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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2024 Opponent Preview: Carolina Panthers, Weeks 13 & 17

The Panthers are banking on new Head Coach Dave Canales continuing his quarterback wizardry with 2023 first-overall pick Bryce Young, while the Carolina defense could have a half-dozen new starters in 2024


Players and coaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have begun their final break before the start of training camp, in which they are presumably getting their minds off football for a short stretch. That is not our approach, however. As we wait for those men and women to return to the playing field, we are taking an opportunity to look at each team Tampa Bay is going to face during the 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 Bucs will be up against this fall. Today we look at a team the Bucs won't cross paths with until December despite being NFC South rivals: the Carolina Panthers.

2023 Results

The Panthers started the 2023 season with a new coaching staff and a new starting quarterback, but any hopes of a quick turnaround after five straight losing seasons were quickly dashed by a six-game losing streak. While Bryce Young, the first-overall pick in the 2023 draft, was able to hold onto his job throughout the season, Head Coach Frank Reich was fired after the team's 1-10 start. The Panthers would finish with the worst record in the NFL, at 2-15.

The season began with consecutive intra-division losses to Atlanta and New Orleans, with Young completing 20 of 38 passes for 146 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in his NFL debut in Georgia. Carolina's home opener was a 20-17 defeat on Monday Night Football by the Saints, with Young suffering an ankle injury that would cause him to miss his only start in Week Three against Seattle. Veteran Andy Dalton got the call in that contest and threw for 361 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions but the Carolina defense allowed 425 yards and the Seahawks won, 37-27.

The Panthers gave up 42 points apiece against eventual playoff teams Detroit and Miami in Weeks Five and Six, then went into a very welcome bye week. After the time off, Carolina came back to notch their first victory of the season, a 15-13 decision over the Houston Texans in which Young outdueled eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year C.J. Stroud – the second pick in the draft – by throwing for 235 yards, a touchdown and no picks. He led a 15-play, 86-yard drive to set up Eddy Pineiro's game-winning field goal as time expired.

Six more losses followed, as Carolina averaged fewer than 12 points per game in that stretch and failed to top 18 points in any contest. Young threw three picks in a 27-13 loss to Indianapolis at home, and the Cowboys held the Panthers to 187 yards of offense in a 33-10 outcome in Week 11. The Buccaneers played host to their division foes in Week 13 and held off a late Carolina rally to gain a 21-18 win, with Mike Evans catching seven passes for 162 yards and a touchdown.

Carolina's second win of the season came in a toothless 9-7 home decision against Atlanta in Week 13, with neither team reaching 300 yards and the Panthers getting all their points from Pineiro field goals, the last one with time expiring. The Panthers had one of their best outings of the season in Week 16, taking the playoff-bound Packers to the brink before falling, 33-30, on a last-minute field goal. Young threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to D.J. Chark to forge a 30-30 tie before Jordan Love directed the game-winning drive for the visitors. The Panthers then failed to score a point in their last two outings, the latter of which was a 9-0 Bucs win in Charlotte that gave Tampa Bay its third consecutive NFC South crown.

Carolina's offense would finish the season last in yards per game (265.3) and tied for last in points per game (13.9). Young completed 59.8% of his passes for 2,877 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, directing the league's worst passing attack and finishing with a 73.7 passer rating. He was also sacked 62 times in 16 starts. Chuba Hubbard led the ground game with 902 yards and five touchdowns and Adam Thielen hauled in 103 passes but averaged just 9.8 yards per grab. No other Carolina player had more than 43 receptions.

The Panthers' defense fared significantly better, allowing just 293.9 yards per game to rank fourth in the NFL. However, Carolina allowed the fourth most points in the league, in part due to red zone struggles and a -9 turnover ratio. Linebacker Frankie Luvu led that group with 126 tackles and 5.5 sacks, while edge rusher Brian Burns had a team-best 8.0 sacks. Former first-round pick Derrick Brown controlled middle of the front line with 103 tackles and 15 quarterback hits.

