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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 Opponent Preview: Carolina Panthers, Week 13 & 18

The Panthers stayed in the NFC South race until the end despite constant quarterback upheaval and now have a talented new passer to build their offense around under new Head Coach Frank Reich


As the NFL enters its fallow period between the end the teams' offseason programs and the start of training camp, we are taking a closer look at each of the opponents the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face during the 2023 regular season. From how those teams fared last year to what they've done with the roster since to some as-yet-unanswered questions, we want to get a better feel for what the Buccaneers will be up against this fall. Today we look at a division rival that made big changes at two of the franchise's most important spots, head coach and quarterback.

2022 Results

The 2022 Carolina Panthers lost seven of their first nine games, fired their head coach after a 1-4 start; gave five or more starts to three different quarterbacks, the first of which was released in December, traded their superstar running back after six games; and somehow controlled their own destiny in the NFC South title race with two games to play.

After two five-win seasons and that rough start to 2022, the Panthers moved on from Matt Rhule and installed Defensive Passing Game Coordinator Steve Wilks as the interim head coach. Baker Mayfield, acquired in a midsummer trade from Cleveland, won the opening-day job over Sam Darnold, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason finale. The season started with two and three-point losses to the Browns and Giants, respectively, followed by a 22-14 win over division-rival New Orleans in Week Three. However, the Panthers then suffered lopsided losses to the Cardinals and 49ers and Mayfield incurred his own high ankle sprain in that latter defeat.

That brought on both Wilks and quarterback P.J. Walker, as Darnold had not yet come off injured reserve. The Panthers lost their next game, too, dropping a 24-10 decision to the Rams with Walker throwing for just 60 yards. However, Walker performed much better against the Buccaneers in Week Seven, tossing two touchdown passes and getting the support of 181 rushing yards from a McCaffrey-less backfield now led by D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. That 21-3 win began a 6-5 run to the end the season and get the Panthers back in the playoff hunt.

The Panthers would have been in even better shape at the end of the season if not for an incredible end to their game in Atlanta the following week. Trailing 34-28 with 23 seconds left, Walker launched a 62-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore that put the Panthers within an extra point of winning. However, Moore was then flagged for taking his helmet off on the field of play, which made that extra point attempt the equivalent of a 48-yard field goal and Eddy Pineiro sent it wide left. The Falcons would win, 37-34, with a field goal in overtime.

Carolina avenged that loss two weeks later with a 25-15 drubbing of the Falcons but Walker finished up the team's high ankle sprain trifecta and Mayfield got the job back for one more week. After a 13-3 loss to Baltimore, the Panthers turned to Darnold, who started the season's last six games, winning four of them. That included impressive victories over the playoff-bound Seahawks and the surging Lions. In the latter outing, Carolina ran for a franchise-record 320 yards, including 165 by Foreman and 125 by Hubbard.

The Panthers season came down to a rematch with the Buccaneers in Tampa. With a win and a season sweep, the Panthers would have gone into Week 18 with a chance to take the division with another win over the Saints. The Buccaneers would clinch their second consecutive NFC South crown with a victory. The visitors built 14-0 and 21-10 leads but the Bucs stormed back on the strength of three long touchdown catches by Mike Evans, scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter to win, 30-24. Carolina did go on to win its final game against the Saints to finish 7-10.

Unsurprisingly, given the quarterback carousel, the Panthers finished 29th in both passing yards and total offense, though they did rise to 20th in scoring. The rushing attack was much better, ranking 10th with 130.0 yards per game, as a previously subpar offensive line started to come together with rookie Ikem Ekwonu at left tackle, Bradley Bozeman at center and Austin Corbett at right guard. Darnold fared the best of the three quarterbacks, compiling a 92.6 passer rating, and Moore led the team in receiving with 63 catches for 888 yards and seven touchdowns, more than double the output of any other wideout on the team.

