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State of the 2023 Carolina Panthers: Frank Reich and Bryce Young guide franchise into new era

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Panthers organization, Panthers fans around the world and those who still can't believe Carolina traded Christian McCaffrey ...

The Panthers gave it a shot with Matt Rhule, a hiring I applauded back in 2020. But 38 games -- and just 11 wins -- later, Rhule's reign in Carolina ended midway through Year 3. Back to the drawing board. So, what's in store for these new-look Panthers, with fresh faces at head coach and under center? We'll get to that. But before we can move forward, we must briefly look back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Beating the Falcons on Thursday Night Football in Week 10. The 2022 Panthers dropped seven of their first nine games. They had just lost to the Falcons in overtime two weeks prior to the prime-time affair. Then they went out and convincingly beat their division rivals, 25-15, disappointing folks in Atlanta -- and all those gamers who grew up in the 2000s and inherently cheer for the Falcons because they loved rolling with Mike Vick in Madden. This win set the stage for the Panthers to go 5-3 to close out the year.

One low from last season: Trading Christian McCaffrey. I wrote a piece during the 2020 offseason that said CMC was one of the few untradeable players in the NFL, yet Carolina did it. Honestly, the Panthers kind of had to. Similar to the firing of Matt Rhule, this move needed to be made if they wanted to rebuild the roster with a new regime. Just like they needed to trade away D.J. Moore to make sure they got that top pick in the draft. Had to be done. But that doesn't mean it didn't hurt in the moment, getting rid of the face of the franchise.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Bryce Young. Speak of the top pick of the draft and he shall appear. First off, can you believe Young is the first Alabama player to go No. 1 overall in the common draft era, which began in 1967? It's true, I swear! I remember watching Young in his high school days out here at Mater Dei High School -- one of the top prep programs in the country -- before he hit the NFL factory in Tuscaloosa and won the Heisman Trophy. He reminds me of Drew Brees -- not just because of his small stature, but also his cerebral mastery of the game. The Panthers did sign Andy Dalton in free agency, but I've seen this movie before. Young is going to start Day 1 for Carolina, spearheading the rebuild.

Projected 2023 MVP: Young. He enjoyed a monster sophomore campaign at Alabama in 2021, setting the program's single-season records for passing yards (4,872) and passing touchdowns (47), and ultimately becoming the first Crimson Tide quarterback to win the Heisman. Young's numbers dipped last year, but he still carried 'Bama week in and week out. Anyone who saw him light up Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl knows the 5-foot-10 passer has special ability that can mitigate size concerns. He's a prolific playmaker and an excellent decision-maker -- a combo that shines in today's NFL. Not to mention, he's fearless under pressure, the kind of preternaturally calm leader every team wants.

New face to know: Miles Sanders, running back. Christian McCaffrey wasn't the only Panthers back to fly the coop over the past year. D'Onta Foreman, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2022, isn't walking through that door anymore, either. Enter Miles Sanders, who signed a four-year, $25.4 million contract with the team this offseason. I really like this addition. Sanders rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns during the 2022 regular season, earning his first Pro Bowl bid, but he was limited in the Eagles' Super Bowl loss. Fumbling on the first play from scrimmage isn't the best way to start off a Lombardi game. The ball did go out of bounds, but coaches don't forget things like that. Still, dude got a pretty lucrative contract for the running back position this offseason, and he's poised to own the Panthers' backfield.

