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State of the Franchise: Panthers' Matt Rhule era begins with promise

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Panthers organization, Panthers fans around the world and those of you who won a fantasy football championship because you drafted Christian McCaffrey.

There is a change in Carolina. Ron Rivera is out and is now the head coach for the Washington Redskins. Luke Kuechly retired. Greg Olsen is in Seattle. Cam Newton is currently on the free-agent market. And Christian McCaffrey -- well, he's still there and paid handsomely for his continued presence. People in Charlotte don't even like Bojangles anymore. Just kidding! That will never change, but just about everything else did.

How the Panthers got here

Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2019.

The highs:

  • Christian McCaffrey. That's it. That's the sentence.
  • Winning four consecutive games to head into the Week 7 bye week at 4-2. Kyle Allen threw for 227 and a pair of touchdowns in the Week 6 win over the Buccaneers in London and you started to wonder if the Panthers had found their quarterback of the future.

The lows:

  • Firing Ron Rivera after Week 13. Which, and I know this was tough because it was inevitable, seemed a bit unnecessary. Especially for a coach who had taken his team to the Super Bowl. Let the guy finish out the season.
  • Losing eight consecutive games to close out the season. The Panthers were 1-15 in the second half of the last two seasons combined. And the 5-11 mark in 2019 was the franchise's worst record since 2010's 2-14.
  • And then Luke Kuechly retired.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Matt Rhule. It's hard to remember the last college coach who came to the NFL and made a huge impact. Jimmy Johnson? And sure, you could point to Pete Carroll and Bill O'Brien as college coaches who made the leap successfully. Carroll even won a Super Bowl. But both Carroll and O'Brien had extensive NFL backgrounds. Outside of one season as a Giants assistant in 2012, Rhule's been a college football coach. But a very successful one. Rhule won a bowl game at Temple -- which, to me, might be a bigger accomplishment than winning a national championship at Alabama. Then he went to Baylor, which was rocked by scandal under previous coach Art Briles, and made that program successful once again. That wasn't just a rebuild job. Rhule changed the culture and perception. O'Brien, for his part, impressively picked up the pieces at Penn State, but the Nittany Lions still had a century of historical prestige. Rhule did this at Baylor. I understand we've seen some shaky college coaches enter the NFL and fail. (Bobby Petrino and Greg Schiano immediately come to mind.) But given Rhule's history at building programs, I'm expecting Carolina to be back in the playoff mix sooner rather than later. In fact, I can't think of a better fit to come in and completely rebuild the Panthers than Rhule.

Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater. I know there are some of you who believe that Teddy is just a placeholder quarterback as the team tries to tank for Trevor Lawrence. Which is completely ridiculous because the Panthers did too great a job in the draft for that (more on that later). And Bridgewater is a really good quarterback. He was going to be a good quarterback for the Vikings before a major knee injury got the better of him. He also wisely took a backup job with the Saints for two seasons, allowing him to not only rehab his body, but also his career. He bided his time and flourished when presented with an opportunity. He went 5-0 in his starts, including a decisive win over the Chicago Bears, whose fans wanted him to be their starter this season. Even some Saints fans wondered if Teddy should be the quarterback of the future. But now he is going to be given a chance to lead the Panthers and have his own team. And remember, Rhule spoke glowingly of Cam when he took over the gig, and it seemed like they were going to make a go of it with the former MVP. You don't do that if you're going for a "bridge" quarterback, pun intended. He was good last year as the Saints' starter in Weeks 3-7, ranking fifth in passer rating, third in completion percentage and fourth in expected completion percentage during that span. In other words, he's going to be just fine.

Projected 2020 MVP: Christian McCaffrey, running back. I wrote earlier this year that McCaffrey was one of the most untradeable players in the NFL. Which kind of took NFL Twitter by storm because the value of running backs has been downplayed in the modern league. And then McCaffrey signed a huge extension, again, much to the chagrin of the "running backs don't matter" crowd. But McCaffrey is just a different kind of player. He had 2,392 scrimmage yards last year, the third-most in NFL history. He was the third player in league history to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same season. His 116 receptions were the most in a season by a running back in NFL history. And CMC is the only back who has totaled more than 250 receptions in his first three years. He has 303. He's incredible.

2020 breakout star: Brian Burns, defensive end. Have I mentioned that Luke Kuechly retired? That is going to be a HUGE void to fill on the defense. That's why the team will be looking at the second-year man out of Florida State to take a huge leap this season. Burns started with a burst, collecting 3.5 sacks in his first five games. But then he had some injury issues and things weren't the same. He did finish with 7.5 sacks and you saw glimpses of his athleticism. Burns was compared to Leonard Floyd coming into the league. Floyd is no longer with the team that drafted him. So it's up to Burns to meet expectations, and I believe he's going to do it.

Another new face to know: Robby Anderson, wide receiver. The former Jets receiver makes the Panthers' core pretty interesting, as he joins D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. Anderson has notched 102 receptions and 11 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Last year in this space, we talked about Moore being our 2019 breakout star, and that's exactly what happened. Another name to watch this year will be tight end Ian Thomas, who is expected to replace Greg Olsen.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency is: LOW. The Panthers are going to be given some wiggle room here. They are in a complete rebuild right now, but they have so many good pieces that they should be able to at least match (if not improve on) the five wins from 2019. The Panthers should be able to fly under the radar in the NFC South because the highest expectations will be on the Buccaneers and Saints, with the Falcons playing for Dan Quinn's job. I'm not saying this will happen, but they do have a chance to be one of those sneaky teams that make a run.

