Hope sells. For a team that’s seen the struggles that the Carolina Panthers have seen in recent years, that’s what the NFL Draft is about: the promise of tomorrow. And nothing sells hope like a franchise quarterback, the most important position in team sports.
Fans were out in force at the North Gate of Bank of America Stadium on April 28 not for the pomp and circumstance — though there was plenty of it — but to witness hope. That came in the form of Bryce Young, who made his first public appearance in Charlotte that afternoon, the day after the Panthers made him the first overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
After fans saw the band, the mascot, the cheerleaders and the DJ, it was time to get to the reason they had come. Young walked through the tunnel and onto a blue carpet, with adoring fans on both sides of him clamoring for photos, seeking autographs and soaking in the exhilaration.
The last time the Carolina Panthers had the first overall selection pick was also the last time they selected a quarterback in the first round: Cam Newton in 2011. Four years later, they were 15-1 and playing for a Super Bowl.
As team owner David Tepper mentioned during Friday’s press conference, that trophy is what it’s all about: “You want to win Super Bowls … We thought this guy [Bryce Young] had the highest probability of winning Super Bowls.”
Tepper discussed how the front office has approached its goal to bring that trophy to Charlotte after years of unimpressive play on the field.
“We went through a very deep process with the head coach (Frank Reich) and found what we believe is the best head coach we could find. Then, set the head coach free to get the best staff he could find,” Tepper said.
He added that Reich didn’t look for the person he knew, but rather the best person out there for the coaching staff.
The Panthers now have one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the league, with three former head coaches: Reich, senior defensive assistant Dom Capers, and special assistant Jim Caldwell.
Reich, Caldwell and quarterback coach Josh McCown are all great offensive minds, which will help bolster new offensive coordinator Thomas Brown. Veteran quarterback Andy Dalton was added to the team in March to give Young another experienced voice in the room, as well.
In the NFL, you win with quarterbacks. Understanding that (and having an owner whose patience isn’t his strong suit) the Panthers acquired the No. 1 pick from the Chicago Bears for their ninth overall pick, a second rounder, and their first pick in 2024, with another 2025 second-round pick tacked on for good measure.
Oh, and did we mention the Panthers’ top receiver D.J. Moore was included in the deal as well? It was a heavy price to pay, but it magnifies the importance of the quarterback position. If you don’t have “that guy,” you’re probably running in place.
They were both No. 1 overall picks at quarterback, but the contrasts between Newton and Young are what’s compelling. Newton was one of the biggest quarterbacks out there (6’5″, 245 pounds while playing) and Young will be one of the smallest (5’10, ~200 pounds). The size concern has been talked about plenty, but the Panthers never hesitated when having their draft meetings in February.
GM Scott Fitterer said there was overwhelming conviction for Young: “Everyone in the room said Bryce was their guy. He checked every box. When you watch the tape, Bryce Young is the best player.”
Size concerns have been following Young since he first started playing quarterback, and he’s been asked about it ad nauseam. Nerve posed the question to him at the press conference, but in a slightly different form. Acknowledging that this is something he’s had to discuss countless times in the past, we flipped the talking point around, asking, “How is your size actually an advantage for you?”
His face lit up as he answered. “You’ll make my dad happy with that one.” (His dad Craig was sitting in the front row.) “He’s always wanted someone to ask that question.”
“Honestly, I think for me — I don’t know if he’ll like this answer — I always look at it as, I only know one way to play the quarterback position. I’ve been this size relative to everyone around me. I don’t really look at it as an advantage or disadvantage. I think I would have to know another perspective to know that.”
“I focus on myself and being the best version of myself day in and day out,” Young continued. “I know that size has been something that everyone wants to talk about, but I’ve never thought about it. Never thought about, ‘How am I going to navigate this? What am I going to do differently?’ I only know how to play one way. Disadvantage, advantage, it’s just me and how I know how to play the position. But thank you, thank you on behalf of my father for asking that question.”
Young doesn’t have the proverbial “cannon for an arm,” nor could you say he’s been blessed with uber athleticism, but he’s been a winner everywhere he has played. His high school team, Mater Dei, was ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2018. He won the Heisman Trophy as starting quarterback at Alabama in 2021.
Young processes data like a computer, scoring highest of any quarterback in the draft on the S2 cognition test, which measures how players process and make split-second decisions. He sees the field and evaluates the situation at an elite rate, allowing him to process what he’s looking at and make the best play under the circumstances.
Young has qualities about him that Fitterer said were a priority for him while looking for a quarterback: leadership, awareness (that aforementioned processing), and accuracy, all of which allow him to run the team and get them in and out of plays.
Of course, there’s always a learning curve for any player entering the NFL, and even if he comes in and playing well at the pro level, he can’t do it all alone.
While the loss of Moore hurt, the Panthers added receivers Adam Thielen and D.J. Chark Jr. in free agency, along with running back Miles Sanders, who ran for 1,269 yards last year for Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia.
With their second-round pick, Carolina scooped up Ole Miss wide receiver Jonathan Mingo, a strong receiver with size who also has after-the-catch capability.
Asked what was needed to help his new rookie quarterback, Fitterer responded, “If you’re going to go with a young quarterback, you have to have a running back, you have to have a tight end, you have to have the receivers. We feel like we have the offensive line.”
He said everything the team has done the last couple of years has led up to this point — building a defense with young anchors like Brian Burns and Derrick Brown, then adding to the offensive line with Ikem Ekwonu in the first round of the 2022 draft and resigning Bradley Bozeman — so when they got to this position, they could drop someone in to make the greatest possible impact.
Now, it comes down to Young and his teammates learning the playbook, getting acclimated with each other, and leaving the rest out on the football field. The NFC South is a winnable division. There are no goliaths hovering over it, so the Panthers have a chance.
But that’s not what everyone cares about, and it’s not what the Panthers gave up so much capital for. It took the Panthers four years to get to the Super Bowl with Newton. Will Young be able to take them back there? The bigger question is, if he gets there, can he win it?
Even if there were nothing else, at least now there’s hope.
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