New York Jets 2021 opponent report: Carolina Panthers

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

The New York Jets won’t have to wait long to check in on Sam Darnold, as they’ll open their 2021 season against their April trade partners.

The Opponent: Carolina Panthers
The Date: Week 1, September 12, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
The Series: Carolina leads 4-3 (last meeting: 2017, 35-27 CAR)

The “main protagonist showing off their new significant other in front of their ex” episode seems to be a staple of every sitcom. But more serious matters await in Charlotte on September 12.

Five months after collaborating on a trade that set the post-Trevor Lawrence portions of the 2021 NFL Draft into motion, the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers will do battle to open their respective campaigns. That April transaction ended the Jets’ Sam Darnold era in New York, giving way to the Zach Wilson chapters of the green Gospel.

Blessed with a rare meeting between New York and Carolina, the scheduling powers that be at the NFL wasted no time in staging a reunion. The Jets will face off against an interconfertnce opponent on kickoff weekend for the first time since 2018, when the Darnold saga began with a win in Detroit.

Darnold won’t be the only former green representative partaking in the game. Other ex-Jets who saw nothing finer than Carolina include Robby Anderson, Juston Burris, Pat Elflein, and Frankie Luvu.

Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Skinny on the Panthers 

The Jets will likely be all too familiar with the predicament the Panthers currently find themselves in: trapped in a division with Tom Brady with no end to his reign in sight. Carolina hit the reset button shortly before Brady took his talents to Tampa, firing Ron Rivera and bidding farewell to franchise face Cam Newton after the 2019 season.

To replace the departed Rivera, Carolina hired Matt Rhule, who knew more than a thing or two about rebuilds on the college level. Following a one-year term as a metropolitan assistant (assistant offensive line coach with the Giants), Rhule went back to school and dragged Temple and Baylor out of the college football underworld. Rhule was reportedly strongly considered for the Jets’ job following Todd Bowles’ ousting, but he wound up returning to Waco for one more season (guiding the Bears to a Sugar Bowl appearance and a program-record 11 wins).

The football gods immediately bestowed Rhule another hurdle to leap, as injuries swallowed Christian McCaffrey after he became the highest-paid rusher in NFL history (four years, $64 million). Despite the loss of McCaffrey, the Panthers played respectable football. They were unable to escape another 5-11 season (their ten-win tally over the last two years is their worst since 2010-11), but nearly every game was competitive. Eight of their eleven losses came by single digits and they scored a late win over the playoff-bound Washington Football Team in December.

What’s New in Carolina? 

When removing veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina was one of the youngest teams in football last season (26.05 on their 53-man opening day roster). Somehow, they managed to get younger, apparently finding the fountain of youth in Cleveland.

The Panthers were one of three teams (Dallas and Minnesota the others) that came to the podium an event-high 11 times during draft weekend. They used their opening pick (eighth overall) on South Carolina defender Jaycee Horn and ensured continued to surround Darnold with strong talents. Some of Carolina’s Saturday gems could particularly intriguing: injury issues landed Oklahoma State offensive force Chuba Hubbard in the fourth round, while another former Gamecock, Shi Smith, could become a hidden gem in the sixth-round.

Defensively, Horn will join Burris and versatile sophomore Jeremy Chinn in the secondary. Veteran A.J. Bouye likewise joins the fold, though the former Denver Bronco is missing the first two games of the year with a PED suspension.

Even before their draft day splurge (which also netted them LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. in the second round), Carolina brought Darnold to an offense that, at least on paper, was better than anything he had to work with in New York. In addition to McCaffrey and fellow former Jet Anderson, Darnold will also get to work with D.J. Moore (1,193 yards in 2020) and touchdown hawk David Moore (no relation).

robby anderson running a touchdown against the carolina panthers
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

How to Beat Them

-Let Bygones be Bygones

It’s no secret that the Jets’ visit to Charlotte will be one of the most intriguing matchups of Week 1…if only because the court jesters of Twitter probably already have scheduled posts lauding Darnold and Anderson.

