In just under a week, the Indianapolis Colts will be taking on the Carolina Panthers in the first kind of game action we have seen since Buffalo last January. While fans know how much the DNA of the Colts roster has changed since that January day in New York, starting at quarterback, our upcoming opponents may be much less familiar to the average Colts fan. Let’s get to know the Panthers before they come to town for Preseason week 1.
The apparent new face in Carolina is former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who has been notorious for making highlight plays and burning the Colts in his past two starts against them. Darnold is looking for a rebirth in Carolina, which has a young core of playmakers the team is looking to develop and grow alongside him.
The headline player for the Panthers is no doubt running back Christian McCaffrey. Ever since entering the league in 2017, McCaffrey has shattered expectations and become one of the best running backs in the NFL. But last year, when McCaffrey was lost due to injury, the Panthers stumbled trying to find an identity behind Teddy Bridgewater and Co. Without a clear direction, the franchise made a move similar to the Colts in going out and getting a quarterback who is widely seen as a reclamation project.
Sam Darnold will no longer have the excuse of the Jets’ roster-building incompetence to back up his disappointing performances. While McCaffrey is the star of the offense, Carolina has put together a nice, young group of receivers in which they have poured significant resources into cultivating via draft capital and free agency.
It starts with the 2018 first-round draft pick D.J. Moore, who has quietly put together multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his short career. Behind him is speedster Robby Anderson, another former Jet and a name Colts fans will remember from the leadup to the NFL Draft in Terrance Marshall Jr. Darnold has other weapons to choose from, including former Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble and new free agent signing Dan Arnold. He was at the top of my underrated signings list that I made for the Colts this offseason. Arnold is poised for a breakout season after being underutilized in the crowded Arizona passing attack. To top it off, the Panthers also added Oklahoma State standout Chuba Hubbard in the 4th round of the draft this year. Anyone who has been following college football over the past few years knows how dangerous this former Unanimous All-American can be with the ball in his hands.
The Panthers have built an offense that will allow them to fully evaluate Sam Darnold’s capabilities as an NFL starting quarterback. He has gotten a change of scenery. Colts fans know they can positively affect a player, as seen last year with Xavier Rhodes’ career renaissance. He also has a multitude of young weapons that he can grow alongside. With a consistent offensive line, Darnold may finally be able to breathe more effortlessly in the pocket as he has newly extended tackle Taylor Moton protecting his blind side at left tackle. At the same time, rookie Brady Christensen progresses behind him.
(Interesting side note: Colts fans may remember the longtime roster to practice squad jumping quarterback Phillip Walker who has seemed to find a home in Carolina as the backup.)
In the first year of Matt Rhule’s coaching career in the NFL, the Panthers spent all seven of their draft picks on defensive players. The team finished 31st in 2019, a year before Rhule took over, in total defense, according to pro-football-reference. The Panthers improved to 18th in 2020 by the same metric, even with the loss of future Hall of Famer Luke Kuechly. Much of this improvement can be attributed to the infusion of young blood the Panthers front office injected into the defense and the surprising stand-out play of rookie safety Jeremy Chinn, who is looking to build on a successful rookie campaign. The former Fishers High School player has continued to impress coaches in camp and will hopefully star alongside our young safety Julian Blackmon in the years to come on All-Pro teams.
keep swiping pic.twitter.com/ezhKCnPjDs
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) August 10, 2021
The defensive line features second-year defensive tackle and interior disruptor Derrick Brown, along with the sack savant Brian Burns. The Panthers are hoping Brown can become the type of interior defender that will collapse the pocket from the inside, while Burns can finish completing the sack around the outside edge. This tandem has a lot of potential and could certainly be talked about a lot in the years to come for wreaking untold havoc on opposing quarterbacks, much like Akiem Hicks, and Khalil Mack have for the Chicago Bears.
The cornerback trio of Donte Jackson, rookie Jaycee Horn, and AJ Bouye should prove to be one of the most improved position groups on the Panthers roster as they look to take a more aggressive approach in coverage this year.
As is the theme with this Panthers team, the defense is mainly young and unproven. However, what it lacks in experience, it makes up for in potential. This group can become one of the best in the league given time to fully develop and work through the inevitable growing pains that come with having your best players being so young. From an outsider’s perspective, I believe they have done a great job rebuilding this franchise in the post-Cam Newton era. General manager Scott Fitterer and Matt Rhule have something special brewing in Charlotte.
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The Carolina Panthers are being built in an image eerily similar to that of the Colts. Between an up-and-coming general manager, a first-time head coach, a team, led by young stars, and a reclamation project at quarterback, the Colts and Panthers have several similarities. The Colts are farther along in their quest for a Lombardi, as the Panthers are roughly two years behind them, but the foundation is being laid now for what could be the bones of a Super Bowl-winning roster down the road.