If you’re looking for a situation that’s rife with uncertainty and has no shortage of variables, then you have arrived at your destination because seemingly everything with the Carolina Panthers is in a state of flux. That starts at the top where head coach Matt Rhule could be entering a make-or-break campaign just three seasons into a seven-year, $62 million deal that convinced Rhule to leave Baylor.
He’ll turn to Ben McAdoo as his new offensive coordinator, a curious move given McAdoo hasn’t filled a high-profile role since being fired as the New York Giants head coach following the 2017 season. In fairness, he has proven to be a competent play-caller.
Things remain murky at quarterback as well with incumbent Sam Darnold now joined by former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, who was acquired from the Cleveland Browns, marking the second straight offseason the Panthers have traded for a quarterback from the class of 2018. Beyond an encouraging start, Darnold was mostly unimpressive last year and would seem to be on the outside looking in as we head into training camp despite the expected “open competition” talk.
Mayfield suffered through a difficult 2021 that saw the Browns lose confidence in his ability to lead them where they wanted to go and ultimately prompted a trade for Deshaun Watson. Once that move was made, Mayfield’s fate in Cleveland was sealed. While Mayfield is far from a sure thing, don’t read too much into his struggles last year as he played through a difficult shoulder injury that required offseason surgery to correct. Prior to that, the former Oklahoma Sooner averaged 3,705 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions per season; the turnovers are an issue to be sure, but he’s been more successful than Darnold.
During his time in Cleveland, Mayfield worked with some talented tight ends, most notably David Njoku and Austin Hooper (now with the Tennessee Titans). A year ago, that tandem combined for 74 catches, 820 yards, and seven TDs. Those aren’t huge numbers, but if limiting Mayfield’s interceptions is a focus it could lead to shorter throws to tight ends as well as talented but oft injured running back Christian McCaffrey. With that in mind, let’s look at the top two tight ends in Carolina.
Statistically, Thomas’ best year came when he was a rookie in 2018, catching 36 passes (on 49 targets) for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He slid into a reserve role the following year behind Greg Olsen, but when the veteran retired it seemed as though Thomas was poised for bigger things in 2020. That didn’t happen, and the Indiana alum has now finished each of the past three years with fewer than 200 yards receiving and hasn’t scored since Oct. 4, 2020.
Despite nominal production, the team handed Thomas a three-year, $16.5 million deal in February to keep him in Charlotte, N.C., so they clearly still believe brighter days are ahead for the 26-year-old.
Carolina selected Tremble in the third-round last season, and after managing just 35 receptions, 401 yards, and four touchdowns in a hybrid role over two years at Note Dame, he posted a similarly quiet 20-180-1 line. The team liked his potential and blocking ability, so perhaps a year learning the NFL game will unlock heretofore unseen production — the transition for tight ends from college is among the tougher ones out there — but he’ll need to clean some things up as a pass catcher.
Fantasy football outlook
At first blush, there’s not a lot to like here. Mayfield and Darnold should both be considered primarily game managers until they prove otherwise, and the receiving trio of DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, and Terrace Marshall Jr. looks like the strength of the passing game. Oh, and that Run CMC guy is a decent receiver out of the backfield, too. Those in deeper leagues might want to keep an eye on Thomas to see if there are bigger plans for him, but Tremble can be ignored.