X-factors for the Panthers in 2020

Here are the players who could determine how close Carolina gets to its ceiling

Dennis Daley, a 2019 sixth-round pick, is the frontrunner to be the Panthers’ starting left guard on an offensive line that has struggled in recent seasons. (Jeff Haynes / AP Images for Panini)

For the Carolina Panthers to have a successful 2020 season, just about every question mark on a roster filled with them needs to have a positive result.

The Panthers have lost plenty of talent in the last two years, and this year’s ceiling is likely lower than in recent memory. A winning record and contention for an NFC Wild Card bid would be about the best-case scenario.

For that to happen, however, a large number of breaks need to go Carolina’s way. Here’s a look at some of the biggest X-factors on the Panthers roster as the team heads into the home stretch of the preseason.

Teddy Bridgewater: It may be obvious, but it’s still true: The team’s new quarterback will need to be up to the challenge. He doesn’t need to make people forget Cam Newton with his on-field performance, especially with Christian McCaffrey available to run the ball, but he needs to provide leadership and consistent production. Bridgewater seems to be off to a good start on that front. He completed his first seven passes in the team’s scrimmage on Saturday and finished 9-of-13 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. He then stuck around to get in extra work long after everyone else hit the showers.

Dennis Daley: One of Newton’s biggest problems at quarterback was staying healthy and upright behind a line that frequently changed starters and often provided shaky protection for him. The flux on the offensive line has continued into the Bridgewater era, with the team trading Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner in the offseason. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the line so far in training camp has been at left guard, where Daley — an oft-overlooked sixth-round pick in the 2019 draft — is on track to be the starter. He had time everywhere but center last season and will use that experience and versatility in what he hopes will be a stable spot for him on this year’s offense. John Miller appears to be the choice to start at Turner’s old spot of right guard.

Derrick Brown: While the offense has a star in McCaffrey and experienced talent like Bridgewater and the wide receivers, expectations are far lower on defense — as in “worst in the league” low, according to a recent ranking by The Athletic. Brown, a defensive tackle out of Auburn, was taken seventh overall in the draft. While it often takes time for interior linemen to find their footing in the NFL, Brown has been one of the pleasant surprises of camp. He has an explosive first step and will benefit from working next to returning veteran Kawann Short. One sportsbook has moved him into the top five candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year. If Brown can keep playing at this level, it could help the defense play at a higher level than initially projected.

Brian Burns: Brown and Burns are intertwined, as the push from the middle that Brown can provide will also help Burns’ pass rushing from the edge, and vice versa. “I need those guys, man,” Burns said of Brown and Short. “They’re going to take up a lot of attention, and hopefully, I’ll have a lot of one-on-ones on the outside.” Burns had a rough rookie year, thanks in part to a cast on his hand that limited his ability to wrap up or control his blockers, and in part to a lack of confidence from then-head coach Ron Rivera. Burns is healthy this year and has put on 15 pounds of muscle thanks to an offseason workout regimen that he claims involved lifting buckets from Home Depot.

Troy Pride Jr.: The Panthers brought in free agent veteran Eli Apple to start opposite Donte Jackson at cornerback, but a few weeks into camp, it looks likely that Pride, a fourth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, may be in line to win that job. He’s impressed coaches with his play thus far. Coach Matt Rhule singled him out for both his demeanor and his versatility playing inside and outside. He’s also impressed teammates. Safety Juston Burris, speaking on Pride and rookie linebacker Jeremy Chinn — who also might steal a starting spot — said, “The moment is not too big for them. They’re rookies, but you wouldn’t think that watching them on the field.” Regardless of whether or not he gets the starting job coming out of his first camp, it seems clear that Pride will have a role in the Panthers secondary.