2021 Carolina Panthers Fantasy Team Outlook: Sam Darnold Must Put Up or Shut Up

2021 Carolina Panthers Fantasy Team Outlook: Sam Darnold Must Put Up or Shut Up

A fantasy football breakdown of the Carolina Panthers by high-stakes legend Shawn Childs

Coaching

In his first season as the Panthers’ head coach, Matt Rhule went 5-11 with improvement on both sides of the ball. His only experience in the NFL came in 2012 for the Giants as the assistant offensive line coach.

Over the previous seven seasons, Rhule worked as the head coach for Temple (28-23) and Baylor (19-20). He took over both programs at low points. In each season as a college coach, his team improved from the previous year. In 2019, Baylor finished 11-3 and 8-1 in conference play after going 1-11 in 2017.

Rhule has been coaching since 1998, with his best highlight coming as the AAC football champion in 2016.

Joe Brady returns for a second year as Carolina’s offensive coordinator. At age 31, Brady has two years of experience as an offensive assistant for the Saints (2017-2018) while holding the passing game coordinator and wide receiver coach positions in 2019 for LSU. His rise in the coaching ranks came from his development of Joe Burrow in 2019.

Carolina finished 21st in offensive yards and 24th in points scored (350) while losing their top running back for 13 games.

The defensive side of the ball remains in the hands of Phil Snow. His path to the NFL came paired with Matt Rhule over the past seven seasons. Snow has four years of experience in the NFL working for the Lions as a defensive assistant and linebackers coach. His early career entailed multiple seasons working on defense in the Pac-10 and Pac-12 while working at Arizona State, UCLA, California, and Washington.

Last season the Panthers improved to 18th in points allowed (402 – 68 fewer than 2019) while holding the same ranking in yards allowed.

Free Agency

The bridge over troubled quarterback waters led to another change in the offseason. Carolina acquired Sam Darnold from the Jets in early April for draft picks this year (sixth-round) and next season (second and fourth rounds).

The top losses on offense were RB Mike Davis and WR Curtis Samuel.

Davis handled himself well in relief of Christian McCaffrey last year, but He struggled to make big plays, and defenses appeared to catch up with him over the latter part of the season.

Carolina drafted Samuel in the second round in 2017. His play and production improved each season in the league, highlighted by the 24th wide receiver ranking (212.10 fantasy points) in PPR leagues last year. Samuel added value as well as a change of pace option out of the backfield.

The Panthers added WR David Moore and TE Dan Arnold for bench depth.

Moore flashed over the past three seasons in Seattle, but he failed to secure a starting job. Moore has 13 touchdowns despite only having 78 catches in his career. He showed big-play ability in 2018 and 2019 when he averaged 17.3 yards per catch.

Over the past four seasons, Arnold alternated homes between Arizona and New Orleans. He reached new heights in 2020 (31/438/4) with Kyler Murray throwing him the ball.

More Carolina Panthers Coverage from SI

On defense, Carolina signed DE Haason Reddick, LB Denzel Perryman, and CB A.J. Bouye.

Reddick comes off his best season in the NFL thanks to a switch back to a pass rusher on the defensive line. He has four years of experience while being drafted in the first round by the Cardinals in 2017.

Perryman worked over the bench over the past three seasons. He plays well in run support, but he’ll see minimal snaps on passing downs.

Bouye played well in coverage in 2016 and 2017 with the Texans and Jaguars, but he lost his way last year while battling a shoulder injury. The NFL also suspended him for six games (two left in 2021) for failing a drug test.

CB Rasul Douglas left town to sign with the Raiders. He brought risk/reward value in coverage. Douglas will give up some damage in touchdowns, and wide receivers challenged him over the long field.

Draft

CB Jaycee Horn

His game offers an edge in press coverage, with the wheels to make up for a missed step. In addition, Horn stays connected to receivers in their patterns. He lacks the fire to shine in run support, but Horn has the tools to reach a higher ceiling in this area. His most significant challenge comes from his desire to hold receivers. Carolina expects him to start in his rookie season.

WR Terrance Marshall 

He projects to be a vertical threat early in his career while doing damage on comeback throws. Marshall offers size (6’2” and 205 lbs.) and speed (4.38 40-yard dash on his pro day). However, his release looks questionable and lacks tempo. To reach a high level, he needs to add more fight to his game off the snap and at the top of his routes.

