Panthers draft focused on upgrading sagging passing game
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers entered the offseason looking to upgrade a passing game that was among the worst in the league last season.
The NFL draft served as a culmination of that plan.
The Panthers added two key pieces, taking Alabama quarterback Bryce Young No. 1 overall and wide receiver Jonathan Mingo from Mississippi in the second round.
Carolina also drafted Oregon outside linebacker DJ Johnson in the third round, North Carolina State guard Chandler Zavala in the fourth and defensive back Jammie Robinson from Florida State in the fifth.
Young, the Heisman Trophy winner in 2021, is expected to become Carolina's starting QB as soon as he has a decent grasp of the offensive system, while Mingo will look to forge a role amid a largely revamped receiving group. Before the draft the Panthers added wide receivers Adam Thielen, D.J. Chark and Damiere Byrd, tight end Hayden Hurst and running back Miles Sanders in free agency to upgrade a unit that finished 29th in the league in passing in 2022.
“That was a real emphasis going into this offseason,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said of upgrading the passing game. “You want to give (a quarterback) plenty of weapons so they can go and operate.”
Coach Frank Reich said the Panthers plan to spread the ball around and Young is the perfect “point guard” to do that.
“We want to use multiple formations, personnel groups," Reich said. "You can never have enough playmakers. That is a big deal. What I am super excited about is our skill room.”
Reich believes Young can be a “unique player” in the league, and the rookie seems eager for the challenge.
“I really want to come in and earn the respect,” Young said. “I know that’s going to be a tall task because it’s going to be a lot of people in this building that demand that respect. I’m excited to start that process.”
Mingo has the ability to line up at several positions at wide receiver, and the Panthers believe he can be a perfect complement to Young with his ability to make big plays after the catch.
“We run a lot of shallows, crosses, we want to get the ball vertical. He has been very effective there,” Reich said. "And the thing when a guy has elite ball skills and you’ve got a super accurate passer like we do, that is just a really good combination. Just get it near him. He has got strong hands to the ball and he will be a great target for Bryce."
While the 5-foot-10, 204-pound Young is only the third quarterback shorter than 6 feet tall drafted in the first round since the NFL-AFL merger, the Panthers were able to overlook his size because of his winning past.
He was 23-4 as a starter the past two seasons for the Crimson Tide after a stellar career at Mater Dei, one of the country's most decorated high school programs.
“This guy is a winner,” Reich said. “And he’s been the best player on the best team against the best competition from the time he was 8 years old, literally.”
Reich said Young checked every box before taking him over Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Florida's Anthony Richardson and Kentucky's Will Levis.
“We tested him, we talked to him, we had dinner with him,” Reich said. “Just every time we met with him, we felt more and more convicted. And we liked all the guys, but Bryce was the guy that we really felt strongly about.”
Now the Panthers coaching staff — which includes new offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and senior assistant Jim Caldwell — will look to find ways to take advantage of Young's talents.
Reich wouldn't commit to Young being the starter in Week 1, saying that he has to earn it.
In the meantime, the coaching staff will look at some on the things he did well during his time at Alabama, where he threw for 80 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, and incorporate them into the offense.
But for the most part, Carolina's scheme is about 80% locked in.
“We always like to look at his college tape, see what concepts that he was really good at in college that are already in our offense,” Reich said. “That’s a good starting point. And then see the kind of plays he makes, how he likes to throw the ball when he is throwing certain routes, what style of concepts. ... That will be what we do from now until training camp.”
Clearly the expectations for Young are high.
The Panthers have been to the Super Bowl twice, but have yet to win a Lombardi Trophy. Owner David Tepper strongly believes Young gives them the best chance to win.
When asked at a Friday night draft party what the addition of Young means to the organization, Tepper replied, "what I want to say — Super Bowls.”
NOTES: Reich said guard Austin Corbett is unlikely to be ready for the start of the regular season after tearing the ACL in his knee in Week 17 of last season. That is one of the reasons the Panthers drafted Zavala in the fifth round, to add depth at guard.
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Steve Reed, The Associated Press