While COVID-19 keeps ruining the entire world, there’s still a glimmer of hope that the football will go on as planned in the fall. And until the nightmare of a postponed or canceled season comes to fruition, I’ll be throwing around money on NFL futures. So, take your unemployment benefits or stimulus checks and follow along with me, because, for the next few weeks, I’m setting you up with some no-brainer plays. All lines come courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook and are dependent on the season playing out in full.
The Carolina Panthers are one of bettors’ least favorite teams for 2020, with a line of just 5.5 wins. This is a rebuilding team under first-year head coach Matt Rhule, with rookies and young vets all over the defense, but the offense has star power in running back Christian McCaffery and wide receiver D.J. Moore. Per usual, the passing game will make or break this team, and new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has a lot to prove in his first starting gig in five years.
- Line: 5.5 Wins (Over -130, Under +110)
- 2019 record: 5-11
- 2019 expected W-L based on point differential: 5.1-10.9
- Adjusted Games Lost to injuries in 2019: 66.2 (15th most)
- Overall DVOA: -26.7 (31st)
- Offense: -13.9% (27th)
- Defense: 22.1% (32nd)
- Special Teams: -1.3% (22nd)
- The difficulty of schedule in 2019 (based on Football Outsiders’ DVOA): 4th
- The projected difficulty of schedule in 2020 (based on ESPN’s FPI): 9th toughest
- Number of Returning Starters: 9
- Offense: 6
- Defense: 3
- Key additions: Matt Rhule, Teddy Bridgewater, Russell Okung, and Robby Anderson
- Key losses: Ron Rivera, Luke Kuechly, James Bradberry, Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, and so many others
Cam Newton and Ron Rivera are out after their nine seasons of service in Carolina, Bridgewater and Rhule are in. Rhule makes his NFL debut after successful stints in rebuilding Temple’s and Baylor’s football programs, and his seven-year deal gives him time to try and do the same with the Panthers.
Rhule will mostly focus his efforts on team-building and culture, which gives new offensive coordinator Joe Brady the chance to re-work this offense to his liking. The 30-year-old and first-time OC at any level hasn’t revealed a lot about what he has in store for this unit, but he was accommodating enough to let reporters know that his system “is going to be what our players do best.” At the very least, we can assume he’ll use similar concepts as last year’s LSU offense, where Brady was the passing-game coordinator, which means spread formations, a lot of pre-snap movement, and a solid dose of run-pass options (RPO).
Bridgewater came to Carolina this offseason on a three-year deal after five undefeated starts with the Saints last year. The former Louisville Cardinal put together easily the best performance of his career over that stretch, showing that he can be more than just the game manager he was in Minnesota. Of course, New Orleans has an offensive genius in Sean Payton calling the shots and one of the most talented rosters in the league, so most any NFL quarterback would play well in those circumstances.
Carolina’s offensive line is decidedly worse than New Orleans’, but Teddy Two-Gloves will have one of the league’s better skill-position groups to work with, featuring all-pro running back McCaffery, and wide receivers Moore and Robby Anderson. The depth is a little shaky after those guys, but wide receiver Curtis Samuel and tight end Ian Thomas are still young and have time to grow into meaningful contributors.
I’m curious how Rhule and Brady want to use Bridgewater. Brady helped Joe Burrow downfield passer in college football last season, while Bridgewater’s passes last season went an average distance of 6.2 yards according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the lowest mark among all qualifying QBs in 2019. Part of that had to do with New Orleans’ offense (Drew Brees had the fourth-lowest average distance on his passes), but Bridgewater has never been a guy to air the ball out. That’s not to say he can’t develop that part of his game under Brady, or that Moore and Anderson can’t be effective on short and intermediate routes, but figuring out how to make everyone’s game work together is the big question this offense will need to answer if Carolina wants to be competitive in 2020.
That question only gets more complicated if left tackle Russell Okung isn’t able to play at a pro-bowl caliber level again after an injury-plagued 2019, which included a nearly fatal pulmonary embolism. If the 33-year-old has lost a step, or if he misses time with more injuries, there’s no one on that roster outside of right tackle Taylor Moton to trust in pass protection. Bridgewater won’t be able to accomplish much if he faces pressure every third snap.
Not too much to say here, because we all know that McCaffery is going to take care of his business once again. I actually don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is in the ground game, because he wasn’t just good running the ball last year, he was one of the most efficient bell-cow backs. Among running backs with at least 250 carries last season, only Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry had a better yards-per-carry mark than McCaffery. The analytics are more-or-less in line with what the raw stats say.
While I don’t think it’ll have too much of a bearing on how McCaffery will perform in 2020, if at all, the concerns with the offensive line mentioned above apply here, too. Beyond the questions surrounding Okung, McCaffery is going to have two new guards to run behind this season, with John Miller and Michael Schofield looking like they’ll be the Week 1 starters. Of the two, only Miller graded among the top 50 of offensive guards for run blocking last season according to PFF, and he came in at 50th. This is Christian McCaffery we’re talking about here, but damn, the Panthers are not making it easy for him.
The good news for the defense: Almost none of the starters are back from last year’s group, which was the league’s worst on Football Outsider’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric. The bad news: Just about none of the starters who were actually good last season are back. That group of departures includes linebacker and franchise icon Luke Kuechly, edge rusher Mario Addison, and cornerback James Bradberry. Some promising players are going to get a chance to make a big impact, most notably edge rusher Brian Burns, but for the most part, this unit is littered with rookies and uninspiring vets.