T Brady Christensen

Christensen’s skill set should fit in well with what the Panthers want to do running the ball with Christian McCaffrey. He plays with power and strength while firing off the snaps. His range looks limited in pass protection, pushing him to the guard position in Carolina.

TE Tommy Tremble

Tremble earned his way into the NFL as a blocker, but his frame (6’3” and 245 lbs.) isn’t ideal for a lead role at tight end. He continues to improve, but his growth in the passing game at Notre Dame was restricted by a pair of talented players in front of him on the depth chart. Tremble ran a 4.59 40-yard dash on his pro day while also showing short-area quickness. His hands look to be in question when facing tight coverage.

RB Chuba Hubbard

He runs with rhythm and vision while willing to take what a defense gives him. Hubbard has a north/south feel, but he can win on the outside when given daylight. He dominated his sophomore season at Oklahoma State (328/2,094/21), helped by a heavy workload (27 touches per week). Hubbard wasn’t the same player in 2020 (133/625/5 over seven games).

DT Daviyon Nixon

Nixon darts off the line, leading to early wins and disruption. His range is wide for his position while also possessing some variation to his pass rush. His shortfall comes from stalemates or losses when tied up at the line of scrimmage by stronger offensive linemen. Nixon needs more upper body strength to reach a higher ceiling.

CB Keith Taylor

Taylor has yet to grow into his frame (6’2” and 185 lbs.), putting a damper on his ceiling. His vision and feel for play development aren’t at an NFL level. He moves better when attacking the line of scrimmage with the foundation to handle receivers in press coverage. His overall speed is a weak link over the long field. Taylor also lacks playmaking skills. For now, he only has value in tight coverage in the red zone.

G Deonte Brown

Brown started for three seasons at Alabama, one of the top college programs in the country. He is a beast of a man who will be a load to move by a straight-on defender. His range isn’t ideal while offering the power and quickness to open holes quickly in the run game.

WR Shi Smith

Smith showed improvement in his route running last year. His future lies in the slot while also having the speed to beat a defender deep. He makes plays in the open field with the willingness to fight for his space in tight quarters after facing bump and run coverage. Smith needs to be more physical on his release and out of his breaks to create a larger passing window.

LS Thomas Fletcher

Fletcher will compete for the long-snapping job on field goals and punts for the Panthers.

DT Phil Hoskins

Hoskins earns his success with quickness off the line, leading to pressure on the quarterback and disruption in the run game. With the development of his hands and more strength, he’ll become more dangerous when challenged by power.


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Offensive Line

Carolina dropped to 21st in rushing yards (1,704) with 19 touchdowns and only six runs over 20 yards. They averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 25.4 rushing attempts per game.

The Panthers fell to 17th in passing yards (4,129) with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. They gained only 7.5 yards per pass attempt with 55 completions over 20 yards. Their offensive line allowed 36 sacks (58 in 2019).

LT Cameron Erving

The Browns drafted Erving in the first round in 2015. He has been a liability in run blocking in every season. The Cowboys gave him five starts at left tackle last year, leading to the best play of his career in pass protection. A knee injury cost him the first six weeks and the final five games.

Carolina can’t trust him to start, leaving Greg Little as the top player to unseat Erving for the starting job. The Panthers drafted him in the second round in 2019, but injuries led to 21 missed games over the past two seasons.

LG Pat Elflein

Between the Vikings and the Jets in 2020, Elflein made seven starts. His play has been a disaster in pass protection over the past three years while showing regression in run blocking with the Jets. The Panthers paid him $13.5 million for three seasons, suggesting they are the greater fool.

C Matt Paradis

The Panthers gave Paradis 32 starts over the last two years, but he failed to match his previous success with the Broncos. The loss of Christian McCaffrey was a significant part of regression in run blocking. Paradis did regain momentum on pass protection. He has the talent and resume to be a top-tier player at his position.

RG John Miller

Miller made 14 starts in his first year with Carolina. He missed two games with ankle and knee injuries. When on the field, Miller failed to make an impact in any area. He has six seasons of experience in the NFL while never ranking as a top player. His game did look on the uptick in 2016 after getting drafted in the third round in 2015. That season Miller graded as a neutral player at his position while making 16 starts for the Bills.

RT Taylor Moton

Moton made 48 starts over the last three seasons. His run blocking continues to improve where he can now be called a plus player. Moton plays well in pass protection. The Panthers drafted him in the second round in 2017.

OL Snapshot

The center and right tackle positions look to be in good hands for the Panthers. I don’t trust Cameron Fleming to protect the blindside. Brady Christensen should find his way into the starting lineup at some position in 2021. With two pluses and a neutral, Carolina still gets a below-par grade for the offensive line.

