KEEP POUNDING

The Carolina Panthers start their regular season Sunday at 1 p.m., so what better time for a 2021 primer?

The Panthers underwent a ton of changes in the offseason, and unless you stay glued to the free agent and draft websites or the talking head TV shows, you might not know exactly what the Cardiac Cats look like this season.

Well, good news, it could be a great year for the franchise. There will be a few fun storylines to watch, as well, including in today’s matchup with the New York Jets, the team that drafted Carolina’s starting quarterback, Sam Darnold.

The Panthers traded for the former No. 3 overall pick in exchange for a late 2021 sixth-rounder and a second- and fourth-rounder in 2022. It was a good trade for both parties, with the Jets looking to part ways with Darnold and the Panthers looking for a quick replacement for Teddy Bridgewater, who was released in the offseason after a middling 2020 season.

Darnold is still a question mark, but pundits agree that New York was not his best fit. In Carolina, he’ll pair with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, one of second-year head coach Matt Rhule’s first hires when he came on in 2019. Darnold will be with a coaching staff that believes in him and surrounded by weapons like receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson and running back Christian McCaffrey.

It’s a probably a sin to write five paragraphs about the Panther’s 2021 season before mentioning McCaffrey’s name at the very end. The No. 1 pick for virtually every fantasy football league in the country this year, the running back remains a stable for the Panthers and a special talent to watch on Sundays.

McCaffrey only played in three games in 2020 due to a high ankle sprain, but he has still more receiving yards of any running back since 2018, and he accumulated the third-most scrimmage yards (2,392) in 2019.

Regardless of who lines up under center for the foreseeable future, McCaffrey is the face of this franchise.

As mentioned before, Anderson and Moore are the Panthers’ top receiving threats. Anderson got his contract with the team extended in the offseason after he posted career highs in starts (16), catches (95) and yards (1,096) in 2020.

Moore hasn’t been resigned yet since getting drafted No. 24 overall in 2018, but he remains a high resign priority for the team with his contract set to expire after the 2022 season. Moore has totaled 3,156 receiving yards over his first three seasons with the Panthers and is only one of two players, along with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, to put up at least 1,175 receiving yards in each of the last two years.

With tight end Greg Olsen now a faint memory for Panthers fans, they’ll look to Dan Arnold, a free agent signing who last played for the Arizona Cardinals, and rookie Tommy Tremble, a Notre Dame star the Panthers picked in the third round.

The offensive line is a big area of concern for the Panthers, with the only recognizable returners being center Matt Paradis and right tackle Taylor Moton. The team signed Cameron Erving, a promising young free agent who has played every position on the line, and Pat Elflein, whose experience lies mostly on the wrestling mat.

The defensive line is another question mark for the Panthers. Brian Burns on the end is a bona fide stud and will be a staple for the franchise for years to come. His resigning after getting drafted No. 16 overall in 2019 will be a big priority. Derrick Brown and DaQuan Jones, the former a No. 7 overall pick in 2020 and the latter a free agent acquisition, will be the starters in the middle, while Yetur Gross-Matos, another 2020 rookie, will look to fill out a rotation with Morgan Fox and a host of other lesser-known names.

At linebacker, the Panthers are anchored by 2015 draft product Shaq Thompson, who was re-signed in 2019. He’s joined by recent free agent signing Denzel Perryman, who had a solid 2020 season with the Los Angeles Chargers. Jermain Carter and Christian Miller, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, also figure into the starting equation.

Defensive back will be a strong position group for the Panthers this season. Jeremy Chinn proved to be a strong starter at safety last season, while Donte Jackson looks to be the leader of the secondary with first-round 2021 draft pick Jaycee Horn across from him this afternoon.

On special teams, the Panthers shook things up a few weeks ago with a trade for New York Giants kicker Ryan Santoso and the release of Joey Slye. Joseph Charlton will return as the Panthers’ punter.

The regular season schedule is a favorable one for the Panthers, who start out with back-to-back home games. They only have one prime-time game scheduled against the Houston Texans on Thursday, Sept. 23. They play the New Orleans Saints in week two, but then don’t play another NFC South opponent until week eight against the Atlanta Falcons.

The toughest stretch of the schedule for Carolina starts in week 14 with a visit from the Atlanta Falcons. They travel to the Buffalo Bills for week 15, host the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 16, travel to the New Orleans Saints for week 17 and then play at the Buccaneers to wrap up the regular season.

Personally, I think this season could be one of great promise for the Panthers. The pieces they currently have are largely in place for the next three seasons, and they’re good pieces. I don’t think this team is playoff-bound in 2021, but it is poised to make runs in 2022 and 2023, provided Darnold pans out to be the right option at quarterback.

The truth is, running back statistics point to a steep decline in McCaffrey’s production in the near future. The Panthers need a legitimate quarterback to resurrect what was, at times, a one-dimensional offense in 2020.

While there are holes at offensive line and on the defense, the Panthers will be fun to watch this fall.

(Send comments or questions to zack@thenewstimes.com or follow him on Twitter @zacknally)

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