With the Panthers starting OTAs last week, I figured it was the perfect time to unveil my thoughts on their new schedule. Most news outlets see the Panthers as having a favorable schedule based on the opponent's 2020 win percentage. In fact, they are ranked as inheriting the 7th easiest schedule in the league. Hopefully, Rhule and Co. will be able to take advantage of some of the attainable wins. Let's get started!
Week 1: New York Jets (in Charlotte)
This will be Sam Darnold's first test as a Panther, competing against his former team. The Jets got much more talent on both sides of the ball during this offseason, including the coaching staff with the hire of former 49ers DC Robert Saleh. Despite the Jets' scarcity of talent the past few years, Sam will have his work cut out for him.
During the offseason, Saleh brought in a key defensive lineman in Carl Lawson, and returns star linebacker CJ Mosley, the highly-touted Quinnen Williams, and franchise-tagged safety Marcus Maye as the cornerstones. Given the overall lack of talent in the secondary, the Panthers signal caller should have no problem testing the deep ball in his first game wearing Carolina blue.
Of course, the Jets have their newly drafted QB in Zach Wilson, who will challenge the Panthers defense with offseason addition Corey Davis and 2nd round pick Elijah Moore. However, the Panthers can use the inexperience to their advantage, and force the young passer into errant throws. This could be a nice matchup for Jaycee, assuming he enters the season a Day 1 starter.
Prediction: W 31-24
Week 2: New Orleans Saints (in Charlotte)
This game will come down to the play of 2 starting quarterbacks: Jameis Winston and Sam Darnold. During his time in the NFL, Jameis Winston has shown turnover issues but a lot of talent. The 2021 season should be a chance for him to prove the media wrong, and develop into a quality starter under offensive guru Sean Payton. This is assuming Winston enters as the presumed starter, which isn't all likely with Payton's obsession with gadget player Taysom Hill.
New Orleans has incurred a number of cap casualties in the offseason, losing some impact players across the defense, including Sheldon Rankins, Malcolm Brown, Kwon Alexander, Marcus Williams, and AJ Klein. Joe Brady should predict growing pains for the Saints' defense, especially this early on in the season. DJ Moore has been a consistent contributor against the Saints, beating Lattimore a number of times. I'd expect Brady to take advantage of this knowledge, and use it to spread the ball around the receiving core.
There is also the draft storyline with 2nd rounder Terrace Marshall rumored to be coveted by the New Orleans coaching staff. The Panthers made sure not to trade back until the pick before them, snagging the Louisiana native and LSU receiver out of Payton's reach. One would hope Terrace could have a big game!
Prediction: W 24-21
Week 3: Houston Texans (in Houston)
The first primetime game for rookie head coach David Culley should prove to be one of the most boring games on the schedule for casual NFL fans. However, it should be a good opportunity for Rhule to display his team's progress in his 2nd season coaching professionally. With the Deshaun Watson legal issues looming bigger in Texas, they'll likely turn to NFL journeyman Tyrod Taylor to take the reins of the offense for now. Offensive coordinator Brian Kelly also has third-round pick Davis Mills waiting in the wings.
The Panthers should take advantage of the Texans lack of depth and starter material on the defensive line, giving Chuba and CMC a chance to run between the tackles frequently and successfully. Rhule should make this matchup a ground-and-pound type of game, prioritizing the run game and good defense, mixing in some play action as well.
Prediction: W 31-17
Week 4: Dallas Cowboys (in Dallas)
By Week 4, we ought to see Prescott back to his old self, slinging touchdowns in AT&T stadium. However, it's important to keep an eye on the health of Dallas' offensive line after losing most of their starting five to season-ending injuries. As of now, they seem on track to start the season which isn't good news for Carolina's young pass rushers.
Carolina's secondary is expected to struggle in this game, receiving the daunting task of facing Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Ceedee Lamb. While AJ Bouye is likely to make a return from his PED suspension, any defense is going to give up routine plays to that three-headed monster. That's why Phil Snow has to emphasize sending the pass rush home frequently, trusting his DBs to cover their man. Burns, Reddick, and YGM are no slouches, bringing lots of speed to the edge. Everyone must win their one-on-ones, including the receivers who have a favorable matchup against 2 young corners in Trevon Diggs and Kelvin Joseph.
Prediction: L 30-27
In my early predictions, I have the Panthers posting a 3-1 record, which is very manageable given the talent added during the offseason. What are your thoughts? Can Carolina bring down Dallas?