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State of the 2022 Carolina Panthers: Time for Matt Rhule to make some real progress

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Panthers' organization, Panthers fans around the world and those who need to ice up, son!

It's been a trying time for our friends down in Carolina. The Panthers have finished with five wins in each of the last three seasons. In their preceding 24 seasons of existence, they'd posted five wins or fewer just three times. Can Carolina maybe get to six wins in 2022? Heck, challenge for the playoffs? Let's take a look.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Starting 3-0. Does anybody remember this? I mean, of course you do, if you're a Panthers fan. But the casual observer might not remember 3-0 -- or the fact that the team was 5-5 at one point.

One low from last season: Falling from 5-5 to 5-12. This is pretty much all that needs to be said about how 2021 ended.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Matt Rhule. He came into the league with a lot of fanfare out of Baylor in 2020, and we're rooting for him, because we're not terrible human beings. But while there have been flashes, including that big start last season, the results mostly haven't surfaced so far on a consistent basis. Rhule is clearly trying -- I mean, the dude allowed his players to kick soccer balls at him, which was kind of cool. (Although I'm kind of worried about Sam Darnold's kick here. Yes, throwing is the more relevant skill, but you're from Orange County, dude. Be a bit better.)

All of that said, we need to finally see success on the field. Joe Brady was fired as offensive coordinator in the midst of last season, and Ben McAdoo was brought in to run the offense this offseason. On one hand, the last time McAdoo served in this role, with the Giants in 2014 and '15, his offense ranked 10th and eighth in yards and 13th and sixth in points, respectively. But on the other hand, he's bringing a new system for the quarterbacks to learn, and he'll be the third voice in two seasons, counting Brady and interim OC Jeff Nixon. Rhule's long-term job security would figure to improve if an offensive approach -- and quarterback -- were to finally stick. Speaking of ...

Quarterback: Sam Darnold. Sam is my guy. I'm really rooting for him. But McAdoo will be Darnold's fifth offensive coordinator of his NFL career (counting Nixon and Brady last season and Dowell Loggains and Jeremy Bates during his time with the Jets). It's hard to be truly successful when bouncing between coordinators like that. Last season, after he was traded by the Jets (who began an organizational restart) to Carolina, he posted a career-low 71.9 passer rating (29th in the NFL). Though Darnold lost several games to a scapula injury, he was intercepted enough times (13) to keep him among the leaders in the NFL over the past four seasons -- with 52 picks, he's second in the league in that span.

Rhule has not been shy about trying different faces under center, between 2020 starter Teddy Bridgewater, Cam Newton (whose triumphant return to the franchise as Darnold's injury replacement last season ultimately fizzled), P.J. Walker and Darnold. During the draft this year, Carolina went out and added Matt Corral in the third round. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, meanwhile, looms as a potential trade option. (UPDATE: The Browns agreed to trade Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a 2024 fifth-round pick that can convert to a fourth-rounder based on playing time, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported on July 6.)

Rhule said recently that Darnold would be the starter if the season started today. It doesn't, though. And it's fair to wonder how much room Darnold has at this point. The Panthers picked up his fifth-year option last year, pushing his rookie deal through 2022, but it would be a miracle if he was able to garner a contract extension beyond that. With Rhule presumably under pressure to up that win total, and with Corral on the roster, Sam has to come out of the gate swinging. He did that last year, showing some of the ability that made him a top pick. He's very athletic -- his soccer kick notwithstanding -- and he can make some plays. He just has to put it all together.

Projected 2022 MVP: Christian McCaffrey, running back. From 2017 to '19, in his first three NFL seasons, CMC did not miss a single game, and he led the NFL with 5,443 scrimmage yards in that span. The problem has been the 23 games he's missed over the past two years. As Carolina's record with him in the lineup (4-3) last season and without him (1-9) illustrates, if this team is to succeed in 2022, McCaffrey is going to be the driver.

New face to know: D'Onta Foreman, running back. The Panthers inked him to a team-friendly deal worth $2 million this offseason. And I know the fantasy heads will be concerned about drafting him as a handcuff to CMC, but honestly, Foreman should simply have a role on this team, even if McCaffrey stays healthy. Foreman is a different style of running back, someone who could pick up some of the dirty work between the tackles and help keep McCaffrey fresh.

2022 breakout star: Yetur Gross-Matos, defensive end. This is a pivotal season for the former second-round pick. He's played well in spurts for the Panthers, but he has yet to have that breakout moment, compiling just six sacks and 21 hurries in two seasons with the team. But last year's sack leader, Haason Reddick, signed in Philly, meaning Reddick will be counted on to join the steadily producing Brian Burns (25.5 sacks in three seasons) in the pass rush.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

Will the Panthers be able to ...

... clean up their defensive red-zone struggles? The Panthers ranked second in total defense in 2021. They allowed just over 300 yards per game. Which is great. But they couldn't stop anybody in the red zone, where opponents scored touchdowns on 67.3 percent of chances (29th in the NFL), leading Carolina to give up 23.8 points per game (21st). So maybe the defense wasn't exactly as good as that second overall ranking suggests. Maybe the reason they didn't give up a lot of yards was because the Panthers' offense was so generous with giveaways (Carolina logged 29, second-most in the NFL), which resulted in shorter fields for opposing offenses. I'm not trying to knock the defense. The Panthers were 5-0 in games where they allowed fewer than 15 points. But the unit was under a lot of pressure to be perfect, given the team's record when allowing 15 points or more (0-12 -- the Panthers were the only winless team in such games last season).

... get more out of D.J. Moore? Another benefactor from the money being thrown around to wide receivers this season, Moore signed a three-year extension worth $61.9 million in March. I mean, receivers cashed in this offseason like standup comics in the 1990s who got sitcoms thanks to Jerry Seinfeld. Although that would make Christian Kirk the Jerry Seinfeld of receivers, and I don't know how to feel about that comparison. Regardless, D.J. got paid. And he's kind of worth it. Only Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and Travis Kelce have had more receiving yards than Moore since 2019. He is also one of three players with 1,100 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons, joining Kelce and Diggs.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: Robbie Anderson's apparent angst. At different points this offseason, Anderson posted "Ain't gonna lie Thinking about Retiring ..." and shared his opposition to the idea of the team trading for Mayfield. The veteran receiver recently told reporters during mandatory minicamp that he was just "thinking out loud." If Anderson has a preference for Darnold, that would not be outlandish, given the fact that 14 of Anderson's 28 career touchdown receptions were thrown to him by Darnold, his former Jets teammate. But dude, you're not exactly tearing it up, you know? Anderson had a career-low 519 receiving yards last season, even if he did lead the team with five touchdown receptions. He's funny -- his reaction to the Panthers' mascot was hilarious. But how about some more yards?

... people shouldn't overlook: The overall health of the team. McCaffrey and Darnold weren't the only ones to lose time to injuries last season. Corner Donte Jackson missed the final five games with a groin injury. Zane Gonzalez -- the kicker -- missed the final four games. And then there was first-round pick Jaycee Horn, who looked great to start the year at cornerback, then missed the final 14 games with a broken foot. You keep some of these guys healthy, and that could be pretty huge for the Panthers.

For 2022 to be a success, the Panthers MUST:

  • I don't know, man. Are the playoffs the measure of success for this team? Again, winning six games would clear the bar set over the past three years. The Panthers were the only team with a top-three total defense and a bottom-three total offense in 2021. That's the first time that has happened since -- checks notes -- the Washington Football team in 2020. Fine, so it wasn't that long ago. Whether the Panthers are in the postseason mix or Rhule ends up buying some more time as he develops a quarterback, they must show some improvement.

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