2020 NFL Preview: Panthers pay big for Matt Rhule, Teddy Bridgewater to lead post-Cam Newton era

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

In Matt Rhule’s first season at Temple, the Owls went 2-10. His first Baylor team, still ravaged after a scandal that resulted in Art Briles being fired, went 1-11.

Rhule’s first season with the Carolina Panthers might not be that bad, but at least he knows what it’s like to build up a program after starting at the bottom. 

Rhule turned around both of those college programs. Temple won double-digit games his final two seasons there. Baylor went 11-3 and played in the Sugar Bowl last season, Rhule’s third year at the school. 

“To me, the key to being a great leader is not to make excuses and complain, it’s just to get to work, figure it out,” Rhule said at his introductory news conference. “What we did [at] both of those places is we found the guys that were going to fit.

“We found the guys that fit into that thing I talked about, being tough, being hardworking, being competitive, and we played them.”

The Panthers are betting big on Rhule, whose only NFL coaching experience was as the assistant offensive line coach for the 2012 New York Giants. Carolina gave Rhule a seven-year, $60 million deal. 

The length of the deal indicates the team understands this won’t be a quick fix. The Panthers hired a program builder and presumably will give him time to turn things around. He’s starting mostly from scratch, too.

This Panthers team is going to look a lot different, and not just at head coach. Some big-name veterans are gone, most notably quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. Cornerback James Bradberry, defensive linemen Mario Addison, Gerald McCoy and Vernon Butler, tight end Greg Olsen and safety Eric Reid are among the other veterans who aren’t around anymore. 

The Panthers’ transformation is most noticeable at quarterback. Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, is out. In his place is Teddy Bridgewater, who got $63 million over three years. Bridgewater has been more of a game manager than franchise quarterback throughout his career, but he’ll have a lot of skill-position talent to work with, including all-world running back Christian McCaffrey. Bridgewater will need to be productive because the Panthers’ defense might be the worst in the NFL. There are fair questions about Newton’s health and whether he can still be the same dual-threat quarterback that made him a star, but he has been an elite starting quarterback in the NFL. Bridgewater has not.

This season is unlikely to be a good one for the Panthers. That’s in Rhule’s comfort zone. He led an impressive turnaround at two college stops. The Panthers are paying a lot to find out if he can do it in the NFL, too. They just might need to wait until 2021 for a return on investment.

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule has a track record of rebuilding college teams. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly are arguably the greatest players in Panthers history. Newton was cut and Kuechly retired. A lot of talent left in the offseason. Teddy Bridgewater was the big addition, and it will be interesting to see if he can be a top-end quarterback. Signing receiver Robby Anderson seemed redundant since Carolina already has good receivers, but he is a talented player. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly was a nice bargain addition. The Panthers used every single draft pick on defense, including tackle Derrick Brown at No. 7 overall, which says a lot about that side of the ball. 

GRADE: D

Teddy Bridgewater might be the easiest player in the NFL to root for. His positive attitude despite having his career derailed by a horrible knee injury in 2016 is inspirational. As a QB, he hasn’t shown anything special. In his career, he has 38 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, has averaged 215.4 yards passing in his 34 career starts and is a safe chain-moving quarterback rather than a dynamic star.

Last season, Bridgewater was 37th of 37 quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus’ average depth of target stat. At 6.1 average yards per target, he was well behind Jimmy Garoppolo, who was in 36th place at 6.7. Bridgewater did his job for the Saints last season, but don’t give him too much credit for New Orleans’ 5-0 record in his starts. The Saints won games scoring 12 and 13 points. A 33-27 win at Seattle included a special teams and defensive touchdown. Bridgewater was good, not great. And the way the Panthers are set up, he might need to be great. 

In all 32 NFL previews, this might be the easiest category to answer. It’s Christian McCaffrey. Fin. In addition to the ridiculous stats — 1,387 rushing yards and 1,005 receiving yards last season — he has become an ironman in an era of running back committees. He played 91.3 percent of the Panthers’ snaps in 2018 and 93.4 percent last season. While we can argue about whether it is wise to pay running backs top dollar, it’s clear why McCaffrey became the highest-paid running back in NFL history this offseason. 

The Panthers were 5-11 last season, and while Teddy Bridgewater is better than Kyle Allen or Will Grier, he’s probably not going to carry a team. And the rest of the offseason wasn’t good. The Panthers’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 5.5, and it’s hard to figure out how Carolina is better than last season, especially given its tough schedule. If the Panthers finish with six or more wins, that will be a good rookie season for Matt Rhule.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Teddy Bridgewater can safely be called a journeyman at this stage of his career. He’s been a starter, a backup, a hurt player, an afterthought. But he’s set up to succeed in Carolina, surrounded by a bevy of talented skill players. 

“And maybe Carolina’s leaky defense will help, too. Bridgewater could easily turn into one of those fantasy godsends primarily because of volume, as the Panthers’ offense tries to match what the Panthers’ defense is giving up. And even if Bridgewater is throwing short, high-percentage passes, that can work, too. Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore are electrifying the moment they get their hands on the ball, and Curtis Samuel makes sense as a post-hype sleeper. Don’t be surprised if the Carolina stars on offense wind up dragging Bridgewater to a useful fantasy season.”

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Matt Rhule, offensive coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have very little NFL experience. Brady, whose impressive 2019 season running LSU’s passing game put him on the NFL map, spent two seasons as an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints. Snow has been coaching since 1976 and only four of those years were in the NFL, climbing as high as linebackers coach with the Detroit Lions. That means among the Panthers’ top three coaches, there is no NFL experience at head coach or coordinator. That doesn’t mean it can’t work. It’s just worth keeping in mind that this staff has to prove itself in the NFL. 

Can the Panthers’ defense be better than expected? 

Probably not. First, they play in a division with New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Six games against Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady isn’t ideal. Also, they have a bad cornerback situation (late addition Eli Apple probably isn’t helping much) and they lost one of the best inside linebackers the NFL has seen in a long time. The defensive line could be good, especially if Kawann Short bounces back after missing most of 2019 due to injury. A lot would have to go right for the Panthers to avoid a bottom-10 finish on defense, and finishing last is on the table. 

For all the negative things surrounding Carolina, it’s unlikely it suffers through such horrendous quarterback play again. Teddy Bridgewater will be an upgrade. He’ll be playing alongside Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and potential breakout tight end Ian Thomas. That’s not too bad. If the defense is better than it looks on paper, the offense could be good if the Panthers are right about Bridgewater. It’s a tough division and a last-place finish seems inevitable, but any positives from this year will look good for Matt Rhule’s ability to transition from college to the NFL.

The Panthers were really bad last season. They were the NFL’s worst team in December, going 0-5 and losing by a combined 98 points. Then they lost a lot in the offseason. It’s hard to imagine they dip too much from last year, because their quarterback situation can’t be any worse, but it sure seems like Christian McCaffrey is going to log another 400 touches for a double-digit loss team. That’s a shame. 

Matt Rhule’s history says to not judge him on what happens this season. The Panthers’ roster says to not expect too much this season either. The offense could be low-key fun, but the defense has a long way to go and there’s a lot of turnover with a strange offseason. The Panthers are probably going to lose a lot this season, and then we can see if Rhule turns on his rebuilding magic starting in 2021.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Redskins
30.
Cincinnati Bengals
28.
New York Giants
27.
Detroit Lions
26.
New York Jets

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