2024 Arrivals

The Panthers made a concerted effort to improve Young's surroundings in Year Two, beefing up the interior of their offensive line and adding a handful of pass-catching weapons. The former project was accomplished with a pair of massive contracts handed out in the early days of free agency to former Dolphins guard Robert Hunt and former Seahawks guard Damien Lewis. Hunt got a five-year, $100 million deal while Lewis landed a four-year pact worth $53 million. While Carolina is set at the tackle spots with Taylor Moton and Ikem Ekwonu, they did add some depth at the spot with former Packer Yosh Nijman, who got a two-year deal.

The inflation of the receiving corps began just before the start of free agency when the Panthers sent cornerback Donte Jackson to Pittsburgh for wideout Diontae Johnson in what was essentially a player-for-player swap. Carolina hopes that Johnson can provide an element that group previously lacked, as he is adept at creating separation quickly, allowing his quarterback to get off throws earlier in his progression. The Panthers then made a value signing early in free agency with David Moore, who came on strong late in his one season with the Buccaneers. Finally, the team traded up one spot to get the last pick in the first round of the 2024 draft and used it on South Carolina pass-catcher Xavier Legette, who has drawn scouting comparisons to San Francisco's Deebo Samuel. Texas tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders, a fourth-round pick, could push for a starting job.

After the 2023 signing of former Eagle Miles Sanders failed to pay off, the Panthers invested a second-round pick in Texas's Jonathon Brooks, the first running back off the board. Brooks figures to unseat Hubbard as the team's primary ballcarrier, but after the draft the Panthers also picked up another former Eagle in Rashaad Penny.

Carolina used free agency to add up to six potential starters on defense: defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson (Giants), outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney (Ravens) and D.J. Wonnum (Vikings), linebacker Josey Jewell (Broncos), cornerback Dane Jackson (Bills) and safety Jordan Fuller (Rams). Robinson got the biggest deal, a three-year, 22.5 million agreement, while Jewell also landed a three-year contract. Clowney is coming off a strong season in Baltimore in which he set a career high with 9.5 sacks. Robinson will join Brown to form a massive interior-line duo.

Carolina also added some depth pieces on defense, giving a one-year deal to former Jaguars first-rounder K'Lavon Chaisson, an edge rusher, and picking up former Bengals safety Nick Scott after he was cut. The Panthers also used a third-round draft pick on Kentucky linebacker Trevin Wallace and a fifth-rounder on Washington State cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who could factor into the equation in the slot.

2024 Departures

As noted above, the Panthers used cornerback Donte Jackson, a second-round pick in 2018, to acquire wide receiver Diontae Johnson; Jackson started 76 games over six seasons in Charlotte. Carolina's other trade of the offseason was even bigger, as the team used the franchise tag on Brian Burns before dealing him to the Giants for a 2024 second-round pick, a 2025 fifth-round selection and a swap of 2024 fifth-rounders. Burns, a first-round pick in 2019, had at least 7.5 sacks in each of his five seasons with the team.

Carolina released three veteran players near the start of free agency, bidding farewell to safety Vonn Bell, center Bradley Bozeman and tight end Hayden Hurst. Bell went back to Cincinnati after a lone season in Charlotte, while both Bozeman and Hurst signed with the Chargers.

In addition to the trade of their sack leader, the Panthers also saw their top tackler leave town when Luvu signed a three-year deal with the Commanders. Safety Jeremy Chinn, a second-round pick in 2020 who started 50 games over four seasons with Carolina, joined his teammate in Washington. Edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos also departed, inking a two-year pact with the 49ers.

Other members of the Panthers' 2023 roster who found new homes in free agency included Chark (Chargers), cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin (Vikings) and C.J. Henderson (Texans), outside linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (Vikings) and wide receiver Laviska Shenault (Seahawks).

Other Noteworthy Developments

As noted earlier, Frank Reich failed to make it through his first season as the Panthers' head coach, with Chris Tabor serving as the interim leader for the last six games. Carolina poached their new head coach from Tampa Bay's staff, hiring Dave Canales, who had spent one season as the Bucs' offensive coordinator. After Canales was instrumental in the career revivals of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Baker Mayfield, it's easy to see why the Panthers would want to involve him the development of Young.

