Our 2023 NFL Preview heads southward to Charlotte, where the Panthers look to kick off a brand-new era of football. After a fifth consecutive losing campaign (the third under former Head Coach, Matt Rhule), Carolina finally hit the reset button, with (General Manager) Scott Fitterer swinging for the fences in the offseason. First, the club hired (former Quarterback) Frank Reich as their new Head Coach. Second, Fitterer continued the fire sale that he began during the previous season, packaging (Pro-Bowl Receiver) D.J. Moore along with a number of draft picks to the Bears in exchange for the number one overall pick in last April’s NFL Draft. Lastly, they used that pick to select (2021 Heisman) Bryce Young to be the franchise Quarterback that they’ve been searching for since Cam Newton left town years ago. How quickly will these cats compete under Reich’s guidance? Will Young overcome concerns over his size and frame? Let’s take a stroll through Charlotte and see if the Panthers are ready to roar this Fall…
Back to the Future
When David Tepper bought the Panthers back in 2018, he had big things in mind for the franchise, who was just three years removed from an NFC Championship and subsequent appearance in Super Bowl 50. However, after strong starts to his first two campaigns of ownership, the team floundered down the stretch, leading to a revolution on the sidelines. In an attempt to get ahead of the curve, Tepper hired (former Baylor Head Coach) Matt Rhule to rebuild the roster, though returning to the NFL proved to be a difficult transition for the skipper, who was ultimately relieved of his duties midway through the 2022 season. Rather than dip back into the collegiate ranks, Tepper, alongside Fitterer, landed on Frank Reich, who was fired by the Colts after just nine games. By and large, the issues that had plagued Indianapolis were far bigger than Reich (pictured above), who was forced to cycle through a different starting Quarterback every season following the sudden retirement of (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Andrew Luck in 2019. Simply put, the 61-year-old was likely jumping at the opportunity to start over with a new franchise and choose a blue-chip Quarterback in a Draft littered with them. Long revered around the league as true developer of the position, Reich’s track record is considerable when it comes to coaching Quarterbacks; he was the guiding hand in Carson Wentz’s rise to stardom in 2017 before injury opened the door for (veteran journeyman) Nick Foles to lead the Eagles to their first Lombardi Trophy, while helping the aforementioned Luck to bounce back from a serious shoulder injury to win Comeback Player of the Year in 2018. That disastrous end to his tenure in Indy aside, there are far too many positives in this man’s CV to ignore, with few of his contemporaries around the NFL being better suited to raise a young talent such as Bryce Young (much more on him shortly). Oh, and what better man to lead the Panthers into a bold new era than their first starting Quarterback in franchise history? Way back in 1995, a 34-year-old Reich joined Carolina in their initial expansion year, and served as their starter in the season opener, completing 23-of-44 passes for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a narrow 23-20 loss to the Falcons.
The Bryce is Right
As we stated earlier, the Panthers made some serious moves in the offseason, none more significant than trading the aforementioned Moore, along with two first round picks and two second round picks from 2023 to 2025 to the Bears in exchange for the number one overall pick in last April’s NFL Draft, which they used to select Bryce Young. After struggling mightily at Quarterback over the past three seasons, Carolina NEEDED to get this pick right, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic in their choice of the 21-year-old. In three seasons at Alabama (two as the starter), Young (pictured to the right) won twenty-three of his twenty-seven starts, completing 65.8% of his passes for 8,356 yards and EIGHTY touchdowns in comparison to just twelve interceptions, all the while winning the 2021 Heisman Memorial Trophy and leading the Crimson Tide to an appearance in the National Championship Game that same season. Considered by scouts as a true natural at the position, his accuracy, anticipation, mechanics, and footwork are well beyond his years, while his arm strength is solid for a player of his stature. However, therein lies the concerns, folks; Young stands at a slight 6′-0″, 194 lbs., which is likely his actual playing weight despite checking in at the NFL Scouting Combine ten pounds heavier. While the NFL isn’t as beholden to the rigid measurables when it comes to evaluating Quarterbacks of the past, there have been very few examples of players at that particular position being successful, let alone staying HEALTHY, at that size. And it is with that said that Fitterer and Reich have gone to great lengths to put a quality supporting cast around him, acquiring the likes of (Eagles Tailback) Miles Sanders, (Vikings Receiver) Adam Thielen, (Lions Receiver) D.J. Chark, and (Bengals Tight End) Hayden Hurst in Free Agency, along with (veteran Quarterback) Andy Dalton to serve as a mentor to his young teammate. Furthermore, Reich managed to poach Thomas Brown from the Rams to be his Offensive Coordinator, while coaxing the venerable Jim Caldwell (another respected QB whisperer) out of retirement to serve as a Senior Assistant. Keep in mind that Fitterer addressed the Offensive Line last offseason, meaning that the foundation has been laid for Young to hit the ground running, which would be a boost to Carolina’s designs of contending in what is expected to be a wide-open NFC South…
During his three years in Carolina, there were certainly plenty of things that you could criticize Matt Rhule for, but one of the things he absolutely got right was building the Defense. Despite winning just eleven games in that period of time, the Panthers ranked eighteenth, SECOND, and twenty-second in total defense, with that 2021 performance serving as proof as to what this unit could be without an offense that continually shoots itself in the proverbial foot. The bulk of their building on this side of the football has come via the Draft, where Rhule did a tremendous job of identifying and developing talent even prior to Fitterer’s arrival. After one look at this group, you can tell that they have been built from the trenches on out, with the Defensive Line being littered with talent. (Young Edge-Rusher) Brian Burns (pictured above) has been selected to the Pro-Bowl in each of the last two seasons, racking up 21.5 sacks including a career-high 12.5 last year, along with twenty-two QB hits, seventeen tackles for loss, and eight hurries. (Defensive Ends) Marquise Haynes and Yetur Gross-Matos are other athletic profiles unearthed via the Draft, while (powerful Nose Tackle) Derrick Brown has proven to be a handful against the run in a variety of defensive fronts. Eight years with the franchise, (Pro-Bowl Linebacker) Shaq Thompson is now the elder statesman of the unit, while the Secondary has a number of solid pieces such as (promising Cornerback) Jaycee Horn, who bounced back strong after missing all but three games of his rookie campaign, while (versatile Safety) Jeremy Chinn is a Swiss-army knife on the back end. New Defensive Coordinator, Ejiro Evero has plenty of weapons to utilize in his first season with the club, with the 42-year-old representing a shrewd hire to unlock their potential. A disciple of Vic Fangio from their time together in San Francisco, Evero did a stellar job in his lone season with the Broncos; Denver finished seventh in total defense (320.0) and fourteenth in points allowed (21.1) and takeaways (23), though were consistently dumped on by one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Look for him to mix up his looks up front, while employing a variety of coverages on the back end in an attempt to create confusion and pressure, which is something that this unit was already adept at (35 sacks).
Projected Outcome: 9-8
Despite Rhule’s sacking midway through the campaign and the subsequent fire sale that followed, it needs to be said that the Panthers aren’t your typical team starting over with a new coaching staff and a Rookie Quarterback selected number one overall. They finished strong last season, winning five of their final eight games en route to ending up with a 7-10 record and remained in contention for the NFC South title until the final week. Reich arrives with plenty of talent to work with on both sides of the football and given how mediocre the rest of the division appears to be, there is a real argument to be made that Carolina could very well separate themselves from the competition. However, the deciding factor will be Young, who has all the talent and skills to ignite this long dormant attack, though must overcome the concerns over his slight frame. If he hits the ground running and the defense continues to grow, then this will be a playoff team in 2023, for there may not be a team in the division with more potential.