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m