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An early look at the Saints 2021 opponents: Carolina Panthers

Saints will have early shot at division rival in 2021

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers have much more in common than playing in the NFC South. Both teams will have new starting quarterbacks in 2021, players cast aside by their former teams for being mistake prone and too erratic. Both teams have superstars on offense looking to bounce back from lost seasons in Michael Thomas and Christian McCaffrey. And both teams are hoping their defenses can help stacked offenses to make the playoffs. The Panthers could be a sneaky good team in 2021, as long as their new QB and defense can play well, a statement that seemingly can also be applied to the Saints.

The last meeting

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

2020 Week 17 @ Carolina, Saints 33, Panthers 7

The Saints and Panthers have met fairly recently, as the 2020 regular season came to a close for the Saints in Carolina. With their playoff position already locked in, New Orleans opted to sit some key players such as Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. Ty Montgomery finally got his shot at some playing time after an injury plagued season, and delivered a 14-carry 105 yard performance. In what was his final regular season game, Drew Brees threw for 3 touchdowns and not a single interception.

The Panthers season came to a disappointing end in Week 17 against New Orleans, as Teddy Bridgewater and P.J. Walker combined to throw 5 interceptions and not a single touchdown. Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore both managed to eclipse 100 yards receiving, but the turnovers proved to be the Panthers undoing, as they scored just 7 points.

The Saints entered the playoffs coming off of this 26 point win over their division rival. The momentum carried into the Wild Card round, but the Saints would eventually fall to another division rival in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks after defeating the Panthers.

Key Departures

Carolina Panthers v Washington Football Team Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Despite their struggles in 2020, the Carolina Panthers have one of the more underrated offenses in the league. The loss of Christian McCaffrey of course did not help, but Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore each finished in the top-15 in receiving yards in 2020. The player who benefitted the most from McCaffrey’s absence however was wide receiver Curtis Samuel. Samuel was the gadget player in the Panthers offense, as he was the one taking the end arounds and receiving his fair share of rushing attempts as well as receptions. In the 2021 offseason, the versatile WR cashed in on this opportunity by signing a 3-year $34.5 million contract with the Washington Football Team.

Also leaving the Panthers was running back Mike Davis. When McCaffrey was lost for the season, it was Davis that picked up much of the slack on the ground in Carolina, running for a career high 642 yards and 6 TDs in 2020. Davis joined the Falcons in the offseason where he will wear #28 and try and help Atlanta improve to #3 in the division this year.

Key additions

South Carolina v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Panthers drafted like a team trying to win over the city of New Orleans, as they used their first two picks on Jaycee Horn, son of Saints legend Joe Horn, and LSU WR Terrence Marshall Jr. Horn was arguably the top CB in the Draft, but the pick came as a surprise to some as the QB needy Panthers passed on Justin Fields to select the former Gamecock. The Panthers also selected Oklahoma State RB Chubba Hubbard in the 4th round. Hubbard will be a solid backup to McCaffrey and could be an interesting weapon for Joe Brady and the Panthers offense.

The highest profile move the Panthers made this offseason was trading for former New York Jets QB Sam Darnold. The Panthers elected to move on from Teddy Bridgewater and make Darnold their starting quarterback. Darnold had his struggles in New York, and looked more and more like a bust with every pass he threw, but a change of scenery could help him though. He now has better weapons than he ever had in New York, and will not have the scrutiny of the New York media and fanbase bearing down on him 24/7.

The Panthers elected to use their franchise tag on right tackle Taylor Moton. This was a move the Panthers had to make, as they needed to keep their offensive line intact for their new QB. Moton is a very good RT, and will be a player the Panthers will prioritize signing to a long term deal in the 2022 offseason.

Biggest offseason story

Carolina Panthers Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

With the New York Jets holding the 2nd overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, it looked highly likely that former 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold would be on his way out the door. This notion became a reality on April 5th, when the Panthers acquired Darnold for a 6th round pick in the 2021 Draft, and 2nd and 4th round picks in the 2022 Draft. 2020 starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was promptly traded to the Denver Broncos a few weeks later.

Darnold is coming off his worst year as a starter, not something you want to see in a player’s third year in the NFL. He is an erratic thrower at times, and throws way too many interceptions and off target passes to be considered a top 20 QB. However, he is now in easily the best situation of his career, on a team with a lot of weapons, and coaches that will be able to design an offense tailored to Darnold’s needs. The pressure of playing in New York has also been lifted off Darnold’s shoulders, as the demands of the media and fanbase in the Big Apple may have gotten to Darnold’s psyche and led to him second guessing his abilities.

Darnold’s play will make or break the Panther’s season. If he can play like a top 20 QB, then Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson, and D.J. Moore are a good enough tandem to win 9 or 10 games. If Darnold is already too far gone and cannot improve from his seasons in New York, then the Panthers might be wishing they had not passed on players such as Justin Fields and Mac Jones in this years draft.

Questions for Week 2

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Can Christian McCaffrey and Michael Thomas bounce back from lost seasons?

Christian McCaffrey and Michael Thomas were arguably the two best offensive players in the NFL in 2019. Their 2020 campaigns however were marred by injury. McCaffrey only played in three games last season, while Thomas only appeared in seven. Both players will look to return strong from injury in 2021, and their Week 2 matchup will be a good measuring stick for the rest of the season.

Which new QB will have more success?

The Saints and Panthers will each enter Week 2 with new faces at quarterback. Jameis Winston and Sam Darnold take the reigns from two former Saints QBs. Drew Brees’s retirement and Teddy Bridgewater being traded opens the door for two very similar players. Winston and Darnold were both cast aside by their former teams for making far too many mistakes. They combined to throw 83 interceptions since 2018, with neither QB ever having a season with fewer than 11 INTs. Both players however, currently find themselves in the best positions of their career, with great weapons and coaches around them. 2021 will look to be a bounce back year for both Winston and Darnold.

Can the Saints contain D.J. Moore?

D.J. Moore is one of the more underrated players in the NFL. Moore has gone for over 81 yards in each of his last four games against the Saints, and has scored twice in two of those games. It will be interesting to see who Marshon Lattimore follows come Week 2, as he could cover Robby Anderson, who is listed as the #1 WR on the current depth chart, or Moore, who has been a thorn in the Saints side since Week 17 of 2018.

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