The Jets have proven to be one of the most exhausted sources of social media schadenfreude in football circles. That was ridiculously present throughout the course of the Darnold era. The discourse behind his mononucleosis diagnosis and supernatural encounter probably would’ve died down in a week if it happened anywhere else in the NFL map…but, because it happened in a green uniform, it went viral.

Simply put, the Jets can’t go into Charlotte purely with the purpose of trying to show Darnold and Anderson (who has never let an opportunity to disparage the Jets go to waste) what they’re missing. They’re playing the Carolina Panthers, not the Carolina Ex-Jets.

The team would be wise to follow the example of general manager Joe Douglas. Ironically enough, no one in football was more complimentary toward Darnold than the man who pulled orchestrated his trip down south (notably scoring a second-round pick for a quarterback with a career 78.6 passer rating). Douglas has diplomatically addressed the trade, claiming that Darnold’s “best football is in front of him” but that the trade was in the best interest of both sides.

“Ultimately, we felt that wouldn’t be the best situation for Sam…for Coach Saleh and his staff, and for the locker room,” Douglas said, per team reporter Randy Lange. “We felt this was the best decision for the organization moving forward, hitting the reset button.”

-Un-Christian Like Behavior

To the Panthers’ credit, the team did not completely fall apart when McCaffrey was lost for the season, thanks in part to a career-best season from the Atlanta-bound Mike Davis. If disaster comes to Carolina again, it’ll likely come down to the talented Hubbard to pick up the slack.

But, if McCaffrey is truly back, he’ll undoubtedly be a front-runner for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. No one on the New York defense…heck, any defense on Carolina’s 2021 docket…needs to be told what he’s capable of at full strength.

In the midst of their woebegone 2020 season, the Jets’ run defense was a rare silver lining. Thanks to the breakouts of interior linemen Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers, the Jets’ run game ranked fourth in the AFC last season (12th overall in the league). They’ll have an instant opportunity to prove that last year was no fluke, especially when the offseason centered on bolstering the pass rush.

Will the Jets be able to show Darnold what he’s missing when they meet in September? Follow @GeoffJMags on Twitter @GeoffJMags and continue the conversation. 

New York Jets: A seven-round, post-Sam Darnold mock draft

With Sam Darnold having moved on, ESM envisions how the New York Jets’ replenished draft haul will look come April/May.

Sam Darnold is gone, resolving the question of his New York Jets fate. Now, another rises in his place: now what?

Following Darnold’s dealing to Carolina earlier this week, the Jets now hold ten picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, which begins on April 29. The last came from the Panthers along with two further choices in next year’s selections.

With Darnold’s New York term ended, how should the Jets spend this surplus? In the immediate aftermath, it’s a terrific note on Douglas’ resume that he has earned the Jets double-figure offerings in a single draft. But draft day quantity, of course, is never a guarantee of quality. The Jets learned that lesson the hard way during the 2014 proceedings. Then-general manager John Idzik held a dozen picks in the final draft in New York, but none of them remain on the Jets’ current roster and, in fact, only one (fourth-rounder Dakota Dozier, now a starting blocker in Minnesota) partook in NFL action last season.

How can the Jets make the most of their excess choices, especially in the wake of the Darnold news? ESM investigates through a full New York mock…

1st Round (2nd overall): QB Zach Wilson, BYU

One of the biggest wins of the Darnold trade was that the Jets now have an official deadline for their current quarterback controversy: the evening of April 29, after they make their second pick. Deshaun Watson is out for obvious reasons and they certainly won’t entrust Week 1 starting duties to Mike White or James Morgan. Thus, it’s a near-certainty that they’ll choose a non-Trevor Lawrence thrower with the second overall choice.

With a New York triumvirate (Joe Douglas, Robert Saleh, Mike LaFleur) in tow for his pro day in Provo, it’s beginning to look like a Wilson-based future for the Jets. ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter took it a step further, flat out texting Wilson “Welcome to New York” after the Jets-Panthers deal was completed. With this move, Douglas has officially solidified the Jets as his “own”, as the modern Jets will work with a head coach and quarterback exclusively chosen by the current GM.

