CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — If you can’t beat ’em, borrow from them.
The Carolina Panthers’ offense could look a lot like the division champion New Orleans Saints this season. That means short, quick-hitting passes underneath and creating catch-and-run opportunities for receivers.
New starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater spent two seasons working behind Drew Brees in New Orleans, including one year there with Joe Brady, now Carolina’s offensive coordinator. Both have extensive knowledge of how the Saints’ system works.
“Teddy, for us, is exactly what we want,” said energetic first-year coach Matt Rhule, who inherits a major rebuilding project in Carolina. “This offense in general, when you look at in New Orleans, that iteration of it where Joe first learned it, is not necessarily a vertical, down-the-field passing game as much as it is a catch-and-run, underneath, matchup-type passing game.”
The Panthers would seem to have the personnel to pull it off.
They’ve compiled a track team of sorts on offense with running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receivers D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and newcomer Robby Anderson all with big-time playmaking ability. They all can beat you deep, and Rhule wouldn’t rule out the Panthers often testing those waters, saying “Teddy’s got a great arm.”
Bridgewater replaces Cam Newton and is hoping to complete a comeback of sorts and cement his role as a full-time NFL starter.
He started his first two seasons with the Vikings before a devastating knee injury during training camp in 2016 essentially sidelined him completely for two years. He’s spent the past two years backing up Brees in New Orleans, going 5-0 as a starter in 2019 after Brees injured his thumb.
Though the Panthers run a scheme similar to the Saints, Bridgewater said he plans to do things his way.
“One of the biggest problems I had my first year in New Orleans was I wanted to be like Drew. I had to do everything Drew did in order to have success like Drew,” Bridgewater said. “But eventually, I learned that Drew Brees is Drew Brees. I’m Teddy Bridgewater. Cam Newton is Cam Newton.
“So I can’t go out there and try to be something that I’m not. I play the game the way I play it. I carry myself the way I carry myself, and I’m going to live and die by that.”
The Panthers have parted with several familiar high-profile players as part of a rebuilding project including Newton, perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly (early retirement), defensive end Mario Addison, safety Eric Reid, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, cornerback James Bradberry and guard Trai Turner, among others. That means Rhule will be looking for new leaders to emerge and guide a young team into the future.
One player the Panthers didn’t get rid of was All-Pro McCaffrey, now clearly the face of this franchise. He became only the third player in NFL history with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in 2019, and earned himself a four-year, $64 million extension. He’s been used extensively over the first three seasons, so will Brady limit his reps to cut down on wear and tear? The Panthers don’t seem to be backing off McCaffrey’s workload as Rhule said he is considering using him as a punt returner in special situations. McCaffrey said he doesn’t care how much he plays; he just wants to win.
The Panthers are expected to have the youngest defense in the league with an average age of slightly more than 23 years old. So it’s quite possible they will struggle under first-year coordinator Phil Snow, especially given they’re playing in a division with quarterbacks Tom Brady, Brees and Matt Ryan. Carolina gave up the second-most points in the league last season (29.4), so it might be wrong to expect a dramatic turnaround. This will be more a work in progress.
That said, Rhule is hoping the foundation is set with two big defensive tackles in two-time Pro Bowler Kawann Short and first-round draft pick Derrick Brown setting the tempo up front. “They’re going to take up a lot of attention, and hopefully I’m going to have a lot of one on ones on the outside,” said second-year defensive end Brian Burns.
The Panthers used all seven draft picks on defense, knowing they needed an infusion of youth on that side of the ball. There was one common element throughout that process: versatility.
Rhule purposely drafted players such as defensive back Jeremy Chinn, who has the ability to cover tight ends, add run support as a linebacker and even line up on the defensive line.
SPECIAL TEAMS CHANGES
Carolina’s special teams will look different this year as well. The Panthers parted with longtime kicker Graham Gano, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. They’ll go with Joey Slye instead.
Punter Michael Palardy injured his knee and has been placed on injured reserve, creating competition there. And, the Panthers brought in Pharoh Cooper to assume punt returning duties.
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