2023 breakout star: Ikem Ekwonu, offensive tackle. He was recently selected to my colleague Bucky Brooks' 2023 All-Breakout Team. Who am I go argue with that assessment? (Well, the Bears fan in me would rather have Braxton Jones on that list. And hey, another colleague, David Carr, kind of agreed with me. But I digress.) Ekwonu, the sixth overall pick in 2022, was pretty good during his rookie season. He came in as a dominant force in the run game, as a lot of these young O-linemen are. The work he's put in during the offseason should show up in the passing game this year.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Frank Reich
General manager Scott Fitterer
Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown
Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero
Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor
  • Frank Reich seemed like a scapegoat in Indianapolis, as he was saddled with aging quarterbacks (SEE: Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan) and tasked to get one last run out of them. It's the kind of thing that would make for a good football movie on Disney+ or something, but not typically an approach that prospers in the real NFL. Fired by the Colts midway through last season, Reich now gets a chance to have his own franchise QB in Carolina and prove what he can do. I love it.
  • If you're wondering where first-year OC Thomas Brown came from, well, it's the Rams. It's always the Rams. Los Angeles is coming off an historically bad title defense, and yet, the team's coaches keep getting promotions. Granted, Brown was an established up-and-comer in the coaching community prior to landing this new gig, and relocating to Carolina allowed him to get out from Sean McVay's shadow and prove himself. I feel like he could be one of the most sought after head-coaching candidates next offseason.
  • GM Scott Fitterer is in his third year with the Panthers after two decades with the Seahawks. His tenure in Carolina is now tied to the development of Bryce Young. He's going to be all right.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Panthers' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama (1-1) Andy Dalton, QB Sam Darnold, QB
Jonathan Mingo, WR, Ole Miss (2-39) Miles Sanders, RB PJ Walker, QB
DJ Johnson, OLB, Oregon (3-80) DJ Chark Jr., WR D'Onta Foreman, RB
Chandler Zavala, OG, N.C. State (4-114) Adam Thielen, WR D.J. Moore, WR
Jammie Robinson, S, Florida State (5-145) Hayden Hurst, TE Pat Elflein, C
Bradley Bozeman, C Matt Ioannidis, DL
Shy Tuttle, DL Cory Littleton, LB
DeShawn Williams, DL Damien Wilson, LB
Eric Rowe, DB Myles Hartsfield, DB
Vonn Bell, S Juston Burris, S

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

Will the Panthers be able to ...

... provide enough weapons for Bryce Young? You know, if Young had landed in Carolina last season, he'd have joined a team with Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore. But hey, Miles Sanders and Adam Thielen are just as good. Well, maybe not. It's funny, considering the Bears made a move for Moore because they wanted to make sure they had as much talent for their young quarterback (Justin Fields) as possible. That said, this crew for Young isn't bad. The team added speedy wideout DJ Chark Jr. to the mix to pair with Thielen. And watch Thielen have like 30 receptions this year, but 10 touchdowns. Terrace Marshall Jr. could still break out -- apparently, he looked great in OTAs. The team spent a second-round pick on Jonathan Mingo and signed tight end Hayden Hurst. Add in Miles Sanders at running back, and this is a pretty good group. I like it, at least. OK, not to be nitpicky, but about the only thing missing is a D.J. Moore type of receiver. Those are hard to find, though. And you'd never give one up if you had it.

... count on the defense to alleviate pressure from the offense? The Panthers ranked 22nd in total defense last year and failed to routinely get to the quarterback, so there is work to be done by new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. What would really help is better health luck for Jaycee Horn, the talented cornerback who has missed 18 games in his first two seasons due to injuries. He was seen in a walking boot during mandatory minicamps, but doesn't need surgery and should be ready for the start of training camp. Another guy to watch: QB hunter Brian Burns, who will be playing a new position (outside linebacker) in Evero's 3-4 defense. The Panthers could have traded him before the 2022 trade deadline, but kept him around (for good reason) and hope to keep him beyond this contract season.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: How much Carolina gave up for Bryce Young. Was it expensive? Indeed it was. But that's the cost of doing QB business in the NFL. It is going to require three first-rounders to get that top pick. Obviously, in this case, the Bears took D.J. Moore instead of a 2025 first, but you get what I'm saying. Look, I know it's going to suck if/when you see those mock drafts for 2024 and you don't have a first-round pick -- especially if you're bad this fall and end up like the Rams and Broncos in the 2023 draft. But I'll tell you what: There is nothing like watching your team and knowing you have your quarterback of the future. Oh, wait -- your last No. 1 overall pick was Cam Newton. You know what it's like. You're fine.

For 2023 to be a success, the Panthers MUST:

  • Develop Bryce Young. I mean, you should want to make the playoffs because the NFC South is wide open. So it's not like you shouldn't want to make the tournament. And it's not like you're playing for a draft pick, because you traded it to Chicago. (And I know us Bears fans are going to be annoying rooting against you. It's not personal, it's strictly business.) But regardless of the record, you are going to be cooking if it's clear Bryce Young is The Guy in Year 1.

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