1st Round (23rd overall): C/G Landon Dickerson, Alabama

So the Jets have traded Darnold, the latest of several offseason moves that have made them a better team on paper (if only because there’s nowhere to go but up after a 2-14 campaign). But their offensive line negligence has only gained a brighter spotlight. Dan Feeny and Corey Levin are acceptable options for depth, but they’re not guys that are going to push the Jets’ offensive needle in the right direction.

Dickerson, on the other hand, can be a difference-maker. Going 23rd would almost be an injustice to the 6’6, 325 lb. national champion, who was injured on a scoring play during the SEC title game. It was the last of several injuries he endured in Tuscaloosa, which has served as a red flag in several teams’ draft preparation. But Dickerson’s loss in position could be the Jets’ gain, as he brings an impressive resume that goes beyond his championship ring. He’s the current holder of both the Rimington and Jacobs Blocking trophies (sharing the latter with teammate Alex Leatherwood) and was a unanimous All-American last year.

2nd Round (34th overall): LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa

The hullabaloo around a new quarterback…as well as some shrewd offseason maneuvering from Douglas and Co…has somewhat masked the fact that the Jets still have some defensive renovations to make. One of the smarter moves of Douglas’ winter was bringing in Carl Lawson and Jarrad Davis, both of whom have extensive experience with the 4-3 defense that Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich are set to install in New York.

Don’t be surprised if the Jets take a similar approach on draft weekend. Collins is among the top, if not at the top, of the 4-3 linebackers in the coming class. He likewise brings in a sizable trophy case to his NFL destination, one that includes the AAC Defensive Player of the Year Award (guiding the Golden Hurricane to an undefeated regular season in conference play) and the Chuck Bednarik Award (whose previous three winners include Minkah Fitzpatrick, Josh Allen, and Chase Young). Critics feel like Collins would have to improve his physicality to move into the first round proper, but he’s the type of day two pic that can contribute immediately.

3rd Round (66th overall): CB Paulson Adebo, Stanford

As the post-Jamal Adams carries on, the Jets are still relatively thin in their secondary. Their safeties are on relatively solid ground…having franchise-tagged Marcus Maye and working on Ashtyn Davis as a project. But they’re still understaffed in the cornerback spots, where the current top options are veteran newcomer Justin Hardee (who’s primarily used on special teams) and raw, young talents like Bless Austin and Bryce Hall.

Thus, it’s worth exploring some cornerback options on day two, some more proven potential that can contribute immediately. Perhaps unfairly, Adebo has seen his stock fall after opting out of the 2020 season. He was previously projected to be among the first safeties to go in Mel Kiper’s 2020 draft board. He’s thus another project, but he has at least has some proven potential to work with (primarily as a player with the “ballhawk” classification) and could insert himself into a starting lineup fairly quickly.

3rd Round (86th overall): T Spencer Brown, Northern Iowa

The Jets have a perfect opportunity to make up for their relative inactivity in terms of upgrading their protection through the extra picks gained on the first two days. Their thrower’s blindside is protected through the first-round arrival of Mekhi Becton last season, but their questions on the right side. George Fant appears to be back in the starting lineup with Chuma Edoga behind him.

Brown, an FCS standout, could provide the proper heat to a veteran like Fant on the right side. His 2020 showcase has been thrown into disarray with uncertainty in what was Division I-AA football, but Brown managed to impress at both the Senior Bowl and UNI’s pro day. He has earned particularly strong reviews for his pass blocking and, in lieu of partaking in UNI’s ongoing shortened year, has been training with former All-Pro blocker (and Saleh’s fellow San Francisco alum) Joe Staley.

4th Round (107th overall): RB Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma

The Jets have an interesting running back situation. Signing Tevin Coleman can not only give the offense a proven weapon both on the ground and through the air, but also take the pressure off the new quarterback. Behind Coleman is a trio of projects who have raw potential: La’mical Perine, Ty Johnson, and Josh Adams. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Jets to add an upstart rookie to create a training camp competition. The addition of Coleman allows the Jets to address other areas over the first few rounds.