Offense

The Panthers had about the same success last year throwing the ball as 2019, but they gained more per pass attempt (7.5 – 6.5). Executing scoring plays in the red zone remains an area of weakness. Carolina ran the ball 42.5 percent of the time compared to 37.8 percent with a healthy Christian McCaffrey in 2019 and a different coaching staff. The hint here should be that the Panthers should be more active in the run game in 2021.

Quarterbacks

Sam Darnold

Over three seasons with the Jets, Darnold made 38 starts, leading to a 13-25 record with unimpressive stats across the board. He averaged only 6.6 yards per pass attempt with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. His completion rate (59.8) peaked in 2019 (61.9). Darnold became more active as a runner last season (37/237/2).

Darnold passes over 300 yards in five career games while attempting over 34 passes in only 31.6 percent of his starts. In 2020, he had no matchups with more than two passing touchdowns, pushing his failure to 30 of his last 32 contests.

The Panthers threw the ball 34.4 times a game in 2020, which ranked 22nd in the league.

Fantasy Outlook: In the early draft season, Darnold comes off the board as the 27th quarterback. Carolina has the top pass-catching running back in the league, plus two proven lead wide receivers. Terrance Marshall should help as the WR3 in his rookie season. In the end, Darnold needs to prove he belongs in the NFL as a starting quarterback while also staying healthy. Only a wait-and-see fantasy option with potential matchup value if the Panthers’ offense shows growth in 2021.

Other Options: P.J. Walker, Will Grier

Running Backs

With Christian McCaffrey in 2020, the Panthers gained only 4.1 yards per rush and 6.7 yards per catch compared to excellent success in both areas in 2018 (5.1 and 8.1) and 2019 (4.9 and 8.6). Their backs finished last year with 430 touches for 2,035 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey led RBs in PPR scoring in 2018 (387.0) and 2019 (471.2) while being a massive edge (scored 154.30 fantasy points over the next-best running back) two years ago. His play over three games (374 combined yards with six touchdowns and 17 catches) last year led to 30.13 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues.

In 2019, he finished with 403 touches while only being the third player in NFL history to gain over 1,000 yards rushing (1,387) and receiving (1,005). McCaffrey gained over 100 yards rushing in six of his first nine games, but none over the final seven weeks. Carolina featured him more in the passing games (68/609/1) over his downturn in rushing yards, highlighted by three outings (11/121, 11/82, and 15/119). McCaffrey had 10+ catches in five games.

Last year he averaged 28.7 touches per game. McCaffrey missed 13 weeks with ankle, thigh, and shoulder injuries.

Fantasy Outlook: McCaffrey has first overall ADP in the early draft season, rightfully so. The left side of his offensive line has some question marks, and Sam Darnold needs to be a much better player in the Panthers’ offense. More of the same while offering a high floor and explosive ceiling.

Chuba Hubbard

Over three seasons at Oklahoma State, Hubbard gained 4,097 yards with 36 touchdowns and 53 catches. He averaged 5.9 yards per rush and 9.0 yards per catch. When at his best in 2019, Hubbard rushed over 100 yards in 12 of his 13 starts, highlighted by four games with over 200 yards (26/221/3, 32/256/3, 25/296/1, and 20/223/2). He had over 20 touches in every game except Week 2 (8/44/1).

Fantasy Outlook: Hubbard gives the Panthers a higher ceiling player to backup McCaffrey in 2021. He runs with patience and the vision to make big plays. His ADP (165) is favorable for a fantasy owner looking to buy an upside handcuff. If I draft Christian McCaffrey, I’m making sure to roster Hubbard.

Other Options: Rodney Smith, Reggie Bonnafon, Trenton Cannon

Wide Receivers

Carolina completed over two-thirds of their passes to the wide receiver position last season, leading to 80 percent of their passing yards. Their wideouts finished with 252 catches for 3,301 yards and 11 touchdowns on 375 targets. The production grew by about 25 percent from 2019, but the Panthers only threw to them 41 more times than the previous year.

DJ Moore

Moore finished with similar yards and touchdowns in 2019 (1,175/4) and 2020 (1,193/4), but the Panthers gave him 17 fewer targets (118). As a result, his catch rate fell to 55.9 percent compared to 64.4 in 2019. The change at quarterback led to Moore working more as a deep threat (18.1 yards per catch). He finished with 19 catches of 20 yards or more while also hitting six passes for 40 yards or more.

