Evaluating the Carolina Panthers' chances of winning the NFC South in 2022

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers
New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers

After spending months evaluating college prospects and talking about what each team did in the draft and their overall roster, it’s time to discuss their potential in the upcoming season. We will look at all eight teams who finished last inside their division in 2021, and rank them based on the likelihood of ascending to the top of those groups.

This exercise was a lot of fun, because it's enjoyable creating excitement for one franchise. It’s also good to think, to poke holes in rosters/coaching staff and lay out a path for why they may underachieve.

People spend so much time hyping up the top teams that they neglect those closer to the bottom of the league. Particularly in terms of the positives they have going for them.

Now let’s talk about the Carolina Panthers:

With the 2024 fantasy football season on the horizon, be sure to check out our free Fantasy Football Trade Analyzer & lock down your squad.

Evaluating the NFC South competition

Tennessee Titans v Carolina Panthers
Tennessee Titans v Carolina Panthers

Well, the Panthers finished last in the South but not by much. The Atlanta Falcons picked eighth overall in the draft, only two spots behind the Panthers. The New Orleans Saints had to beat both those two teams near the end just to somehow get to a 9-8 record. Interestingly, the Saints swept the entire division, the first tem to ever achieve this in the NFC South.

Unless Tom Brady retires again, there’s certainly one big fish in that division, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In terms of the three teams as a whole, the Panthers might be the second best team in the division.

#1- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is not going to be easy. Trying to make a case for why Tampa Bay should nose-dive all of a sudden, but instead we will find reasons why they will decline. What could be the biggest one is their soon-to-be 45-year-old quarterback. In no way will Tom Brady suddenly hit the cliff, but this will be the shortest offseason for him in terms of preparation. He can't last forever, can he?

At this point we don’t know if Rob Gronkowski will be back, who was looking much more like his old self last year than in 2020. Their number two tight-end O.J. Howard is now with the Buffalo Bills.

youtube-cover

Defensively, they’ll be thinner than in years with Jason Pierre-Paul, unless their fifth-round pick Zyon McCollum rapidly gets ready to perform as a rookie. They remain equally vulnerable to any corner injuries, just like we saw last season.

While Todd Bowles’ pressure-happy play-calling creates some big plays, his over-aggressiveness in big spots bit them against the Los Angeles Rams. Allowing that huge completion for Cooper Kupp to set up the game-winning field goal in the Divisional Round loss to the Rams.

Things certainly get a lot easier and there’s a clearer path to seeing the Saints to have a rather disappointing season. Not that I see this team picking in the top-ten in 2023, because I think the roster as a whole is still in pretty damn good shape.

#2- The New Orleans Saints

The difference between a seven-/eight-win squad and a playoff contender in double-digits will be quarterback play. New Orleans were 4-2 in games started (and finished) by Jameis Winston. But Week 1 was a complete no-show from the Green Bay Packers and two weeks later, the New England Patriots hadn’t found their groove on offense in particular. The Saints also beat a Taylor Heinicke-led Washington team and a Russell Wilson-less Seattle squad.

There’s no doubt that Jameis Winston can produce some big plays through the air. But we can’t completely ignore the fact that the last time he started a full season, he threw a league-high 30 picks and displayed a definite lack of maturity in decision-making.

#3- The Atlanta Falcons

We won't focus too much on the Falcons, as currently only the Houston Texans have a lower win total in terms of their 4.5 betting line. Their expected win total was 2.1 lower than their actual seven wins. Their rankings of 26th and 29th respectively flip-flopped in yards/points allowed on either side of the ball last season. Odds are they won’t have the third-fewest adjusted games lost to injury again in 2022.

Down-grading from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota or third-round rookie Desmond Ridder could bite them. As could losing arguably their biggest play-maker on defense, Foyesade Oluokun. It will be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Dean Pees can do with so many versatile pieces on that side of the ball. But they are very few proven commodities and you can’t really point at any position group other than corner (and that could certainly be important for how Pees structures his defense) as above-average.

Can the Carolina Panthers win the NFC South?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers

That leads us to the Panthers, who a lot of people seem to forget won their first three games last season. Although these were against the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and the Houston Texans. The Panthers then lost 12 of their final 14 contests.

There are multiple factors to can look at here. Whether it’s going from averaging 45 rushing yards allowed through those first three weeks to 128.6 from that point on. Injuries to key players like Christian McCaffrey and top-ten pick Jaycee Horn didn't help, nor did the Panthers' highly inconsistent quarterback play.

The area of the team where they struggled the most was the offensive line. Taylor Moton at right tackle was the only one of 11 players used who finished with a PFF grade of 67 or higher. They drafted an absolute ass-kicker sixth overall in N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu as the top lineman off the board. They brought in two other underrated starters in free agency with Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett, who finished well-above that mark last season.

Obviously, the quarterback is the big question mark. The Panthers just traded for 2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield and still have the guy who came off two spots later in Sam Darnold. Mayfield did lead the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff win of the millennium and his shoulder is now fully healthy again. He played through that injury against the advice of doctors last season.

For Darnold, this will likely be his first season in the NFL not playing behind a bottom-three pass-protecting unit and his final chance as a starter. There's a very talented rookie behind those two in Ole Miss’ Matt Corral.

Christian McCaffrey is eyeing a huge comeback season, and as far as the defense goes, there is pressure on their play-calling under Phil Snow. They had a lot of success with the way they would create free runners by testing protection schemes early on. But due to their unwillingness to get out of nickel packages and use base personnel on early downs, they rarely got to (longer) third downs and throw those pressures at opponents.

youtube-cover

The Panthers lost a couple of down-linemen from last season, but they still basically have all that talent to play at a high level for a full season. They have a bunch of gifted, young corners to allow them to be aggressive. This entire regime has to win to keep their jobs and there are several players desperate to prove themselves, whether they’ve been labeled injury-prone, draft busts or whatever.

That being said, the odds are stacked against the Panthers, though if they hit the ground running, it really could happen.

Chance of winning the division: 7-8%

For the full list, make sure to visit the original piece and feel free to check out a bunch of my other write-ups and videos!

Quick Links

Edited by John Maxwell
App download animated image Get the free App now