The opening week of the 2021 NFL season offers a ton of exciting matchups. The Panthers and Jets may not jump out at you, but don’t overlook the weekend’s biggest revenge game!
The New York Jets will square off against their former quarterback, Sam Darnold, just 160 days after trading him to the Carolina Panthers. Meanwhile, the Jets will usher in a new era led by head coach Robert Saleh and No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson.
Can the new-look Jets start on the right foot, or will Darnold get his revenge? Let’s dive into this Week 1 grudge match.
Bet $10, Win $150 if Panthers Win or Lose Against Jets >>
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Carolina -5.5 (BettingPros Consensus Odds)
Over/Under: 45 (BettingPros Consensus Odds)
Will the Jets take flight under Saleh and Wilson?
The Jets offense can only improve after what we saw during the disastrous Adam Gase era. New York struggled offensively, ranking 31st in FootballOutsiders’ offensive defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) metric in 2020. They also ranked dead last in yards per play and points scored.
Gase is gone, Darnold is gone, and Jets fans will now turn to BYU rookie Zach Wilson as their savior. Wilson parlayed an outstanding final season with the Cougars into the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. The question is whether he is a player on the rise or a flash in the pan. The comparisons for him range from Patrick Mahomes to… Johnny Manziel.
The good news is that Wilson has a better supporting cast than Darnold ever did. The Jets invested heavily on offense in the draft by taking key players like guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore, and Michael Carter. The Jets don’t have a star pass catcher, but they have a deep unit headlined by Moore, Corey Davis, and Keelan Cole — Jamison Crowder and 2020 second-round pick Denzel Mims will return, too.
New York’s offensive line ranked fourth-worst last year, per ProFootballFocus. But left tackle Mekhi Becton is a potential anchor, and the addition of Morgan Moses at right tackle could be a solid upgrade. This unit should improve.
Wilson will also play in a system similar to what he ran at BYU. New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur will lead the offense (yes, he is Matt LaFleur’s brother and a Kyle Shanahan disciple). Expect a lot of outside zone running and short-field passing from the Jets in 2021.
Defensively, Gang Green is still a work in progress. The hope is that Saleh can help develop their young defensive pieces, particularly in the secondary. The Jets ranked 21st in defensive DVOA but 28th in pass defense DVOA.
Opponents threw on the Jets with relative ease in 2020, and that trend might continue in 2021. The Jets did little to upgrade their secondary in the offseason, with Lamarcus Joyner their only notable signing. They did sign prized free-agent pass rusher Carl Lawson, but he is out for the year with a ruptured Achilles. That means interior linemen Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins will have to generate pressure up the middle because the Jets have no threats on the edge. Linebacker C.J. Mosley also will return after sitting out in 2020.
Unless Saleh works a miracle, this unit should struggle again.
Check out all of our NFL Game Previews and Picks for Week 1 >>
Will Darnold resurrect his career in Carolina?
The Panthers have a ton of exciting pieces offensively, most notably running back Christian McCaffrey, who played only three games last year. Despite his absence, the Panthers managed to finish 17th in offensive DVOA, an impressive feat for offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
Carolina also has an exciting set of weapons at receiver, headlined by D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and rookie Terrace Marshall. Together, these three could give New York’s secondary fits. Anderson will also be highly motivated to face his old team after they let him walk in free agency two offseasons ago.
Ultimately, this unit’s potential comes down to Darnold and the offensive line. The two are certainly connected, as Darnold struggled to overcome poor protection throughout his career in New York. And that’s the bad news: Carolina’s offensive line could be one of the league’s worst.
Right tackle Taylor Moton is the only steady starter on this unit. Cam Erving will protect the left side, but he has only posted one season with a PFF grade higher than 50 in his six-year career. Center Matt Paradis has been a disappointment since signing with Carolina in 2019, and questions linger at guard.
Carolina’s goal offensively should be to get the ball to the perimeter, as they may struggle to contain Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins on the interior. However, that shouldn’t be a problem due to their explosive set of weapons.
Defensively, the Panthers have just as many questions as the Jets. They finished a disappointing 24th in defensive DVOA last year. There is talent on this unit, namely edge rusher Brian Burns, but he needs help. Burns accounted for more than one-third of Carolina’s sacks in 2020. Carolina’s unproven secondary, which 2021 first-round pick Jaycee Horn headlines, will also need to improve.
Game Analysis and Pick
This line feels about right to me, as I consider the Panthers a couple of points better than the Jets on a neutral field. However, I’m more interested in the total.
As I mentioned above, both teams have glaring holes on defense. Carolina should be able to attack the perimeter with McCaffrey in the running game and should have no trouble throwing the ball against New York’s corners. Meanwhile, New York’s outside-zone running scheme should succeed against an unimposing Panthers front seven. It helps that I’m a big fan of both coaching staffs.
The fear of a turnover fest between the mistake-prone Darnold and a rookie quarterback gives me a bit of pause, but my best bet for this game is to go over the total.
Lean: Over 45
Join the BettingPros Discord Chat for Live Betting Advice >>
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | RadioPublic | Breaker | Castbox | Pocket Casts
Whether you’re new to sports betting or a betting pro, our Sports Betting Strategy and Advice page is for you. You can get started with our 101 section — including 10 Sports Betting Tips for Beginners — or head to more advanced strategies — like Key Numbers When Betting Against the Spread — to learn more.
Matt Barbato is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Matt, check out his archive and follow him @RealMattBarbato.