Moore failed to add a touchdown in his four games (8/120, 7/127, 6/131, and 5/101) with over 100 yards receiving. Midseason, he gained between 93 and 96 yards in four of his six matchups with all four of his scores. Carolina gave him over five catches in only three games. Moore averaged 9.8 targets over his final five games (27/457).

Fantasy Outlook: Moore has the potential to be a 100-plus catch receiver with plenty of success in yards. He needs to improve his scoring ability to move to elite WR1 status. Over the past two years, he ranked 16th and 25th in wide receiver scoring in PPR leagues. His ADP (53) in late June in 12-team formats priced him as the 20th wideout. My bet says he beats his price point with a 100/1,300/7 type season.

Robby Anderson

After failing to live up to expectations over four seasons in New York, Anderson developed into a high-volume receiver in Carolina. He caught 95 of his 136 targets (69.9 percent) for 1,096 yards and three touchdowns. Anderson gained a career-low of 11.5 yards per catch.

The Panthers gave him his best opportunity over the first five weeks (36/489/1) while averaging 9.2 targets. Over his final nine starts, Anderson failed to gain over 95 yards in any matchup, and compiled 49 catches for 456 yards and two touchdowns. Carolina gave him 8.6 targets per game over this span.

In his final two years in New York with Sam Darnold starting at quarterback, He caught 88 of his 164 targets (53.7 percent) for 1,353 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Fantasy Outlook: Anderson has an ADP of 84 in the early draft season while ranking as backend WR3. His history with Darnold doesn’t paint a repeated picture. However, I like his growth, and the Panthers’ coaching staff did figure out how to get the most out of Anderson. I’ll set his 2021 bar at 75 catches for 1,000 yards with five to seven scores.

Terrance Marshall

In 2019, Marshall caught a piece of the Joe Burrow ride to the national championship, leading to 46 catches for 671 yards and 13 touchdowns. He flashed over the first seven games last year (48/731/10) before opting out. His best output came in the third game (11/235/3) of the season against Missouri.

Fantasy Outlook: Marshall has a professional feel with the talent to develop into a WR2 in the Panthers’ offense down the road. His ceiling falls on his motivation to work hard on his route running. This draft season, he’ll be found after the 15th round in 12-team leagues.

David Moore

Early in 2021, Moore should draw the WR3 snaps for the Panthers. He played well in a limited role over the past three years with Russell Wilson, leading to 78 catches for 1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns on 134 targets. Last year, he set a career-high in catches (35) and touchdowns (6) while being playable in fantasy leagues in three weeks (3/48/1, 3/95/1, and 4/71/1).

Fantasy Outlook: The change in quarterback alone sets a much lower floor and ceiling for Moore. He offers no starting fantasy value in 2021.

Shi Smith

Smith worked as a possession receiver over four seasons at South Carolina, leading to 174 catches for 2,204 yards and 13 touchdowns on 273 targets. In 2020 in nine matchups, he caught 57 passes for 633 yards and four scores.

Other Options: Brandon Zylstra, Keith Kirkwood, Marken Michel

Tight Ends

The Panthers’ had the second-worst tight end output (26/196/2) in 2020. Their lack of talent at the position is why Teddy Bridgewater threw so many passes to his wide receivers. In 2018 and 2019, Carolina scored just over 10.00 fantasy points in PPR leagues at the tight end position.

Dan Arnold

In his fourth season, Arnold showed growth in his game. He set career-highs in catches (31), receiving yards (438), touchdowns (4), and targets (45). His final stats would be an easy upgrade over the Panthers’ tight end production last year.

He gained over 40 yards in three matchups (2/57, 2/61/2, and 3/54) while only catching more than three passes in two games.

Fantasy Outlook: Improving player, but Arnold won’t see enough targets to be trusted in the fantasy market.

Tommy Tremble

Over his 19 games with the Fighting Irish, Tremble caught 35 balls for 401 yards with four touchdowns. Only once in his career did he catch more than four passes in a game or gain over 50 yards receiving.

Fantasy Outlook: Tremble needs time to develop in the passing game while possibly having the best fit as a move tight end on early downs. His speed will play well when overlooked by a defense in the deep passing game. There’s more here than meets the initial eye.

Other Options: Ian Thomas, Colin Thompson, Stephen Sullivan

Kicker

Joey Slye

In his two seasons with the Panthers, Slye made 79.4 percent of his field goals while missing five of his 71 extra points. He made an incredible eight of his 11 kicks over 50 yards in his rookie season. Unfortunately, Slye lost his way from long range in 2020 (1-for-6).