Canales brought former Bucs' Wide Receivers Coach Brad Idzik with him to Charlotte to serve as offensive coordinator; however, Canales is expected to keep the play-calling duties to himself. Two other members of Todd Bowles' staff in Tampa also joined Canales in Charlotte, as Harold Goodwin is the new assistant head coach/run game coordinator and Joe Gilbert is the new offensive line coach. Carolina retained most of its defensive coaching staff from 2023, including coordinator Ejiro Evero, defensive line coach Todd Wash and senior defensive assistant Dom Capers. Tabor was not retained, and the new special teams coordinator is Tracy Smith, whom Canales previously worked with in Seattle.

The Panthers exercised their fifth-year contract option on cornerback Jaycee Horn, the eighth overall pick in the 2021 draft. Horn has had unfortunate luck with injuries, missing 29 games over his first three seasons, but has played at a high level when healthy. Carolina also gave new one-year deals to safety Sam Franklin and wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Carolina has a number of players from its 2023 roster who hit free agency and have not yet been re-signed or signed elsewhere. That group includes defensive ends Marquis Haynes and Henry Anderson, guards Gabe Jackson and Justin McCray and defensive tackle Chris Wormley.

Pressing Questions

Can Dave Canales get Bryce Young's nascent career on track?

Again, Canales's appeal to the Panthers was clear after his impressive work with Smith and Mayfield. Smith was a journeyman who had started a total of five games in his six previous seasons before he put together a 4,200-yard, 30-touchdown season for Seattle in 2022, with Canales as his position coach. In his one season as the Buccaneers' offensive coordinator, he helped Mayfield, who had been with three other teams in the previous calendar year, have his best season in 2023, with 4,044 yards and 28 touchdown passes. Both veteran quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs.

The playoffs would be a lofty goal for a team coming off a two-win season, but any meaningful progress for Young would be a critical success for the franchise. Young's struggles in 2023, which weren't totally unexpected for a rookie on a struggling team, were thrown into sharper relief by the outsized success of Stroud in Houston. The Panthers traded up in the 2023 draft to get the first pick, using it on Young just one spot ahead of Stroud and costing the franchise what proved to be the first-overall pick in this year's draft. That huge investment promised to set the course for the Panthers for years to come, for better or worse.

There's reason to believe it will be for the better. Young was considered something of a risk given his diminutive frame, but he is clearly an extremely talented athlete and passer. The Panthers created a better atmosphere in which to judge his progress in his second season by investing heavily in the offensive line and the pass-catching corps. With Canales now leading the way, the Panthers are betting on Young showing why he was the first pick in the draft.

Will the Panthers' defense get results similar to 2023 after an extensive reworking of the starting lineup?

Carolina's defense was quietly effective during a lost 2023 campaign, allowing just 293.9 yards per game and holding opposing passers to just 19 touchdowns. This came under the direction of a rapidly rising star in the coaching ranks in coordinator Ejiro Evero. The Panthers kept Evero in the building during their 2024 coaching changes, but they did not do the same with several of the key figures in that successful defense.

As noted above, Frankie Luvu and Brian Burns, the team's leading tackler and sacker, respectively, are both now on new teams. Jeremy Chinn, who showed flashes of playmaking ability but was a bit of an athlete in search of a position, is gone now, too, as is 2020 second-rounder Yetur Gross-Matos.

The Panthers' active run through free agency provided answers to all the new holes on the defensive depth chart with a host of players who have had clear success at other NFL stops. A'Shawn Robinson is a run-stuffing running mate for Derrick Brown, Jadeveon Clowney is an impactful edge defender beyond his sack totals and Josey Jewell had three 100-tackle campaigns in Denver. D.J. Wonnum, Jordan Fuller and Dane Jackson could all be new starters, as well, and the Panthers hope to get more than six games out of Jaycee Horn in 2024. The question is, will all the new pieces fit together well and former a cohesive unit as effective as the one the Panthers had in 2023?

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