A lot is riding on Matt Rhule’s second season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are untouchable atop the NFC South, but there may be space for Carolina to move up behind them. The New Orleans Saints are due for an acclimation period after the retirement of Drew Brees. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons, having just hired Arthur Smith, are at the start of a multi-year rebuild. The Carolina Panthers could be on the brink of contention, but did they do enough in the 2021 NFL Draft to make the leap?
Panthers taking an unconventional path toward revitalization
If you analyze NFL history, you’ll find that franchise resets generally correlate with a reset at the quarterback position. Quarterback is such a consequential position to success, but also so dependent on other players, that the role carries a great deal of volatility based on destination.
Often, teams resetting at QB favor spending early capital on the position because of its importance. The Panthers, however, took a different route, instead trading for a disillusioned top-three pick in quarterback Sam Darnold.
Darnold was selected with the third overall pick by the Jets back in 2018. He then fell victim to the infamously inept Adam Gase, who would derail Darnold’s development over the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The Jets have since moved on, wiping the slate clean with Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson. Yet, Darnold is still broken. Rather than resetting entirely at QB, the Panthers are choosing to see if they can mend him.
Historically, quarterbacks are hard to fix once they’ve been fragmented. But the Panthers don’t seem swayed by this trend. And even amidst all the uncertainty, you have to give them credit. They’ve made all the right moves so far.
Carolina Panthers use the 2021 NFL Draft to their advantage
Pro Football Network’s Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline went over the Panthers’ 2021 NFL Draft performance during the final Draft Insiders episode of the 2020-2021 NFL Draft cycle. When prompted by Wingo, Pauline was very complimentary of the Panthers’ draft class. He first sang the praises of their earliest selections.
“Listen, they get the highest grades on my board. That’s for sure — I mean on paper, anyway. I had Patrick Surtain graded slightly higher than Jaycee Horn, but I believe that two or three years down the road, Jaycee Horn could be the better of the two cornerbacks. Terrace Marshall Jr. of LSU in the second round, and we know how LSU receivers are better in the NFL.”
Pauline then went on to emphasize the importance of middle-round picks for rebuilding franchises. Moreover, he made clear that the Panthers also performed very well in the middle and late rounds. In Pauline’s eyes, many of Carolina’s later draft picks could exceed expectations.
“And as you always say, everyone talks about the first round, but the middle rounds and Day 3 are where drafts are made. You look at their picks from that point on. Brady Christensen, a developmental left tackle for Sam Darnold. Tommy Tremble, who could end up being the second-best tight end in the draft behind Kyle Pitts.
“Late-round picks like Daviyon Nixon, who has starting potential. Keith Taylor, another big shutdown cornerback from Washington. My favorite pick that they made, Shi Smith, out of South Carolina, [is] a perfect fit for Matt Rhule’s system. I thought from start to bottom, the Panthers knocked it out of the park.”
Sam Darnold’s situation appears more appealing after the 2021 offseason
According to Pauline, the Panthers won big in the 2021 NFL Draft — and his explanation doesn’t even include fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard or Deonte Brown, a hulking guard whom the Panthers were able to coach at the Senior Bowl.
There are almost too many bases to cover in Carolina. They improved the offensive line and the defensive line while also clogging some holes in free agency with players like Haason Reddick, Dan Arnold, A.J. Bouye, Denzel Perryman, and franchise tag holdover Taylor Moton. They also added a few potential gems among their undrafted free agents, most notably a Senior Bowl standout in OG David Moore.
Just a few weeks ago, Darnold was a reclamation project joining a team that needed a good bit of reclamation itself. Now, however, he might be one of the final pieces to the puzzle — as Pauline expanded on.
“They traded for Sam Darnold a couple of weeks before the draft, which kind of completes the package. And I gotta tell you, people I talked to throughout the draft, they thought the trade that Carolina made for Darnold was terrific. They think everything’s pointing up for him. They think he’s going to do a great job in Carolina, with that new coaching staff, in that system.
“So Carolina Panthers fans, better get used to waiting a long time in the NFL Draft, because I don’t think you’re going to be drafting top-15 for years to come, as Matt Rhule and the new general manager Scott Fitterer are really putting the pieces together.”
The Panthers still need to deliver, but they’re trending up in 2021
Time will tell if the Panthers’ plan is the right one and if Darnold can truly be fixed. With the No. 8 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Panthers could have bypassed Horn for Justin Fields or perhaps Mac Jones. Alternatively, they opted to improve the roster around their signal-caller. Still, questions surrounding their quarterback’s viability persist.
Nevertheless, no matter the degree of uncertainty, no one can deny the Panthers this: They clearly have a plan, and they’re going all-in on it. Their plan this April was to acquire a young, high-upside QB and bolster the roster around him. Maybe some people expected that young QB to be Fields or Jones, but the fact remains. The Panthers followed their plan and exited the draft as one of the early winners.
Now, there’s only one question left to answer. Will wins in April lead to wins in the 2021 NFL Season?
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