By Zach Goins
September 6, 2023
The 2023 NFL season is right around the corner, and there’s a whole new energy in the Carolinas.
After three-ish years under former head coach Matt Rhule, the organization cleared house this offseason. The Panthers brought in a brand new coaching staff led by head coach Frank Reich, drafted a new quarterback with the first-overall pick, and loaded up on veteran free agents to help build out their roster.
While hope is present in the Carolinas for the first time in years, we can’t get ahead of ourselves with expectations this season. A new coach, a new quarterback, a new team, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers can’t make serious strides towards regaining NFL relevance. A playoff appearance and an NFC South title would be nice, but at the end of the day, the biggest goal this season should be to see growth from quarterback Bryce Young as he settles into the league.
Is Bryce Young the Answer?
No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young is the new face of the Carolina Panthers. After cycling through eight different starting quarterbacks since the 2018 season, one thing Panthers fans can look forward to this season is consistency under center. Young was named the starter in July, and– barring injury– don’t expect that to change this year.
The rookie quarterback won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore at Alabama, and has received universal praise from his Panthers teammates, coaches, and the national media since being drafted, but what really matters will be how he performs once the regular season kicks off.
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Young showed flashes of his playmaking ability throughout the preseason, completing 14 of 24 passes for 129 yards and one touchdown with 22 rushing yards in limited playing time over three games. Considering the Panthers have kept their offensive game plan fairly vanilla all preseason, expect Young’s production to increase dramatically once the team starts actually scheming in the regular season.
Questions along the Offensive Line
In order for Young to be able to work his magic, the Panthers offensive line will need to step it up. A common theme throughout Carolina’s three preseason matchups was quarterback pressure, as the rookie was sacked three times.
After making final cuts to the 53-man roster following the preseason, the Panthers opted to prioritize youth along the offensive line, cutting three veterans. The right tackle spot will be held down by longtime starter Taylor Moton, while sixth year veteran Bradley Bozeman anchors the line at center.
Outside of those two, though, no one along the offensive line has more than two years of experience under their belt. Former first rounder Ikem Ekwonu is back at left tackle after an impressive rookie campaign, third-year player Brady Christensen is set to start at left guard, and Ekwonu’s college teammate, rookie fourth rounder Chandler Zavala, is currently listed as the starting right guard.
Veteran offensive lineman Austin Corbett is set to miss at least the first four games as he continues to recover from an ACL tear, and if another starter goes down, things could spiral quickly. The youth movement up front is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, as it could see players earn valuable reps early on in their careers, but if the baptism by fire goes poorly and the unproven reserves aren’t able to perform, Young’s rookie season could be doomed.
New Faces on Offense
Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore… the names that once defined the Panthers explosive offense are distant memories at this point. While Young hopes to revive the unit into an electrifying offense once more, he’ll be surrounded by a whole new cast of players.
Former Eagles running back Miles Sanders will be starting in the backfield after coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2022 and ranking fifth in the NFL in rushing yards. The fifth-year veteran has yet to take a snap as a Panther, missing all three preseason games with a tweaked groin, but is expected to be ready for Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons. The running back room is relatively thin behind him. Chuba Hubbard has proven capable over his first two years with the Panthers, but beyond Hubbard, third-string running back Raheem Blackshear is largely unproven.
Carolina’s wide receiving corps is almost entirely new this season, led by two free agent signings in veteran Adam Thielen and DJ Chark, plus rookie second-round pick Jonathan Mingo. Thielen will provide Young with a steady and reliable presence as a possession receiver, but at 33 years old, the 11-year veteran isn’t the offensive weapon he once was. That’s where the Panthers will lean on Chark to provide an explosive spark to the offense with his speed and ability to take the top off the defense. Chark’s biggest issue throughout his career has been availability, never playing a full season and often being injury plagued. He already missed his first game as a Panther, sitting out the preseason finale with a hamstring injury, and is hoping to be ready to go by the regular season opener.
Chark isn’t the only receiver to miss time this preseason– third-year pro Terrace Marshall Jr. missed the final two preseason games with a back injury, while Laviska Shenault Jr. just cleared concussion protocol after missing the preseason finale.
