I actually started this post before the Panthers traded for quarterback Baker Mayfield. Now that the shock of the trade is over, I still feel pretty much the same as before the trade. I admit I am curious to see who wins the quarterback competition, yet my homer excitement level remains ‘meh’ whether it’s Mayfield or Sam Darnold. It seems obvious Mayfield should win the starting job, but it’s hardly guaranteed. Instead I’m more curious to see if the rookie draft pick can flash enough to give us hope for more than a season or two. So here’s my top five countdown.
5. Matt Corral
It’s been 10 seasons since the Panthers drafted quarterback Cam Newton No. 1 overall. Since then we’ve had little to be excited about at the position, even with this most recent trade. The Panthers have been in need a young quarterback to develop for some time.
It helps that I like Corral and the moxie in which he plays the game. He’s played well in big games and seems to have most of the tools physically to be at least be serviceable. I’m thinking in the mold of Jake Delhomme but can actually run the ball! I expect Corral to take some time to develop so I’m not setting the bar high at this point, but I will keep a close eye on him in the preseason.
4. The secondary
The Panthers 2022 starting four of Donte Jackson, Jeremy Chinn, Jaycee Horn and Xavier Woods is one of the best they have fielded since Josh Norman left town. This unit is very physical and will challenge as one of the best backfields against the run and pass in 2022. I’m excited to see how Chinn is used as compared to his mostly linebacker role in 2021. I love the experience Woods brings to the table. I’m most excited to see Horn back on the field and ready to see him blossom into a shut down corner.
3. Brian Burns
Coming into the NFL draft Burns was billed as a speed rusher with an awesome first step, but there were questions of whether he was a three-down end. Well he has not disappointed as a speed rusher. I expect a career season this year because of the Panthers secondary I just mentioned. So often last season Burns missed a sack by a fraction of a second. Burns will now have more time to get the quarterback and that will make a big difference in his success. After a couple seasons in an NFL weight training program he now looks like a three-down defensive end.
2. The offensive line
The Panthers offensive line is another position group that is one of the best they fielded in many seasons. The Panthers have built decent depth in the group but still lacked starting talent at both guard positions and left tackle. They addressed left tackle very nicely in the draft in Ikem Ekwonu, addressed for the next ten seasons I hope. At right guard Austin Corbett was a nice free agent pick up and I think Brady Christensen is ready to play at left guard. Bradley Bozeman capped the retooling of the line at center while Taylor Moton remains a Pro Bowler at right tackle. Whoever is playing quarterback for the Panthers in 2022 should have less pressure from the edges and more time to throw down the field. Finally! Offensive line play might be boring to some fans when they play well, but I’m excited to see this group punch some teams in the mouth.
1. Christian McCaffrey
While injuries have severely limited his playing time the past two seasons, I’m feeling a massive bounce back in 2022. It’s mainly because of reasons two through four above. A better offensive line will give McCaffrey more space to do his magic, and a better defense will give him more opportunity to perform said magic. Magic is exactly what McCaffrey brings with the ball in his hands. He easily remains one of the best skill players in the NFL right now. Dare I say it he’s right there with Steve ‘Ice Up, Son’ Smith Sr., I’m sure you agree. He is worth the price of admission week in and week out. For that reason, seeing a healthy McCaffrey is what has me most excited about the 2022 season.
So who or what would you put in your top five, Panthers fans?