Fantasy Outlook: The length of his kicks and potential success gives Slye matchup value this season. Carolina has the tools on offense to push higher in scoring, giving him a chance at a better ranking in 2021 than expected.

Defense

The Panthers climbed to 20th in rushing yards allowed (1,936) with 17 touchdowns and 11 runs over 20 yards. They allowed only 25.5 rushing attempts per game, with ball carriers gaining 4.7 yards per rush.

Carolina slipped to 18th in passing yards allowed (3,825) with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Their defense finished with only 29 sacks, with quarterbacks gaining 6.9 yards per pass attempt.

DE Haason Reddick

After getting drafted in the first round in 2017, Reddick came up short rushing the quarterback over his first 48 games (7.5 sacks). His run defense continues to fade, but he turned into an impact pass rusher in 2020 (12.5 sacks) while adding six forced fumbles.

DE Brian Burns

In his second year in the league, Burns posted 58 tackles and 9.0 sacks while making only a slight improvement against the run. His game is built on attacking from the outside in the pass rush, where his speed, quickness, and moves create an edge. He needs to get stronger while adding bulk to his lower body. If stalled at the point of attack, his skill set comes across as mediocre. His range in pursuit grades well with minimal experience in pass coverage. Burns is on the verge of becoming an elite pass rusher.

DT Derrick Brown

Brown brings extreme power to the defensive line with the initial quickness to disrupt at the point of attack. His overall speed does limit his range and ability to finish in the pass rush. He uses his hands well while expecting to shine as a run clogger. Brown made 34 tackles with two sacks in his rookie season after getting drafted seventh overall. His run defense fell short of expectations.

DT Bravvion Roy

Roy gets a knock for his length, which is tied to his height (6’1”). However, he plays with power while showing the ability to attack quickly after the snap. His job is to be a run stopper up the middle while still having a chance to put heat on the quarterback. Roy made 29 tackles and one sack, but he struggled against the run.

LB Jermaine Carter

Carter made six starts in his third year in the NFL while seeing minimal snaps. He has minimal value in the pass rush while still struggling to find his way in the pass rush. Carter finished 46 tackles with no sacks.

LB Denzel Perryman

In his six seasons in the league, Perryman missed 27 out of a possible 96 games. He worked in a low-value rotational role for the Chargers while showing growth in run support. Perryman does miss too many tackles. Carolina needs to find a higher upside player to fill their void at middle linebacker.

LB Shaq Thompson

Thompson improved his tackle total in each year in the NFL while ranking highly in run support in every year except 2020. He set a career-high in tackles (114) with no sacks.

CB Donte Jackson

Jackson has electric speed (4.32) and coverage skills, but he lacks size (5’11” and 178 lbs.) and strength. Even with talent and athletic ability, Jackson falls short in vision with risk in run support. Over his first three seasons in the NFL, after Carolina added him in the second round in 2018, he improved against the run while doing a good job keeping wide receivers in front of him. Jackson made some mistakes in touchdowns while picking three interceptions and 11 defended passes.

CB Jaycee Horn

The Panthers addressed their weakness at their lead cornerback position with the selection of Horn in this year’s draft. He has do-it-all upside while needing some time to develop.

S Jeremy Chinn

Chinn offers an intriguing combination of size (6’3’ and 220 lbs.), speed (4.45 forth), and strength (20 reps in the bench press at the NFL combine in 2020) to the safety position. He projects well in coverage with the build to win vs. the run. His challenge comes with his vision and anticipation. Chinn would have the most growth with improvement in the mental part of the game. After getting drafted in the second round in his rookie season, he made 117 tackles with one sack, one interception, five defended passes, and two touchdowns. Chinn allowed too many touchdowns with risk against the run.

S Kenny Robinson

Robinson has a playmaking skill set, but he lacks the foundation in speed and quickness to shine in coverage. His game plays well when moving forward in run support, but Robinson will miss some tackles. His vision does limit his upside when asked to decide between run and pass plays. He finished with almost playing time in his rookie season.

Fantasy Defense Snapshot

The defensive line has an intriguing structure between run stopping and pass rush on the outside. Carolina has a developing playmaking safety and one top player at linebacker. The cornerback position looks improved, but there will be some growing pains. From a fantasy perspective, the Panthers’ defense will provide matchup value in some games.

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