Young isn’t surrounded by a flashy supporting cast, and he’s lacking a true No. 1 receiver. Things could get even messier if injuries become a problem at wideout. The Panthers should have learned their lesson surrounding Cam Newton with mediocre receivers throughout his career, let’s just hope they don’t give Young the same treatment.
Solidifying the Defensive Front
For all the turnover the Panthers have seen on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is filled with familiar faces, like Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson, Jaycee Horn and Jeremy Chinn.
Under new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, the Carolina defense is shifting to a 3-4 scheme, which should allow some of the Panthers best playmakers to shine. Burns, for example, will be moving from defensive end to outside linebacker, where he’ll still mainly serve as a pass rusher, but in a more versatile way. Burns tallied up 12.5 sacks last season in a Pro Bowl year, and now will have veteran free agent signing Justin Houston opposite him, who racked up 9.5 sacks with the Ravens last season.
The only issue is making sure Burns is on the field. The two-time Pro Bowler is due for a big payday and is currently negotiating a new contract with the Panthers’ brass, but Burns has sat out of a few recent practices due to a “personal matter.” While he hasn’t threatened to holdout and miss any games, the longer Carolina drags out negotiations with their best player, the riskier it gets in potentially losing the star pass rusher for next season.
Assuming Burns is on the field, he and Houston should wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, while linebackers Shaq Thompson and Frankie Luvu clog up the middle. Thompson has excelled in the new scheme throughout training camp and the preseason, while Luvu is set to build off an impressive 2022 campaign that saw him notch 111 tackles and seven sacks.
The weakness up front on the Panthers defense comes in the middle, with a few holes along the defensive line. Derrick Brown and Shy Tuttle will be major players in the defensive front, but beyond those two, the depth chart is looking thin. The Panthers only have five total defensive linemen on the roster, with two on the practice squad, laching a true nose tackle to align over the ball and clog up the middle in the 3-4 scheme. That means Tuttle and Brown will likely play makeshift roles at the position, which could lead to leakage up to the second level of the defense.
Depth in the Secondary
We’ve made it this far, and a lack of quality depth has been a prominent theme for the Panthers roster heading into Week 1. Nowhere is that more clear than at the cornerback position.
Following the initial cuts to the 53-man roster, the Panthers only had four cornerbacks on the roster, but have since added a fifth to the squad in undrafted rookie D’Shawn Jamison.
Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson will be holding down the starting spots, which makes for a strong duo, assuming both can return to peak form. Jackson is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury in 2022, while wrist surgery cut short Horn’s year in 2022 and a broken foot sidelined him in 2021. In a perfect world, Horn and Jackson start every game this season and become one of the league’s most formidable cornerback tandems, but durability has been a factor for the duo, which could lead to some backups seeing playing time.
Cornerback C.J. Henderson has been in Carolina for a year and a half now, and it’s been an up and down journey. The former first-round pick by the Jaguars has shown flashes with the Panthers, but consistency has been an issue. Free agent signee Troy Hill brings a veteran presence to the cornerback position, as well as years of experience playing under defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and cornerbacks coach Jonathan Cooley.
At the safety position, the Panthers are more secure, locking up veterans Vonn Bell and Xavier Woods, alongside Jeremy Chinn who will also play nickel back.
The Panthers kick off the 2023 NFL season against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, September 10 at 1 p.m. Check out the complete 2023 Carolina Panthers schedule.
The Panthers will host a lunchtime Pep Rally in Uptown at Disc Plaza (100 South Tryon St.) on Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with "NFL-style introductions," giveaways, and appearances by Panthers legends, TopCats, and PurrCussion! pic.twitter.com/vfNRZieaeW
— CLTure® ( culture ) (@CLTure) September 6, 2023
In this article
- CLTure Sports
- Adam Thielen
- Brian burns
- Bryce Young
- CJ Henderson
- defensive line
- Derrick Brown
- DJ Chark
- Donte Jackson
- Ejiro Evero
- Frank Reich
- Frankie Luvu
- Ikem Ekwonu
- Jaycee Horn
- Jeremy Chinn
- Jonathan Mingo
- Justin Houston
- Laviska Shenault Jr.
- Miles Sanders
- offensive line
- Raheem Blackshear
- Shaq Thompson
- Shy Tuttle
- Troy Hill
- Vonn Bell
- Xavier Woods