Carolina's defense ranked 22nd overall and 19th in points allowed, faring a bit better against the run (18th) than the pass (22nd). Brian Burns led the way with a career-high 12.5 sacks and off-ball linebacker Frankie Luvu had a breakout season with 111 tackles, 7.0 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Overall, however, the Panthers generated just 35 sacks and ranked 25th in sacks per pass play. Cornerback Jaycee Horn, the eighth-overall pick in 2021, led the team with three interceptions and seven passes defensed but missed time due to injury for the second year in a row.

2023 Arrivals

The first major arrival for the Panthers in 2023 was a new head coach. Wilks got consideration and endorsements from the locker room but the team chose to hire former Colts Head Coach Frank Reich. Though Reich was let go in Indy after a 3-5-1 start in 2022, he did finish his tenure with a 40-33-1 record and two playoff appearances.

After failing to find a quarterback solution following the Cam Newton era through a variety of veteran acquisitions (including, at one point, Newton himself), the Panthers made a dramatic move to land a potential franchise passer in the draft. After paying a hefty ransom to the Bears to move up from the ninth pick, the Panthers tabbed Alabama's Bryce Young with the first-overall pick. Young will be the smallest starting quarterback in the league but he excels in just about every aspect of the job, with vision, mobility, accuracy and a strong arm. Carolina did bring in Andy Dalton for some veteran presence.

Anticipating the arrival of a new quarterback, the Panthers spent heavily in free agency to build up their arsenal around him. That included a three-year commitment to former Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, a four-year deal for former Eagles running back Miles Sanders and another three-year deal for tight end Hayden Hurst, last with the Bengals. Thielen, who was cut by the Vikings in March, had 70 catches in 2022 but averaged just 10.2 per grab, and after scoring 24 times in the 2020-21 seasons he saw that number drop to six last year. Sanders, conversely, had his best season yet in 2022, rushing for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hurst will be playing for his fourth team in five years, and last season he hauled in 42 passes for 414 yards in Cincinnati. Carolina added further receiver depth with one-year deals for DJ Chark and Damiere Byrd.

The Panthers also added three potential starters on defense in free agency, starting with three-year deals for Saints defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and Bengals safety Vonn Bell. Tuttle has just 4.0 sacks in four seasons but he should slot in next to Derrick Brown to clog up the middle. Bell should line up next to Xavier Woods at the other end of the defense as the Panthers try to figure out how best to use Jeremy Chinn, perhaps in the slot. Bell snared a career-high four interceptions last season. Former Bronco DeShawn Williams got a one-year deal after starting 15 games and notching 4.5 sacks in 2022; he could start at defensive end.

Carolina added a handful of value free agency acquisitions to flesh out the reserve spots, including Texans guard Justin McCray, Dolphins safety Eric Rowe and Cardinals outside linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill.

The Panthers first pick after the Young selection was another weapon for the young passer, Mississippi wide receiver Jonathan Mingo at 39th overall. The 6-2, 220-pound Mingo can win physical battles and gets up to top speed smoothly and quickly. Third-round pick D.J. Johnson is a very powerful edge rusher who could provide quality rotational snaps if he can hone his technique and develop some more moves. The Panthers had only five total picks after their trade for Young and finished up with North Carolina State guard Chandler Zavala and Florida State safety Jammie Robinson.

2023 Departures

Carolina's biggest loss of the offseason was a necessary one. In order to complete their trade up to get Young, the Panthers had to include D.J. Moore, their top wideout, in a package also involving multiple draft picks. Moore racked up 5,201 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns in his five seasons in Charlotte and was the team's leading pass-catcher each of the last four years.

The Panthers didn't suffer much in the way of free agency defections, but they did divest of all four quarterbacks who threw a pass for them in the 2022 regular season. As noted earlier, Mayfield was released in December and landed immediately with the Rams. Darnold and Walker each got two-year deals in free agency, the former with San Francisco and the latter with Chicago. And after the team landed Young in the draft, it released Jacob Eason, who got a little mop-up duty in one game. The Panthers due still have 2022 third-round pick Matt Carrol, who missed his entire rookie season while on injured reserve.

Foreman joined Walker in Chicago on a one-year deal but the Panthers likely believe they upgraded from him to Sanders. Outside linebacker Cory Littleton, who spent just one season in Charlotte and started seven games, left for a one-year deal in Houston.

