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Panthers to start three rookies against Falcons, but first-year OC isn’t concerned

Thomas Brown will enter his first regular-season game as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator on Sunday in Atlanta. Joining him in their respective Panthers regular-season debuts will be quarterback Bryce Young, wideout Jonathan Mingo and guard Chandler Zavala.

However, the difference between the coach and that trio of players is that Brown has been in the NFL for years — even winning a Super Bowl ring in Los Angeles a couple of seasons ago — and Young, Mingo and Zavala are all rookies.

So, as the play designer gets ready to lead three rookie starters into battle against the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Brown is looking for ways to make the newbies feel comfortable in their first meaningful game in the NFL.

New Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown speaks during a press conference in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, February 23, 2023.
New Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown speaks during a press conference in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, February 23, 2023.

“We’re just trying to get those guys as many game-like reps as you can, but you can’t really simulate an actual game,” Brown said Thursday. “And that’s why the preseason is huge, but also is going up against our defense every single day. ... Being able to have a clear-cut game plan keeps it simple, but it also gives those guys an opportunity to play loose and play ball.”

Young, the first overall pick in April, has led the offense in practice since organized team activities in June. He was voted a captain by his teammates this week, and after an up-and-down preseason, appears to be in the driver’s seat to bounce back with a full game under his belt.

Brown isn’t concerned about Young suffering from any first-game jitters in the season-opener.

“He has been calm, cool, collected from the moment I met him,” Brown said. “I think just him being able to understand the confidence that we have in him (helps). And the biggest thing that kills any fear, any doubt, any jitters is preparation, and he prepares his butt off. I mean, every single day: in the meeting rooms, from being here early to staying late, to studying film, to having suggestions. So I don’t worry about that at all.”

Carolina Panthers Jonathan Mingo practices at the Carolina Panthers rookie minicamp in Charlotte on Saturday.
Carolina Panthers Jonathan Mingo practices at the Carolina Panthers rookie minicamp in Charlotte on Saturday.

Mingo, the team’s second-round pick, put together a strong summer at Wofford College. He also flashed during three preseason games as a fellow starter to Young.

With veterans DJ Chark (hamstring), Adam Thielen (ankle) and Terrace Marshall (back) battling injuries, Mingo might need to step up as the offense’s top receiving weapon in his first NFL game.

“Excited about him,” Brown said. “He’s been a true pro from Day 1. It’s always interesting from a dynamic standpoint to try to bring in rookies, to try to figure out who’s mature, who’s not mature. He operates like he’s a third- or fourth-year vet as far as his overall demeanor in meetings and also on the practice field.”

Zavala — who was sidelined with a hamstring injury during the first two weeks of training camp — was named starting right guard on Wednesday. The NC State alum was able to gain ground on the rest of the competition with two solid performances to end the preseason.

Carolina Panthers Chandler Zavala practices at the Carolina Panthers rookie minicamp in Charlotte on Saturday.
Carolina Panthers Chandler Zavala practices at the Carolina Panthers rookie minicamp in Charlotte on Saturday.

Zavala will face a tough test on Sunday against Falcons defensive linemen Grady Jarrett and Calais Campbell. But the fourth-round pick has the trust of Brown, head coach Frank Reich and offensive line coach James Campen.

“I think it’s just the overall physicality when it comes to the run game, getting movement at the point of contact,” Brown said about Zavala. “We talk about backside and midzone combinations between that backside guard and tackle — we call it B blocks — so being able to get connected, get movement to the second level, which is huge for us.

“But also improvement when it comes to pass protection. Because ultimately when it comes to pass downs, third downs, they gotta protect the quarterback. And everybody, by and large, on third down tries to get you in some type of ... five one on ones across the board. So being able to hold them and throw hands at the point of contact is going to be huge. So he’s showed improvement from a day to day standpoint.”

In the passing game, which Brown helped design, Young, Mingo and Zavala will all be working together to push the offense forward. The three rookies will have tall tasks to complete in their individual roles against Atlanta, but together — along with Brown — they’ll look to make a strong first impression in an NFC South division outing on the road.