The only thing this defense did well last season was getting to the passer, with their 53 sacks the second-best mark of 2019. The guys responsible for 40.5 sacks of those sacks are gone though, and outside of Burns, no one’s a good bet to make significant contributions to the pass rush. Getting Kawaan Short back on the interior after he missed all but two games will help, but it’s been five years since his lone season with double-digit sacks. Then there are rookies Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos, and they bring a lot of upside, but expectations can’t be too high for newbies who have had an abbreviated offseason.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson, who is heading into his sixth season with this franchise, is the new leader of this defense. He has had a solid career so far, but it’s too much to ask the former Washington Huskie to fill Kuechly’s shoes in the middle of this unit. Thompson is capable in coverage against running backs and tight ends, Kuechly was arguably the best pass-defending linebacker of all time. Tahir Whitehead joins Carolina for his ninth season and 2018 draft pick Marquis Haynes will get a shot to make his first career start, and they round out an uninspiring off-ball linebacker group.
The secondary isn’t looking too much better, if at all. Tre Boston’s an underrated safety and a strong presence in coverage, but other than that, it’s slim pickings for optimism. Second-round pick Jeremy Chinn will line up in the other safety spot, and he profiles as an athletic “do-it-all” defender, but for now, he’s more of a thumper than a lockdown defensive back and will probably spend more time in the box than downfield. Donte Jackson and Eli Apple make up one of the lower-tier starting cornerback duos, while fourth-round rookie Troy Pride is probably the best of the bad options for nickel duties. What do you get when you combine those two things together? Possibly the worst corner group in the league.
If that didn’t sound bad enough, get ready for this run defense.
The Panthers were beyond horrendous last season stopping the run, giving up 2296 yards on the ground on a league-worst 5.2 yards per carry. The real masterpiece though was that teams scored 31 (thirty fucking one!) rushing touchdowns on Carolina in 2019. That was just the ninth time a team allowed 30 or more rushing scores in a season, and the last to do it was the 0-16 Lions back in 2008. We may get to see history in 2020, because the record in this category is 36 courtesy of the 1961 Oakland Raiders, and as you may recall, Carolina is down one future Hall-of-Fame linebacker from last year’s group. Gross-Matos, and especially Brown, should be bigger difference makers in the run game than as pass rushers right off the bat, but once again, expectations can’t be too high.
The back-end of the defense probably won’t be of much help either. Apple played well against the run last year, posting the sixth-best run defense grade among cornerbacks according to PFF. Jackson and Boston aren’t so highly regarded in that part of their game though, with the latter sporting PFF’s second-lowest run defense grade among safeties in 2019. The big hope is that Chinn can be a difference-maker in this role, too. Rhule said recently that the 6’3” 221-pounder out of Southern Illinois “could be an excellent run defender,” so there’s that.
Why the Over Will Hit
The offense has a chance to be decent. Christian McCaffery will still be the most productive skill player in the game, the offensive line won’t be a turnstile if Okung is able to return to form, and you could do a lot worse at wide receiver than having Robby Anderson line up opposite of D.J. Moore. So, it’ll really come down to Bridgewater and if he’s capable of putting an offense on his back and throwing the ball 35 times a game. And he will need to throw that much, because, as I already mentioned, this defense is going to give up points like it’s nobody’s business, which will require some passing-game heroics to keep this team competitive.
Even if Bridgewater isn’t ready to be a gunslinger, at the very least, he should help in one area that killed the Panthers last season: turnovers. Carolina’s 35 turnovers were the second-most in the league in 2019. Meanwhile, Bridgewater’s 1.0% interception rate last year would have been the third-best mark in the league had he qualified for the NFL’s leaderboards.
Brady comes with a lot of hype of his own, and he just might be the guy to take Bridgewater to the next level. Brady was an offensive assistant with the Saints in from 2017-2018 and spent the latter year working with Bridgewater, so there is some familiarity already. Even though this is Brady’s first time as an offensive coordinator, all he did last season at LSU was help Burrow put together the greatest single season in college football history. If Brady can help boost Bridgewater’s game a fraction of what he accomplished with Burrow, this team won’t be a total doormat.
Winning six games is a pretty low bar to clear, especially if you have just a somewhat competent offense. Shit, you can be a garbage team and still luck your way into six wins.
Why the Under Will Hit
The defense has a chance to be as bad, if not worse, than last year’s group. Despite the terrible performance, the Panthers had a handful of talented players on that side of the ball last season. Now that most of them are gone though, there’s no limit to just how bad this year’s squad can be. If they do match last year’s lows and force Bridgewater to play catch-up by throwing the ball more time than he should, the under will be an easy hit.
Speaking of the high turnover from last season’s roster, of the 27 players who made at least five starts for this team in 2019, 15 are no longer on the roster. That kind of drastic change with an abbreviated offseason program is not a winning combo, especially not with a head coach who has the long-term job security to take his time molding this team in his image. Besides, does this organization even want to win this season? Find me one Panthers fan who would prefer this team wins six or seven games this season instead of tanking so that they can draft Trevor Lawrence. If you do stumble upon someone like that, do them a favor and tell them to stop watching football.
There has never been a season in which every team won more than four games, so it’s safe to say that at least one team this season is going to end up with four wins or fewer, and the Panthers are primed to be part of that group. Teddy Bridgewater is finally getting his shot to make good on all that promise he flashed in Minnesota, but I’m not sure all those years of rehab and sitting on the bench helped him become an elite passer capable of singularly lifting a bad roster. I’m going with the under, and I’m feeling pretty good about it, so I’ll throw down three units.