Three key dates:

Week 1 vs. Raiders. I kind of like the Panthers in this game. Any time you get a West Coast(ish) team going across the country, there is an opportunity for an upset.

Week 7 at New Orleans. Teddy Bridgewater REVENGE GAME.

Week 11 vs. Lions. I'm not saying this game will be for Trevor Lawrence. I'm also not not saying that.

Will the Panthers be able to ...

Play some defense? Phil Snow is the new defensive coordinator, taking over for the deposed Eric Washington. Snow is returning to the NFL for the first time since he was the Lions linebackers coach in 2008. He was the defensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan, Temple and Baylor in the past few years. A fun piece of trivia: He was the defensive coordinator at Arizona State during its famed run in 1996 and was the coordinator when Pat Tillman won the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year award in 1997. But now he's going to have some work to do with the Panthers, who did have 53 sacks (second-most in the NFL). That's the good. But they allowed at least 29 points in seven consecutive games to close the season. They allowed an average of 32.5 points per game in Weeks 5-17 (most in the NFL). This is probably why the team made so many changes, parting ways with Mario Addison, James Bradberry, Eric Reid, Dontari Poe, Vernon Butler and Bruce Irvin. But I'm a huge fan of what they did defensively in the draft. Derrick Brown is an absolute stud. You could have gone offensive line (more on that in a moment), but Brown has the look of a superstar and compares favorably to former Panther Kris Jenkins. Yetur Gross-Matos could easily have been taken in the first round, so that was a great value. And Jeremy Chinn is a very intriguing prospect, as is Troy Pride Jr. I would even rate the Panthers' draft as one of the best. Even with an offensive-minded coach, they went all in on defense.

Protect the quarterback? The Panthers allowed 58 sacks last season, the highest total in the NFL. Just adds to the impressiveness of McCaffrey's production, as the back put up those numbers behind an offensive line that was allowing the quarterback to get sacked at an absurd rate. And sitting at the No. 7 spot in the draft and taking Brown was one thing. As mentioned, it made sense. Gross-Matos was an awesome pick, again. But the Panthers didn't take a single offensive lineman in the draft. The team recently signed Michael Schofield after already adding Russell Okung, who both have connections with new offensive line coach Pat Meyer. Which is great, and something Carolina needed to happen. But let's be honest about the Panthers' O-line situation. Because when I think of Carolina, I don't think of solid offensive line play. I don't want to say that the Panthers' offensive line is a bunch of jobbers, but they are the Santino Marella of the NFL. This is highly concerning because Teddy isn't a mobile quarterback; he's going to need some solid line play in front of him. He's not Cam Newton, who can help mask some problems. Speaking of which ...

Live without Cam Newton? We talked about the loss of Luke previously. But Cam was not only the face of the Panthers for many years -- he was the face of the NFL for a stretch. And even though he played just two games last year, it's going to be weird seeing the Panthers without him. I mean, think about this: We're expected to see a Panthers vs. Buccaneers game with Bridgewater and Tom Brady as the opposing quarterbacks. That's pretty much what we all expected when Cam won the MVP award in 2015. I'm sure somebody predicted this exact scenario. I'm just curious who jumps up to fulfill that leadership role for this team. It's not just Cam. A year after losing Thomas Davis, Carolina lost coach Rivera, Olsen and now Cam.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: Joe Brady taking over as offensive coordinator. This was the most important hire outside of Rhule. Brady takes over one year removed from being the architect of one of the greatest offensive seasons in college history. At LSU, Brady brilliantly ran a sophisticated offense brimming with NFL talent. He is also the elder statesman of (recent) NFL experience between him, Rhule and Snow -- despite being just 30 years old. Brady spent two seasons as an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints (2017-18) before taking over the Tigers' offense. But the important takeaway is that time in New Orleans, where he worked with Bridgewater. That is going to help Bridgewater immediately. He's familiar with the schemes and verbiage, so even with a truncated offseason, Teddy is going to be ready to roll on Day 1. Just protect him.

... people are overthinking: Teddy Bridgewater doesn't stretch the field enough. Teddy ranked last in air yards per attempt (6.7) among qualifying quarterbacks last season, according to Next Gen Stats. But had four "dimes" last year (completions of 30-plus air yards in a tight window) on just 196 attempts. That's more than Carson Wentz (zero), Jimmy Garoppolo (two) and the guy he's replacing, Kyle Allen (two). His four dimes are also as many as Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes. And just one less than Drew Brees. You're fine, people. Your fantasy shares of Robby Anderson should be fine. But D.J. Moore is the wide receiver you want to be drafting anyway.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Panthers MUST:

Be a competitive football team. I don't want to tune in for Panthers games and see them get out-coached by veteran NFL lifers. Not that it won't ever happen. I don't want that to be a habit for them. Also, it will be a success if Matt Rhule coaching gear doesn't look like an X-ray smock. Seriously, what was that about?

In closing

I'm excited for the future of the Panthers. New owner David Tepper made the right call in giving Rivera one last ride before he made any rash decisions. Same with Newton. I mean, an absolutely tough call. But he had to do what he thought was right. Now, he's got the coach he wanted. The team took the smart route by loading up on defense in the draft, so Carolina could be very exciting in short order. Love McCaffrey. Love Moore. It does feel like Rhule and Co. are building something special down there in Charlotte.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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