A failed drug test suspension kept Stevenson, a former JUCO star at Cerritos College, out of the Sooners’ College Football Playoff trek at the end of the 2019-20 season, as well as the first five games of last year’s campaign. He nonetheless led the Sooners with 665 rushing yards (6.6 average carry), capped off by a dominant 186-yard showing in OU’s dominant Cotton Bowl victory over Florida. Stevenson’s build (230-240 lbs.) could also allow the Jets to reestablish a fullback role, especially with Saleh and LaFleur knowing the benefits of such a position, having worked with Kyle Juszczyk in San Francisco. The Jets toyed with tight end and 2019 draftee Trevon Wesco in the spot over the last two seasons, but more or less abandoned the project last year.

5th Round (146th overall): WR Shi Smith, South Carolina

At receiver, the Jets did a solid job of upgrading their receiving weaponry for the incoming quarterback. In addition to Coleman (111 receptions from 2016-19 with Atlanta and San Francisco), they added promising young veterans Corey Davis and Keelan Cole to a group that already includes Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder. But the third day of the draft would be a good time to find some depth.

Smith could be a potential project, especially one in the slot with Crowder due to hit free agency next year. His development in Columbia was slightly hampered by the Gamecocks’ unstable quarterback situation, but he still garnered some professional looks for his speed and athleticism (which could allow the Jets to establish the screen). Smith’s 57 receptions earned last season were good for fifth in the SEC’s shortened 2020 season. He can also add a little heat to the Jets’ return situation, currently headed by Corey Ballentine and Braxton Berrios, as he was second in the conference with a 21.9 kick return average during the 2019 campaign (albeit on a 12-return sample size).

5th Round (154th overall): S Ar’Darius Washington, TCU

As Brian Poole remains unsigned, the Jets could use a nickel/dime upgrade while potentially working on a safety project. While Washington’s size (5’8, 178 lbs.) is a concern, his ball skills make him an intriguing prospect to work with in the secondary. The underclassman has constantly defied odds, not only working his way through a tough size situation but also making an immediate Fort Worth impression by winning the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year Award. Working with Hardee could also allow him to make an impact on special teams.

6th Round (186th overall): TE Matt Bushman, BYU

At tight end, Chris Herndon is the one player left over from the Jets’ new uniform showcase in the early stages of 2019. While they did add Tyler Kroft…who will be a decent goal line option…Herndon still appears to be the top man in the position. Adding Bushman would not only put some heat on Herndon but also give Wilson a friendly face to work with in his NFL debut. Though Bushman missed all of the Cougars flirtation with a New Year’s Six bowl with an injury, he was their top receiver in 2019, notably uniting for 91 yards on six receptions in their final collaboration in the Hawaii Bowl.

6th Round (227th overall): K Jose Borreagales, Miami (FL)

The current pick gained from the Panthers in the Darnold trade can allow the Jets to address one of their most problematic areas: kicking. With an offense still struggling to consistently visit the end zone, having a reliable kicker will be vital if they want to remain competitive. Since the Pro Bowler Jason Myers left for Seattle two offseasons ago, the Jets have gone through six different kickers. The most recent pair (Sam Ficken and Chase McLaughlin) remain on the roster, with a competition potentially set to ensue. Last year’s draft showed that they wouldn’t hesitate to use a pick to bolster their special teams, using their last on Texas A&M punter Braden Mann.

New York needs a reliable name as their leg, and the primary boot in this draft is Borreagales. A native of Venezuela, Borreagales established himself as a South Beach kicking legend, first starring at Florida International before spending a fifth season with The U. Mirroring Mann’s Ray Guy Award, Borreagales would bring a Lou Groza trophy with him as the current holder. He was successful on all 35 of his extra point attempts last season and was 18-of-20 on field goals. One conversion was a 57-yard boot in a September win over Louisville, a primetime showdown that saw him score 17 points in a 47-34 win.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags