Bryce Young's hopes for a bounce-back season with Panthers comes down to more than just his supporting cast

What should have been a season to build off with their new offensive-minded head coach, an all-star coaching staff and their shiny new No. 1 draft pick, Bryce Young, at quarterback (who came with a hefty price tag in terms of assets) turned into a season from hell for the 2023 Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers finished 2-15 and were a mess. Especially on offense. That new head coach, Frank Reich, was fired after 11 games as he became the latest Panthers coach to exit his tenure in Carolina with a golden parachute under team owner David Tepper.

Their offense, crafted behind their highly paid staff and head coach, was abysmal, finishing at or near the bottom in standard box score stats and advanced stats alike. Panthers players took turns in underperforming and botching assignments on seemingly every play. The offensive line was not only overwhelmed physically but also mentally, consistently going the wrong way in protections and creating leaky pockets every time the quarterback dropped back to pass.

Or even just completely messing up who is supposed to pull on run plays:

The sloppiness applied to other positions, too. Running back Miles Sanders, who has the fourth largest salary-cap hit at his position in 2024 and I would assume was hand-picked by his former position coach Duce Staley, was dropped down the depth chart behind Chuba Hubbard as the season went along. Sanders never played more than 46% of the Panthers' snaps after Week 8 and only seven total snaps in the Panthers' Week 18 finale. And he was still making mistakes in pass protection when he did play.

The Panthers' pass-catchers were a grab bag of auxiliary weapons, retreads and projects, with 33-year-old Adam Thielen emerging as the top target by default (Thielen was targeted 137 times in 2023, the most he’s been targeted in a season since 2018).

Spacing issues and lack of separation were a constant theme every time the Panthers dropped back. Players seemed to lack detail with their assignments and even when they did get on the right path, they lacked the ability to win constantly or create something after the catch when they received the ball. Panthers pass-catchers averaged only 4.1 yards after the catch in 2023, last in the NFL and a full 2 1/2 yards fewer than the first-place San Francisco 49ers' average of 6.6 yards after the catch.

Not a fun picture painted there, right? Now imagine being the quarterback who has to be out there for all of those plays while chaos ensued around him and behind the scenes. That’s the situation that Young was plopped into after being anointed the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Getting selected No. 1 overall — no matter the sport or position — comes with weight and expectations. Whether it’s fair or not, when that “1.1” is put next to a player’s name, it means that a team made that choice over every single other player in the draft and are betting that player will define the current era of the franchise. Especially if that player is a quarterback.

This article is a film study of Young’s first season in the NFL, but I wanted to, hell I needed to, set the table for what was around Young during his inaugural campaign before I got to his actual play on the field. The Panthers' offensive ecosystem was that polluted. And even though quarterback is the most important position in football, it is not the only position that has an impact on a team’s performance. Believe it not, quarterbacks are still impacted by what is around them.

It’s so important to watch what Young was actually doing on the field because Young’s stats couldn’t really get much worse in his first year. He ranked 34th among qualifying quarterbacks in success rate, with his 36.9% rate stacking above only Tommy DeVito and Bailey Zappe. He averaged 3.68 adjusted net yards (which accounts for sack yardage and weighs touchdowns and interceptions) per pass attempt, ranking dead last among qualifying quarterbacks in 2023 and the lowest mark by any quarterback since Josh Rosen’s rookie year number of 3.53 in 2018. That sub-4 number puts him on a scary list of failed quarterbacks who recorded seasons under that threshold since 2011, per Pro-Football-Reference:

Not exactly the list you want your potential franchise quarterback to be on! Goff was the only player who ended up with a good career, with the rest either out of the league or becoming a career backup.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young didn't have a lot of help during a chaotic rookie season, but he also showed some concerning habits on film. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young didn't have a lot of help during a chaotic rookie season, but he also showed some concerning habits on film. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

Just staring at a player’s statistics doesn’t tell the whole story, especially in football. What you hope to see when a quarterback or player is in such a dire situation is glimpses of positive play despite the whirlwind of negativity around them. Was the process clean despite a less than ideal result? Was there an ability to mitigate a sack or avoid a negative play despite a free-running pass rusher? Was it proper timing and ideal ball placement even though there was a drop? Are you hunting explosive plays even in a muddy pocket? You hope for those little snippets of winning football despite the losses mounting up and bottom of the barrel box score numbers.

What Young did show was some creation, accuracy and a good understanding for operating the offense (there were times Young even handled protection changes his rookie year). When given a workable pocket, Young could put the ball on the money and was more than willing to attack the middle of the field:

And when not smothered right away, Young showed off the tantalizing ability to create out of structure that drew Steph Curry comparisons and gave him so many fans throughout the draft process:

Or place the ball where he wants to:

Young is best when he can operate quickly and play point guard. He thrives with space, both with the formation and in the pocket because of his lack of size. Things like empty formations with no other players in the backfield were some of the best ways to highlight Young’s skills. It puts him in the shotgun, gives him space from the line of scrimmage and lets him make smart decisions and get the ball out to one of his teammates. And Panthers coaches tried to use plenty of quick-game concepts to streamline things for Young (and to also help out the porous Panthers offensive line).

