David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer 46d

Carolina Panthers' roster analysis: How a CB can help QB Sam Darnold succeed

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The 2021 NFL draft for the Carolina Panthers was all about giving quarterback Sam Darnold a chance to succeed, starting with cornerback Jaycee Horn in the first round.

So how can a corner help Darnold, the third pick of the 2018 draft who was acquired last month in a trade with the New York Jets? As offensive coordinator Joe Brady told coach Matt Rhule, “Every time we get the ball back, that’s one more possession for the offense.’’

“That’s one more play for Sam," Rhule continued. “You need to have great quarterback play, but a great team helps a great quarterback."

The Panthers believe so much in Darnold that they opted for Horn with the eighth pick when they could have selected Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields or Alabama’s Mac Jones.

“Everything for him doesn’t have to be a referendum on whether he’s a great quarterback or not," Rhule said of Darnold. “Sam is going to be as good as the guys around him, and we’ve tried to put a lot of really good players around him."

With that, here's a look at the post-draft roster, with rookies in bold and projected starters in italics:

OFFENSE

Quarterback (4): Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker, Will Grier, Tommy Stevens

Comment: Carolina picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option, guaranteeing him $18.9 million in 2022, so he’s on a two-year, prove-it deal. The battle here will be for the backup job. This is a make-or-break year for Grier, a third-round pick in 2019.

Running back (7): Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard, Rodney Smith, Trenton Cannon, Reggie Bonnafon, Darius Clark, Spencer Brown

Comment: McCaffrey is healthy after missing 13 games in 2020 and ready to return to 2019 form when he became the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards each in rushing and receiving in the same season. The question is how many carries will fourth-round pick Hubbard take away from him? The former Oklahoma State star rushed for 2,094 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2019 before injuries sidetracked his 2020 season. He had 171 yards rushing against Rhule’s Baylor defense in 2019. He can play. Ideally, this will be a one-two punch and lessen the load on McCaffrey’s body.

Fullback (2): Mike Daniel, Mason Stokke

Comment: Carolina moved on from Alex Armah in free agency, so one has to wonder if the fullback will play much of a role in this offense.

Wide receiver (12): DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr., David Moore, Shi Smith, Brandon Zylstra, Keith Kirkwood, Omar Bayless, Marken Michel, Ventell Bryant, Ishmael Hyman, Micah Simon

Comment: Marshall, Carolina’s second-round pick, had 23 touchdowns the past two seasons on an LSU team loaded with stars. He had 13 in 2019 with Brady as the pass-game coordinator. He’s big (6-2, 205), fast (4.40 40) and can play any receiver spot, so treat him like a starter from the get-go. The receiver group in general is so deep that final cuts here will be interesting.

Tight end (6): Dan Arnold, Tommy Tremble, Ian Thomas, Colin Thompson, Giovanni Ricci, Stephen Sullivan

Comment: Stevens, drafted by the Saints last season to play the role of TE/QB as Taysom Hill does, might find his way into this group. But the top two spots belong to free-agent acquisition Arnold and the rookie Tremble after three years of Thomas failing to meet expectations. Arnold will be the receiving threat and Tremble the nasty blocker who will protect Darnold. When asked for an example of his intensity, Tremble deadpanned, “You’ll see it when I knock a dude on the ground.’’

Offensive line (16): LT -- Cameron Erving, Trent Scott, Brady Christensen, Greg Little; LG -- Pat Elflein, Dennis Daley, David Moore; RG -- John Miller, Deonte Brown, Moore, Mike Horton; C -- Matt Paradis, Sam Tecklenburg; RT -- Taylor Moton, Christensen, Aaron Monteiro, Matt Kaskey, Martez Ivey

Comment: No group went through a bigger overhaul. Carolina used the franchise tag on Moton and signed Erving in free agency to compete for the LT spot that has seen 14 different starters the past six seasons. Don’t be surprised if draft picks Christensen and Brown figure into major playing time to protect Darnold.

DEFENSE

Defensive end (7): Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos, Marquis Haynes, Morgan Fox, Christian Miller, Austin Larkin, Frank Herron

Comment: The only real addition here came in free agency with Fox, who can be a rotational player on the edge or inside. Burns, the team’s 2019 first-round pick who had a team-high nine sacks in ’20, should only get better with more talent around him.

Defensive tackle (7): Derrick Brown, DaQuan Jones, Bravvion Roy, Daviyon Nixon, Phil Hoskins, Mike Panasiuk, P.J. Johnson

Comment: Signing Jones to a one-year deal to start next to 2020 first-round pick Brown gives defensive coordinator Phil Snow two massive bodies inside. Adding two draft picks in Nixon and Hoskins provides depth and competition that has taken this from a weak spot to a strength.

Middle linebacker (4): Denzel Perryman, Jermaine Carter, Paddy Fisher, Chris Orr

Comment: Perryman won’t be Luke Kuechly, but he is an upgrade from Tahir Whitehead. Carter also showed some promise late last season, so this position is more solid than a year ago.

Weakside linebacker (3): Shaq Thompson, Carter, Clay Johnston

Comment: Thompson, second on the team in tackles last season, owns this spot.

Strongside linebacker (4): Haason Reddick, Jeremy Chinn, Frankie Luvu, Daniel Bituli

Comment: Reddick was a huge offseason addition after 12.5 sacks last season for Arizona. He also can play down as an end, so he gives Carolina flexibility to morph from a 4-3 to a 3-4 seamlessly. He also allows flexibility to move Chinn, coming off an outstanding rookie season, to safety.

Cornerback (8): Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson, A.J. Bouye, Keith Taylor, Troy Price Jr., Rashaan Melvin, Stanley Thomas-Oliver, Jalen Julius

Comment: Horn gives Carolina potentially its best shutdown corner since Josh Norman during the 2015 Super Bowl season. His press coverage ability will allow him to play one-on-one with top NFC South receivers like Julio Jones and allow Carolina to play more man. Throw in free-agent signing Bouye and fifth-round pick Taylor, and all of a sudden a position that was weak is a strength.

Free safety (4): Jeremy Chinn, Kenny Robinson, Sean Chandler. J.T. Ibe

Comment: Chinn was forced to play more linebacker as a rookie out of necessity. Playing safety with the ability to move up to linebacker is where Carolina would like him to settle. Last year’s leading tackler is the X-factor Snow will utilize to keep offenses off balance.

Strong safety (3): Juston Burris, Sam Franklin, Myles Hartsfield

Comment: Rhule referred to Burris as an “unsung hero’’ last season. Can Burris back that up with another solid season? The rest of the depth is suspect.

SPECIALISTS

Kicker (2): Joey Slye, Matt Ammendola

Comment: There was a time in December after Slye missed a game-winning 54-yarder in Minnesota when his future was in doubt. It still is, so expect a competitive training camp.

Punter (2): Joseph Charlton, Oscar Draguicevich III

Comment: Carolina has brought in competition, but this is Charlton’s job.

Long-snapper (2): J.J. Jansen, Thomas Fletcher

Comment: Don’t be surprised if the Panthers move on from 35-year-old Jansen if sixth-round pick Fletcher proves to be the player he was at Alabama. Jansen counts almost $1 million against the cap -- a lot for a long-snapper.

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