The 2021 season gets underway with the Jets heading on the road as an underdog to face a Carolina Panthers team with several familiar faces.
The most familiar face of all is Sam Darnold, who is motivated to make the Jets regret their decision to give up on him during the offseason. Darnold’s progress seemed to stagnate last year and the Panthers’ coaching staff is hoping to unlock his potential by improving his technique and preparation habits.
Athletic backup PJ Walker, who the Panthers signed after he impressed in the XFL, started one game last year; a 20-0 win over the Lions.
The Panthers’ offensive line is built around center Matt Paradis and right tackle Taylor Moton, who both started every game in 2019 and 2020. However, the rest of the line is a bit patchy.
They’ll be without one starting guard because John Miller is on the Covid-19 reserve list. Dennis Daley, who has been a utility player, filling in at guard and tackle over the past few years, will start in his place. He’s probably better inside.
They also signed Pat Elflein who was with the Jets at the end of last season to play left guard. Elflein, who moved into the starting lineup when Alex Lewis went on the non-football injury list, wasn’t particularly impressive with the Jets.
The left tackle is journeyman Cam Erving who was another offseason pickup that has usually struggled in the running game but probably had his most consistent season so far last year.
One of Carolina’s reserves, Trent Scott, started four games for them last season, but the rest of their bench lacks experience with the inexperienced Sam Tecklenberg being activated to add depth to a bench that also includes rookies Brady Christiansen and Deonte Brown.
They addressed their lack of experience on the bench by claiming Michael Jordan when he was released by the Bengals in final cuts. Jordan was a former fourth round pick and started 19 games in his first two years.
The key to the Panthers offense is Christian McCaffrey but he only played three games last year due to injuries. Now he’s healthy again, Carolina can lean on him to produce as a rusher and in the passing game.
McCaffrey had 97 yards on just nine touches when the Panthers beat the Jets in their last meeting in 2017. Other than Moton, he’s the only offensive player that remains from that game and he’s the only player on the current roster to have represented the Panthers in the pro bowl.
Mike Davis led the team in rushing with McCaffrey out last year, but he’s gone and the Panthers filled out their rotation by drafting Chuba Hubbard in the fourth round and claiming a former third round pick; Royce Freeman from Denver.
Giovanni Ricci, who spent the 2020 season on the practice squad, made the roster as a fullback.
Darnold was reunited with Robby Anderson when he moved to the Panthers, which is ironic because Darnold’s inconsistent deep accuracy was widely considered one of the main things that had held Anderson back from reaching his full potential. However, the main thing that unlocked him was that the Panthers used him more intelligently than the Jets had, making use of his underappreciated route running and yards-after-the-catch ability.
Anderson was in the top-10 in the NFL for receptions and posted the first thousand-yard season of his career but DJ Moore led the team with almost 1,200 yards. Moore was also third in the NFL with an 18.1 yards per catch average.
The Panthers lost Curtis Samuel in free agency and the rest of their receivers lack experience as two rookies - second round pick Terrace Marshall and sixth rounder Shi Smith - join former CFL player Brandon Zylstra to fill out the rotation. Smith is out with a shoulder injury anyway but the Panthers have already announced their plans to elevate former Bengals receiver Alex Erickson from the practice squad.
At tight end, new addition Dan Arnold - who caught a career-high 31 passes, including four touchdowns, in Arizona last year - has been a favorite target of Darnold in practice.
Off the bench, Ian Thomas is a reliable possession option, rookie Tommy Tremble brings blocking ability and pass catching potential and Colin Thompson rounds out this group.
The Panthers’ pass rush is led by former first round pick Brian Burns, who had nine sacks and 21 quarterback hits last season, but they also added the versatile Haason Reddick, who posted 12.5 sacks in Arizona last year, including five against the Giants. Reddick will likely come off the edge most of the time, although he’s listed as a linebacker in the 4-3 base defense on the team’s official depth chart.
Ex-Rams defensive end Morgan Fox is listed as the other starting end with Darryl Johnson also having been signed from the Bills to add depth. Reserves Marquis Haynes and Yetur Gross-Matos will hope to produce well off the bench as they did last year when they combined for 6.5 sacks.
On the interior, last year’s first round pick Derrick Brown had some good production in terms of creating pressure and recorded eight tackles for loss but he also jumped offside six times. Veteran DaQuan Jones was brought in from Tennessee to start alongside Brown.
Bravvion Roy started nine games in his rookie year but struggled to hold up against the run so the Panthers will hope he responds better in a rotational role. They added two late round picks in this year’s draft - Daviyon Nixon and Phil Hoskins - for depth.
Shaq Thompson is a defensive leader for the Panthers and their longest-tenured defensive player. In 2020, he racked up 114 tackles, six tackles for loss and five passes defensed.
Jermaine Carter moves into a full-time starting role after starting seven games last year. As noted, Reddick is also listed as a starter at linebacker.
Their bench includes Clay Johnston and two ex-Jets; Frankie Luvu and Julian Stanford. Stanford is mostly a special teamer, while Luvu - who can also play on the edge - apparently had an impressive preseason to make the team.
This year, the Panthers used their first round pick on Jaycee Horn from South Carolina, who will start for the team at cornerback. Horn went up against Elijah Moore last season, with the Jets’ rookie making a few key plays against him.
The other starter is Donte Jackson who has developed into a solid cornerback. He broke up 11 passes and intercepted three last season. The rest of the team combined for just four interceptions all year.
Stantley Thomas-Oliver and fifth round rookie Keith Taylor provide cornerback depth off the bench. Troy Pride started eight games last year but he’s on injured reserve with a knee injury. He struggled in 2020 anyway, which is part of the reason they drafted Horn. They also added veteran AJ Bouye, who is expected to play in the slot, but he’s suspended to begin the year.
In the 2020 draft, the Panthers controversially used all seven picks on defensive players but six of the seven remain on the team, including starting safety Jeremy Chinn who racked up a team-high 117 tackles last season and scored two touchdowns. However, he had a team-high 18 missed tackles and gave up six touchdowns in coverage so he’s a mixed bag.
Ex-Jets cornerback Juston Burris converted to safety while with the Browns and has established himself as a reliable starter. He will start for the Panthers for the second year in a row.
Last year, the Panthers used a lot of three-safety personnel packages with Chinn coming up into the box. Within such packages, Myles Hartsfield is an option to fill in as the third safety or in the slot. Sam Franklin, who started four games last year, and Sean Chandler add depth.
The Panthers addressed their need for a kicker when they traded for Ryan Santoso in preseason and he beat out the struggling Joey Slye to earn the job. Santoso has yet to attempt a field goal in a regular season game.
Punter Joseph Charlton posted average numbers last year but only had three touchbacks.
Erickson’s elevation from the practice squad will see him returning punts, which he did regularly with the Bengals. Moore had been listed as the punt returner on the team’s current depth chart. On kickoffs, Hubbard is listed as the return man.
In kick coverage, the Panthers gave up a punt return for a touchdown last season and three in 2019, plus they lost one of their best coverage guys when they cut Trenton Cannon. Hartsfield is now their primary gunner while Carter, Stanford and Franklin are also special teams contributors.