Tampa Bay BuccaneersThe Carolina Panthers finished last in the NFC South in 2021, coasting to a 5-12 finish. With redirection emboldening the team, how are the Panthers shaping up for 2022 with a new offensive coordinator? Brianna Dix
As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the Carolina Panthers, who the Bucs face on the road in Week Seven at Bank of America Stadium on October 23, before the NFC South rival comes to town for the Week 17 rematch on January 1 at 1:00 pm ET. The Panthers concluded the 2021 season last in the division with a 5-12 record and this yea, they will look to displace the Buccaneers in the pecking order of the NFC South.
After firing on all cylinders to begin the 2021 season with a 3-0 start behind second-year Head Coach Matt Rhule and a new quarterback under center in Sam Darnold, many anticipated the Panthers to be poised for playoff contention. However, injures derailed Carolina's progression and the club sputtered, losing 12 of the remaining 14 games. They coasted to a lackluster 5-12 finish, with significant injuries to Darnold, cornerback Jaycee Horn and running back Christian McCaffrey.
After losing to the Dallas Cowboys in Week Four, the Panthers secured Stephon Gilmore from the New England Patriots, giving up a 2023 sixth-round pick in the exchange. Gilmore and Horn could have been a lethal tandem in the secondary but injuries hindered the team's ascension. Horn suffered a broken foot, sidelining him for the remainder of the year. The team's workhorse on offense, McCaffrey, was in and out of the active list during the season (442 yards, one touchdown) and Darnold was placed on injured reserve in November, garnering a revolving door at the quarterback position. P.J. Walker was thrust into action and Cam Newton returned to Carolina following Darnold's injury. Newton was awarded the starting gig for his production against Arizona, but his insertion under center did not provide much upside. Upon returning, Darnold once again became the starter over Newton, ushering in yet another shift under center.
Darnold, Newton and Walker combined for 3,573 yards, 14 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. An attributing factor in the offense's demise was the inconsistent play of the offensive line. Carolina quarterbacks were harassed in the pocket, resulting in 25 sacks for opposing defenses. The unit's struggles led to the firing of Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady, the innovator responsible for the LSU championship offense. D.J. Moore boosted the passing game by becoming a true No. 1 receiver after being utilized as more of a downfield, vertical big-play threat in 2020. He eclipsed 1,100 yards in each of the past three seasons and will elevate the aerial attack regardless of who is in the pocket with his yards-after-catch ability.
The defense became the team's strength down the stretch led by pass-rushing duo Haason Reddick and Brian Burns. Their athleticism and quick first step caused problems for offensive coordinators, combining for 20 sacks. However, Reddick departed during free agency and signed with the Eagles. Jeremy Chinn continued to cement himself as one of the best young defensive stars and will look to capitalize with another stellar campaign in 2022.
The Panthers added depth to a variety of spots on the roster with a myriad of offseason acquisitions during free agency including center Bradley Bozeman, guard Austin Corbett, running back D'Onta Foreman, punter Johnny Hekker, wide receiver Rashard Higgins, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, linebacker Cory Littleton, cornerback Chris Westry, linebacker Damien Wilson and safety Xavier Woods. Upgrading the offensive line became the club's top priority, evidenced by a plethora of moves. At guard, the Panthers signed Corbett, who was a starter for the Super Bowl Champion Rams, adding physicality to elevate Carolina's downhill rushing attack. Bozeman landed in Carolina after he and the Ravens failed to come to terms on an extension and the Panthers snagged tackle Ikem Ekwonu on the first night of the draft. The first five teams in the draft selected defensive tone-setters, giving the Panthers their optimal choice of top tackles on the board. Ekwonu possess a violent mentality and bulldozed defenders at North Carolina State, knocking players backward and blocking through the whistle. He can mirror edge rushers with agility out of his stance and will undergo the acclimation period to the NFL. Ekwonu has the capability of becoming a franchise left tackle. The Panthers are hopeful he can become an immediate impact player, bolstering the front from Day One. In terms of the running game, Foreman adds power between the tackles and can move the chains on third-and-short. Woods, a prototypical free safety and arguably Carolina's biggest signing, will give the Panthers the ability to play Jeremy Chinn down in the box more.
After 11 sacks last season, Reddick signed with the Eagles and moves to the NFC East. As the club's pass-rush catalyst, Reddick will be tough to replace. Additional losses during the offseason include quarterback Cam Newton, cornerback Stephon Gilmore (Colts), right tackle Trenton Scott (Steelers), receiver Aaron Parker (Chiefs), linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. (Chiefs), running back Ameer Abdullah (Raiders), receiver Alex Erickson (Commanders), defensive lineman DaQuan Jones (Bills) and defensive lineman Morgan Fox (Chargers).
What Else is New?
In January, the Panthers hired Ben McAdoo as their offensive coordinator. He fills a vacancy after the club parted ways with Joe Brady during the 2021 season. McAdoo spent the 2021 season as a consultant for the Dallas Cowboys, assisting with game-day preparation throughout the week. He served as the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants from 2014-2015 prior to being promoted to head coach in 2016. In 2020, he became the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterbacks coach.
McAdoo began his coaching career with the New Orleans Saints in 2004 as an offensive quality control coach. During the 2010 season, he won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, while serving as the club's tight end coach. He provides experience as a play-caller and Matt Rhule has expressed his desire to keep the rushing attempts between the 30-33 range per game; however, during McAdoo's time in New York (two years as offensive coordinator and two as head coach), the Giants finished in the top 10 in passing attempts. Granted, Eli Manning stood under center. Regardless of the philosophy, the offensive line will have to improve to open up running/passing lanes.
Who starts at quarterback?
Instead of using the No. 6 overall pick on a quarterback in April, the Panthers snagged Matt Corral in the third to compete with Sam Darnold early on. Throughout the offseason, Carolina will continue to evaluate what they have in both rookie Corral and the presumed starter in Darnold. Coming out of Ole Miss, there were concerns regarding Corral's collegiate career in an RPO-centric aerial attack that did not push the ball downfield. He will continue to adapt to the NFL level and the mental aspect of the game in reading coverages but he does have the ability to find throwing lanes from inside or outside of structure. His athleticism allows him to maneuver the pocket, but the question remains, can Corral deliver passes without the assistance of run-pass options or play-action? Since the Week 18 loss at Tampa Bay in January, general manager Scott Fitterer and the Panthers have made one thing abundantly clear: the desire for competition. Carolina facilitated discussions with Seattle on Russell Wilson. They flew to Houston to follow their inquiry on Deshaun Watson and were in trade talks with Cleveland during the draft for Baker Mayfield. Instead, as fate would have it, they drafted Corral. Now, it is Darnold who is taking first-team reps in new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system. The offseason workout program will dictate who lands the starting role.
Will injury history lead to decreased snaps for Christian McCaffrey?
Running back Christian McCaffrey, who has missed 23 of 33 games since signing his lucrative deal, could see a decrease in snaps to prolong his durability over the course of the extended, 17-game season. McCaffrey has missed significant time over the previous two seasons due to injury and the question remains if he will still receive his 20-plus carries or if D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard will take more of the workload in the backfield. The Panthers have vocalized their approach with McCaffrey, lightening his plate during the week in terms of reps during the season to hopefully foster longevity. He is not expected to play in the preseason and both Hubbard and Foreman could become viable change-of-pace runners to create a healthy running back room, taking some of the pressure off McCaffrey.