The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have to go through a largely under-the-radar Carolina Panther pass rush if they want the NFC South division crown this year. After splitting the season series last year in two of Tampa Bay's most high profile games of the season, the Bucs will face off with the division foes on Weeks Two and 10.
Carolina's 5-11 record in 2019 wouldn't clue you in on how effective the Panthers were at taking down opposing quarterbacks - they were second in the league with 53.0 sacks. Where they rank in other defense categories might, though. But the biggest factor in Carolina's downturn was undoubtedly the inconsistency at signal caller. Quarterback Cam Newton again battled through injury and succumbed in Week Three, after the team's first meeting with the Bucs on Thursday Night Football the week before. Tampa Bay took that primetime contest in spectacular fashion on fourth-down nearly goal-line stop that preserved their lead. The Bucs wouldn't be as successful though in London as the two teams faced off overseas.
Now, the Panthers have solidified their man under center, signing perhaps the second-most sought-after free agent quarterback this offseason in Teddy Bridgewater. The former New Orleans Saint had filled in admirably when veteran Drew Brees went down with a thumb injury, earning him a major payday and a starting job for the division rivals. It should add some consistency to the offensive side of the ball that was largely middle of the pack last year.
2019 Record: 5-11
Scoring Offense: T-18th (20.6 points per game)
Total Offense: 19th (341.8 total yards per game)
Rushing Offense: 14th (113.7 rushing yards per game)
Passing Offense: 10th (258.4 passing yards per game)
Scoring Defense: 31st (29.4 points allowed per game)
Total Defense: 23rd (374.5 total yards allowed per game)
Rushing Defense: 29th (143.5 rushing yards allowed per game)
Passing Defense: 13th (231.0 passing yards allowed per game)
Turnover Margin: T-29 (-14)
With quarterback Kyle Allen under center for most of the year, the Panthers weren't able to get anything significant going on offense – at least as far as points were concerned. Turnovers were a big issue for the young signal caller, who fumbled 13 times throughout the course of the season. It led to a dismal turnover differential, putting them near the bottom of the league.
The defense wasn't too much help, either. They took the ball away 21 times, tying them with the Jets for the 17th-most in the league. They also let up a ton of yards on the ground, with seemingly no answer for opposing running backs… until the draft.
Panthers' 2020 Draft Class: DT Derrick Brown, Auburn (Round 1, 7th overall), EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State (Round 2, 38th overall), S Jeremy Chinn, Southern Ill. (Round 2, 64th overall), CB Troy Pride, Notre Dame (Round 3, 113th overall), S Kenny Robinson, West Virginia (Round 5, 152nd overall), DT Brayvion Roy, Baylor (Round 6, 184th overall), CB Stanley Thomas-Oliver, Florida International (Round 7, 221st overall)
The Panthers made history by becoming the first team to draft all defensive players in the modern draft era, picking one player per round in last month's draft. They beefed up the defense with two defensive tackles, one of which is a projected Pro Bowl-caliber player already, two safeties, two corners and a big edge rusher, who could potentially even play inside.
There are a couple of great picks that Carolina admittedly deserves credit for. Chinn is a safety who should be able to help in run support, but the star of the draft is clearly their first-round pick. Carolina had the option to take Clemson's Isaiah Simmons and many were surprised, none more than Arizona, who snatched him up with the very next pick. Looking at their run defense ranking though, it's really not surprising at all. They didn't need a chess piece in Simmons, they needed an anchor like Brown – and they got one.
Key Veteran Additions: QB Teddy Bridgewater, DE Stephen Weatherly, DL Chris Smith, OL John Miller, CB Juston Burris
Notable Departures: S Eric Reid, LB Bruce Irvin, CB James Bradberry, DE Mario Addison, DL Gerald McCoy, TE Greg Olsen, DL Vernon Butler Jr.
After seeing the list of defensive players especially that jumped ship in free agency to sign elsewhere, it's no wonder the draft ended up heavy on that side of the ball. Though Carolina did make an effort to replace some of the departed with Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson – I mean – Stephen Weatherly, Chris Smith and Juston Burris, while re-signing Tre Boston. Interestingly enough, the Panthers also kept Kyle Allen to back up Bridgewater, re-signing him to a one-year deal.
The biggest difference between last year and this one has nothing to do with the players. It will be Carolina Head Coach Matt Rhule's first season as a head coach in the NFL. Rhule spent the last three seasons as the head coach at Baylor, winning Big 12 Coach of the Year last season. Before that he was the head coach at Temple from 2013-2016. Rhule's only NFL experience came in 2012, when he was the assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants.
So not only has there been quite the roster turnover, the re-tooled Panthers will look completely different when they visit the Bucs for weeks two and 10.