Do the Carolina Panthers have the worst roster in the NFL? Depends on who you ask

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·5 min read
Khadejeh Nikouyeh/Knikouyeh@charlotteobserver.com
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There is not an event in sports that conjures more hope than a draft.

Fan bases find solace clinging to their respective teams’ picks, hoping for better days next season. Panthers fans had their glass-half-full expectations dashed last week when ESPN released a post-draft 32-team power poll. About 80 ESPN NFL reporters, analysts, and editors ranked teams based on rosters.

Carolina came in last.

“I personally would not have put them 32nd. I think it’s pretty low,” Pro Football Focus reporter Doug Kyed told the Observer. “I’d put the Texans and Falcons below them just because I still think the Panthers defense is going to be at least above average this season.”

The Texans and Falcons are two teams most would rank below Carolina. But are there more?

Comparing NFL rosters isn’t an exact science. Quarterbacks have the most influence, followed by (in no specific order) edge rushers, offensive tackles, cornerbacks, and offensive playmakers (receivers or running backs). Below, we’ll survey the bottom 40 percent of the league, or the 13 worst teams.

Keep in mind, the AFC is overloaded with talent. ESPN ranked Philadelphia 16th. The next NFC team is San Francisco at No. 9. . Half of the poll’s top 10 teams are from the NFC, but 10 of the bottom 19 are also NFC teams. Considering seven teams reach the playoffs from each conference, it’s likely at least one NFC wild card team finishes with a record below .500.

A weak NFC and a better-than-perceived roster should make Carolina a competitive team this season. Here’s why.

How the Panthers roster compares to others

“It’s completely unfair. It’s disgusting that (ESPN) ranked them at 32,” Draft Network analysis Ryan Fowler said. “I would argue that last year the Panthers had my favorite draft. Then you come back this year and you add guys like Matt Corral, and Ikem Ekwonu, who I think could be potentially the top tackle in this entire class. There’s just no way for me that you rank this roster 32nd.”

Nine teams that ranked above Carolina had fewer 2021 Pro Bowl selections than the Panthers. Stephon Gilmore, who was one of those Pro Bowlers, signed with Indianapolis this off-season. But part of roster evaluation is projecting upcoming roles.

Panthers’ second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn returns this season after missing 13 games with a broken foot last year and will fill Gilmore’s role.

“Horn is one the smoothest, most fluid aggressive, alpha-mentality corners in the league,” Fowler said. “I think he is going to be great the next few years. He can be a dominant corner.”

Of the 13 teams ranked between 20th and 32nd, only four have more players ranked inside Pro Football Focus’s top 30 players at each position. The Texans (zero), Jets, (one), Jaguars (two), Bears (four), Lions (four), Giants (five), and Steelers (five) all have fewer top 30 players at quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, cornerback and safety.

Pro Football Focus is not NFL gospel. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook and linebacker Eric Kendricks, for example, both rank outside the top 30 for their respective positions despite top-10 reputations.

Other discrepancies are baked into PFF’s rankings. Saints playmaker Alvin Kamara finished 71st among qualified runners and did not count toward the Saints’ total of seven top-30 players. Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns was the 111th ranked edge last season despite having more sacks over the past three years than any player drafted in 2019.

Combining number of Pro Bowlers, with PFF’s top 30 at each position and ranking each quarterback’s EPA (expected points added) per dropback created a serviceable evaluation metric.

Christian McCaffrey ranked 12th among qualified running backs according to PFF. DJ Moore, Austin Corbett, Taylor Moton, Shaq Thompson, and Jeremy Chinn all ranked inside the top 30 of their respective positions.

“Looking at like total over-unders this season, the Panthers are not at the bottom. Their total is at six wins. Four other teams have lower (win totals),” Kyed said. ”Vegas is saying there’s still a possibility the Panthers could acquire Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo, rather than looking at their roster at face value on paper.”

According to Vegas sportsbooks, the Texans, Jets, Falcons, and Seahawks all have lower projected win totals than Carolina. The Seahawks and Jaguars are tied with six predicted wins. The Panthers have more top 30 PFF players and more 2021 Pro Bowlers than all five of those teams.

Making a difference

Quarterbacks make all the difference in the NFL.

Since 2004, the Super Bowl has been won by a Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, or Matt Stafford. Only Nick Foles and Joe Flacco snuck in Super Bowl wins under those Hall of Famers’ watch.

Winning the Super Bowl oftentimes takes finding a generational quarterback talent. However, making the playoffs comes with a much lower bar. Mac Jones and Jalen Hurts both started playoff games last season. In 2021, Mitchell Trubisky, Baker Mayfield, and Jared Goff also started playoff games. The 49ers reached the NFC championship with Garoppolo last season and made the Super Bowl with him in 2020.

Of the 12 quarterbacks ranked above Sam Darnold in ESPN’s power poll, only the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins performed inside the top 10 of EPA per dropback. Eight others finished with similar numbers as Darnold. The incumbent starters for New Orleans (Jameis Winston), Pittsburgh (Kenny Pickett or Trubisky), and Atlanta (Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder) do not have EPA data from last season.

Quarterback

EPA/play

Rank

Cousins (MIN)

0.137

10th

Wentz (WAS)

0.084

17th

Jones (NYG)

0.012

23rd

Lawerence (JAX)

-0.047

26th

Goff (DET)

-0.048

27th

Millis (HOU)

-0.090

28th

Darnold (CAR)

-0.122

29th

Fields (CHI)

-0.0126

30th

Wilson (NYJ)

-0.139

31st

The Panthers’ quarterback situation must improve, but their situation is comparable to other quarterback rooms in the bottom third of the league. Keep in mind that Garoppolo finished 2021 with a .203 EPA, ranking fourth. Mayfield’s .044 ranked 21st.

Carolina could still add a veteran quarterback before training camp.

Based on roster talent and an uncertain quarterback situation which Carolina shares with a quarter of the league, the Panthers are not the worst team in the NFL. Carolina is closer to a wild card team than it is to picking No. 1 overall in 2023.

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