Carolina also cut center Pat Elflein in March, one day after giving a new long-term deal to Bozeman. Neither Elflein nor free agents defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis and linebacker Damien Wilson have yet to sign with another team.

Other Noteworthy Developments

After hiring Reich, the Panthers built a coaching staff underneath him that has been very well-received. Ejiro Evero, a rising star in the coaching ranks, comes over from Denver to serve as Reich's defensive coordinator. Amid what was a chaotic season in many ways in Denver, Evero directed the NFL's seventh-ranked defense, one that was equally strong against the run and pass. Thomas Brown did the NFL interview circuit early in the offseason and landed in Carolina, bringing with him the Sean McVay offensive influence. Other notable hires included Assistant Head Coach/Running Backs Coach Duce Staley, Quarterbacks Coach Josh McCown and Senior Defensive Assistant Dom Capers.

In 2022, Austin Corbett left the Super Bowl champion Rams to sign with Carolina, and he ended up starting all 17 games at right guard. However, he suffered a torn ACL in the last of those 17 games and has spent the offseason in rehab. In April, Reich acknowledged that Corbett is likely to miss some time when the 2023 season begins, which was the impetus to draft Chandler Zavala in the fourth round. Left guard Brady Christensen also fractured an ankle in that same game but he is expected to be ready for the beginning of the season.

In addition to their shopping spree on the open market, the Panthers also got new deals done for several of their own pending free agents. As noted above, one of those was for Bozeman, who started 11 games last year while on a one-year deal. Kicker Eddy Pineiro chose to stick around on a two-year deal after making 33 of 35 field goals and 30 of 32 extra point attempts in his first season with the Panthers. Reserve tackle Cameron Erving also came back on a one-year pact.

Pressing Questions

Have the Panthers surrounded Young with enough talent to help him hit the ground running?

Young got a lot of first-team snaps during the Panthers' offseason practices and drew praise from his teammates for his level of preparation. Like most teams with rookie quarterbacks taken early in the first round, the Panthers are insisting that there is no set timetable for when Young takes over as the starter. And like most teams in that situation, they will probably turn to Young very quickly, potentially in Week One.

There's no questioning Young's talents, and a strong offensive line should help him avoid taking too much abuse. The question is, how robust will Young's pass-catching corps prove to be, especially without Moore. Thielen had a productive tenure in Minnesota but will turn 33 during training camp and averaged 6.7 yards per target last year, by far the lowest mark of his career. Mingo has an impressive combination of size and speed but wasn't particularly productive at Mississippi. Chark averaged 16.7 yards per catch in Detroit last season and is still only 26 but has had difficulty staying on the field throughout his career. Laviska Shenault had just 27 catches in 13 games in his first season with the Panthers.

The addition of Sanders should keep the backfield solid, and Sanders has a 50-catch season on his resume so could also help Young out in the passing game. Hurst also gives Young a reliable outlet from the tight end position. Overall, it's an intriguing set of skill-position players but questions still remain about the receiving corps in particular.

Will the Panthers be able to generate a more impactful pass rush in 2023?

Brian Burns is a force off the edge and a good bet to challenge the double-digit sack line again in 2023. However, it might be a bit much to expect another 7.0-sack season from Luvu. Rotational player Marquis Haynes has not surpassed five sacks in any of his five seasons and Yetur Gross-Matos, the 38th pick in the 2020 draft, has a total of 8.5 sacks in three seasons.

As noted earlier, the Panthers' 6.03% sacks-per-pass-attempt figure in 2022 ranked 25th in the league, down from their ninth-place ranking the year before. Carolina would obviously like to get that number back up into the top 10, and they could be helped by the arrival of Evero and his 3-4 base defense. The scheme could allow Luvu to get some more pass-rush snaps off the edge and possibly match or exceed his 2022 output. Rookie D.J. Johnson could help in the edge rush rotation, too, and Gross-Matos could finally have a breakout season. It's also possible that pairing Shy Tuttle with Derrick Brown in the middle will force more attention from the blockers in that direction, creating one-on-one opportunities on the outside.

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