CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers have made it clear all offseason that improved play at quarterback, whether from newly acquired Baker Mayfield or returning starter Sam Darnold, will be key to turning around an organization that has won five games in each of the past three seasons
They hope the competition between Mayfield and Darnold, who rank first (56) and second (52) in interceptions since 2018, will accomplish that.
But quarterback isn’t the only position where Carolina needs a player to step up. Here’s a look at three who could help coach Matt Rhule’s job security and possibly get the Panthers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017:
Wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr.
A highlight of a June minicamp was Marshall running down a deep pass from Darnold. Marshall later called it “just the beginning.’’
The 2021 second-round pick out of LSU never really got his rookie season started. He was a spectator for most offseason workouts while recovering from an injury sustained in college. He was limited to 17 catches for 138 yards and no touchdowns in 13 games during the season, and his longest catch was 23 yards in Week 3.
His ineffectiveness allowed opposing defenses to focus on DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson; the latter's production fell to 53 catches after having 95 in 2021. Having a third threat like Marshall will open up the offense of new coordinator Ben McAdoo. Running back Christian McCaffrey is optimistic that will happen, saying he’s seen a “massive leap’’ in Marshall from last year. Rhule said he expects a “ton of production’’ from the 6-foot-2 pass-catcher who can play all three receiver positions.
“In hiring Ben, one of the things for me that was really important was I didn’t want to just utilize one or two players,’’ Rhule said. “I wanted to make sure we had answers for every coverage, we had answers for every blitz. That should give you an idea in terms of what some of my concerns were last year.’’
Linebacker Frankie Luvu
Losing sack leader Haason Reddick (11) in free agency was the biggest blow to a defense that finished second in the NFL last season. It also wasn’t a surprise because of Reddick’s price tag, as he got a three-year, $45 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.
If Luvu meets the expectations Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have for him, losing Reddick won’t be much of a blow at all. They gave Luvu a two-year, $9 million extension after he had 1.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss and 5 quarterback hits in a limited role last season. They saw the potential in a player who had the highest grade among all Carolina defenders (84.8) from Pro Football Focus. They also saw Luvu’s potential leadership that surfaced during offseason workouts.
“His energy and how he plays he game, that’s really important, and we try to stress that,’’ Snow said. “An average play is six seconds, and if you can get 11 guys to play snap to whistle at a high level and be physical while they’re doing it, then you have a chance to be pretty good on defense. He’s a reflection of that. He’s the brand, the standard.’’
Luvu also brings flexibility in terms of being able to rush off the edge, move inside and drop into coverage. The latter is key. The Panthers have been looking for another linebacker with coverage ability to play with Shaq Thompson since Luke Kuechly surprisingly retired after the 2019 season.
“He’s a big part of our defense,’’ Thompson said of Luvu. “He’s one you can count on to make a play. He’s one you can count on off the field to be there for you.’’
Cornerback CJ Henderson
The return of 2021 first-round pick Jaycee Horn from a right foot injury and re-signing of Donte Jackson in free agency got headlines during the offseason. But the key to taking this secondary from good to possibly great is Henderson, the ninth pick of the 2020 draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Carolina traded for Henderson last season after Horn was injured. He didn’t play a big role as he adjusted to a new system, and then he got lost in the shuffle with the addition of Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore during the season.
But the talent that made Henderson a first-round pick started to emerge during offseason workouts. You also could see he benefited from his short time playing with Gilmore, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts in free agency.
“C.J.’s stepped up big,’’ Thompson said. “He’s out there talking, communicating, playing fast, has a lot of confidence in himself.’’
Solid play by Henderson would give new secondary coach Steve Wilks a lot of flexibility, starting with allowing Horn to play more as a nickel corner in passing situations.
“He’s going to be a big impact on this defense,’’ Thompson predicted.