When the Carolina Panthers hired Matt Rhule to be their new head coach after the 2019 season, they paid Baylor a $6 million buyout and handed a seven-year, $60 million deal to a coach who had spent only one season in the NFL — he was assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants in 2012. Entering his third season on the job, Rhule is on the hot seat, having cobbled together a 10-23 mark with offenses that have finished 24th and 29th, respectively, in scoring.
As he steps into what could be a make-or-break season for his NFL future, Rhule will try to right the ship via the hiring of former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator and a selection of quarterbacks that includes Sam Darnold, third-rounder Matt Corral, and 27-year-old journeyman PJ Walker. In the words of Jim Carrey, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
Acquired in April 2021 for a trio of draft picks, Darnold was off to a strong start, passing for 1,189 yards and five TDs in his first four games as the Panthers started the season 3-1. He further excited fantasy owners with his running efficiency, adding five rushing touchdowns in those four games — in hindsight that was almost certainly an aberration as the USC product has five rushing TDs combined across his other 46 NFL games.
The excitement was short lived.
While the loss of talented but injury-prone Christian McCaffrey was a blow to the offense, Darnold did nothing to make up for CMC’s absence and would struggle the rest of the way, getting injured as part of a disastrous showing against the New England Patriots in Week 9 during which he injured his shoulder. Darnold would return in late December to split time with Cam Newton, but nothing he showed over the final three weeks generated any enthusiasm for another year of Darnold at the helm.
Corral started his final two seasons at Ole Miss under former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin, who used an RPO system in which Corral excelled: He was the only FBS player to amass more than 3,300 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in both 2020 and 2021. That speaks to his athleticism and dual-threat potential where he has a live arm to make throws and the speed/shiftiness to excel as a runner.
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All of that athleticism is wrapped up in a 215-pound frame, however, and though he played through hard contact at the collegiate level, there’s no question the punishment will be ramped up in the NFL. There’s also room to grow with his progressions as Kiffin’s system contained built-in, predetermined reads. Emotional maturity was thought to be an issue in the lead up to the draft as well, but Rhule was said to be comfortable with Corral in that department.
If Darnold melts down or gets injured, and the team decides that playing Corral will do more harm than good, then you could see Walker get some snaps. He’s 2-0 in two starts for the Panthers under Rhule, but at best he’s a game manager with limited athleticism. This is “break in case of emergency” stuff.
Fantasy football outlook
At this juncture, you have to believe Darnold is the prohibitive favorite to open the season as Carolina’s starting quarterback. His strong play last September is something they can try to build on, and the fifth-year pro has had isolated success in his career. On another positive note, Carolina has ample weaponry in wide receivers D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr., along with a pass-catching monster in McCaffrey.
Corral feels like more of a developmental project, and his lack of size is a possible concern for a team that allowed 52 sacks (fifth most in the NFL) last year — they did spend the sixth overall pick on offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu to shore things up.
Neither player carries any draft-day appeal in traditional settings, though Corral’s dual-threat potential should make him an interesting target in dynasty leagues. Darnold is a fringe QB2 or much safer third in superflex designs.