The downside of leaning into quicker passes is that it starts to limit the breathing room for the offense as defenders start anticipating the concepts. Safeties begin to creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage and to the underneath receivers. And it becomes even tighter when there is no threat to break a tackle (remember those Panthers YAC numbers) or the quarterback won’t (or isn’t able to) challenge the defense down the field.

And when Young tried to push the ball, the Panthers were unable to consistently finish the play:

The lack of juice from the Panthers led to so many tight windows for Young to throw into, but he would also sometimes work to underneath options too quickly. Rather than letting a concept play out or pushing the ball for deeper options on high-low concepts, Young would too often defer to safer routes, even when given the time to operate in the pocket. Young threw 14.3% of his pass attempts to checkdown routes like swings and flats, the third-highest rate in the NFL. His success rate on those throws was 37.1%, which ranked 27th. That’s a lot of short gains! A quarterback can make a living working underneath or progressing to the checkdown for positive plays, but they have to be continuously successful or be offset by the occasional big play to keep defenses from teeing off on those routes. And the Panthers' receivers weren’t able to create those plays, so it comes down to design and the quarterback’s play.

Young’s lack of arm strength and size creates little room for error in his play. If he takes one extra hitch or is a hair late getting rid of the football, defenders often make plays on the ball or squeeze windows even tighter. The issue is that Young constantly needs to take an extra hitch to get enough zip on the ball when throwing to the outside and he often needs to work backward in the pocket to see that target.

The habit of moving backward in the pocket, which I also touched on in my Shedeur Sanders film study, is unsustainable for positive quarterback play. It creates longer throws, giving defensive backs time to close on the ball, and it creates clean pass rush paths for edge rushers who can simply loop around the offensive tackle, creating unnecessary pressure when the quarterback could simply step up. And Young’s lack of size and arm strength makes it even more difficult to compensate.

Young had this habit in college and he still had it in his rookie year, which compounded the Panthers' offensive line issues and resulted in Young finishing with a sack rate of 10.5%, which ranked 31st among qualifying quarterbacks. He will show the ability to step up and maneuver in the pocket, but it was inconsistent, and the Panthers' protection situation didn’t really let him work on that skill anyway. This is one thing that has to improve for Young to find success as a starter, and it’s one thing I hope new head coach Dave Canales will help work on with the QB. The combination of Young’s preference for working underneath and accumulating negative yards in sacks makes for tough sledding in any offense without the explosive plays to offset it. The Panthers invested in the interior of their offensive line with the Damien Lewis and Robert Hunt signings, so hopefully Young feels like he doesn’t have to work backward to get throws off.

Space is so key for Young to operate because one of his greatest strengths — his intelligence and understanding for playing the position — has ended up being a double-edged sword for him. Young is aware of his arm, size and what he can and cannot get away with. He is hyper aware of those traits. This is a good and bad thing. Yes, he can find the cleanest option on a given concept, and he knows that he can’t make a living taking repeated shots from NFL defenders, but when things felt tight in the pocket or if he felt a receiver wasn’t clearly open, Young sought a checkdown or a way to throw the ball away. On top of his preference for checkdowns and low routes, 51 of Young’s dropbacks resulted in a throwaway in 2023, the highest amount in the league and 16 more than Jalen Hurts in second place and triple the league average. Taking safe options or throwing the ball away are good baseline habits for young quarterbacks, but when combined with a lack of explosiveness or willingness to push the ball, it can create frustrating drive after frustrating drive and overall ineffectiveness.

Again, the situation around Young must be considered. Young was likely feeling like he couldn’t challenge defenders because he probably felt like there was no conceivable throw to even try to make, especially when defenses realized they could just play man coverage against the Panthers' pass-catchers. Young faced the fifth-most dropbacks against Cover 1 last year, according to SportsInfoSolutions. The results of those 139 dropbacks? Young went 51-for-112 (45.5% completion percentage) for 598 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, 14 sacks and a 34.9% success rate, which ranked 34th. He ranked 38th in SIS’s “boom” metric, with his 18.3% rate less than half of Dak Prescott’s NFL-leading mark of 40.3%. You want to see Young try to push the ball, but it’s a bit hard when there was nobody he could trust to win in those situations.

What does this all mean for Young going forward? Well, let’s just say it’s not exactly a rosy start to his professional career. It’s a rough statistical profile and his play wasn’t overwhelming when I studied him. Yes, former No. 1 picks like Goff and Trevor Lawrence have overcome their horrid rookie years to become viable quarterbacks, but those are the exceptions to the rule, and Lawrence showed more glimpses of high-end play during his rookie year during the Urban Meyer experience than Young did under Reich and the rest of the Panthers' funky bunch coaches. This is not to say that Young is a bust already, either. His accuracy and intelligence still translate to every offense and still give him a floor as a viable starter, and better teammates, like the newly acquired Diontae Johnson and explosive rookie wideout Xavier Legette, should help highlight those traits even more. But, you take a player No. 1 overall to move the needle, not to just get the job done.

Young has a path to be a quarterback who can keep an offense on time with some ad-libbing ability to add creativity and spice to an offense (Alex Smith, another quarterback with a rough rookie season, is a play style and career comparison I keep coming back to for Young). But to justify that 1.1 selection, Young (and Canales) have to push it even more in 2024 and beyond.