As reflected by the Panthers 5-11 record for the 2019-20, there were some players who didn't perform up to expectations or didn't get much of an opportunity. With many prominent leaders of the organization leaving the past three offseasons, it's time for both youngsters and veterans to step up. Here are several players that need to step up in the 1st year of the Rhule Era.
1. Matt Paradis
Needless to say, Paradis was a bit underwhelming in his first season as a Panther. He consistently allowed pressure on our quarterback, whether it was Cam, Kyle, or Will. This is coming from a center who previously graded out as a top 5 center since 2015 from PFF. Paradis' decline could be attributed to a new system or the fractured fibula he suffered Week 9 of the 2018 season. Prior to that injury, he had a clean bill of health. The veteran will need to prove his worth this season or he could be on his way out the door as the new regime is favoring the youth.
2. Donte Jackson
While Donte's play tailed off at the end of last year, most notably allowing a 93 yard touchdown by Olamide Zaccheaus, he may be expected to shoulder more work against the opposition's No. 1 receiver after James Bradberry's departure. Jackson simply had a sophomore slump, receiving a disappointing 55.6 grade from PFF after a rookie season in which he graded out as a 65. Analysts generally say that a player's third season determines their future in the league. Matt Rhule has made it clear he loves speed, and Donte definitely has that. Now, it's just up to Donte.
3. Ian Thomas
In 2018, Thomas showed flashes of the player he could be after filling in for the injured Greg Olsen. He had 36 receptions for 333 yards & 2 touchdowns. It seemed that Rhule and Co. took notice of that after not selecting a tight end in this year's draft. I'm excited for Ian's potential in Joe Brady's offense.
4. Kawann Short
Possessing the highest cap hit on the team, KK has to prove that he isn't just an overpriced veteran. Short is coming off a disappointing season in which he missed the majority of after suffering a partially torn rotator cuff. Phil Snow spoke glowingly of the duo of Derrick and Kawann on the interior of the defensive line, saying, "I have big hopes for KK. I think he has quickness, he understands the game, he can rush the passer for a big man. I think it is really important how we use him and Derrick inside in their roles. They will create a lot of problems for people inside." Hopefully Kawann can return to his Pro Bowl form, or he may be a cut candidate next offseason.
5. Brian Burns
After the departures of Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin, Burns finds himself as the best defensive end on our roster. Though receiving limited snaps and fighting through a wrist injury, he racked up 7.5 sacks placing 3rd on the defense. Burns will find himself needing to bulk up after learning that the Panthers defense will be switching back to a 4-3 base. However, it should not take away from his explosiveness off the edge. Phil Snow mentioned in his conference, “We have (EDGE rusher) Brian Burns. He is kind of a unique guy. He's long, he can move, and you can do different things with him.” Burns is an up-and-coming cornerstone of the Panthers defense, and more people should take notice of that this season.
6. Kicking Unit
After veteran Graham Gano went down with a leg injury last year, the Panthers picked up an undrafted rookie Joey Slye to play while Gano recovered. However, things were more serious than they realized, and Slye played through the whole season. The “swole” kicker broke the franchise record for 50+ yard kicks made in a single season (8). He also only completed 78.1% of his field goal attempts and 88.6 % of his extra points.The 33 year old Graham Gano is healthy and ready for a fierce competition during training camp. Special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said, “"The battle, as far as that's concerned — in reality, we're in a very, very plus situation because we've got two very capable kickers with really talented legs. There's plenty of teams around the NFL right now that'd be very excited to have the competition we have going.” It should be an interesting position battle come training camp.
7. Curtis Samuel
The young speedster from the Buckeyes has been subject to multiple trade rumors over the past couple seasons, having never surpassed 627 receiving yards and 6 TDs in his 2019 campaign. Samuel has had his fair share of injuries in his young career, including three within his rookie season in 2017 (pedal ankle fracture, back lower lumbar sprain, thigh hamstring sprain). During his press conference, Joe Brady said of Curtis, “Curtis is going to be critical to success. Curtis is a playmaker. He fits the mold of what we’re looking for in this type of offense, a guy that you can utilize all around the field and get the ball in the hands and good things happen.” This certainly is a confidence boost for him, and Samuel is expected to step up in Joe Brady’s explosive offense.