David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers in 2018. He found out quickly that acquiring a good quarterback isn’t as easy as the hedge fund business.
In Tepper’s five seasons as owner, the Panthers had five different quarterbacks lead the team in passing, with plenty of desperate and bad decisions in an attempt to fix the position. The Chicago Bears got a lot to trade the first overall pick to the Panthers, but they probably could have gotten even more. There was almost no chance the Panthers were coming out of the 2023 NFL Draft without a quarterback. Tepper wasn’t spending his sixth season watching Andy Dalton run the offense.
The Panthers invested a lot in Bryce Young, but it was a necessary move. So was changing the coach.
Tepper’s mistakes aren’t limited to quarterback. He overpaid Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who is clearly better suited for college and went back to Nebraska after he was fired during last season. Rhule got a seven-year, $62 million contract from Carolina and gave them an 11-27 record. The Panthers played much better after he was fired following a 1-4 start last season. It was just a bad fit. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich should be much better.
Tepper made billions in the investment world. His approach in that business didn’t bring immediate success in the NFL.
“Listen, I’ll self-admit — we could have run a better process last time,” Tepper told the Charlotte Observer after hiring Reich. “And I am learning. … With all humility, I could have done better, OK?”
There are a lot of factors in being a successful NFL team, but it starts in a simple place: With few exceptions you need a good coach and at least passable quarterback play. The Panthers haven’t had either the past few seasons.
Young should change the quarterback part of that equation. If he was taller, he’d have been a prospect close to the Trevor Lawrence tier. Young was a fantastic, productive player at Alabama with few weaknesses as a prospect. The size debate is real and could end up being his downfall. No quarterback who has weighed less than 207 pounds has been drafted in the first round since at least 2003, according to NFL.com. Young is a little over 5-foot-10, weighed 204 pounds and went first overall. That speaks to his talent, but also the risk.
What makes the Reich/Young combination interesting is the Panthers weren’t bad late last season. After firing Rhule they went 6-6 with interim coach Steve Wilks and had a good shot to win a bad NFC South. Their hot streak came after trading Christian McCaffrey. It was improbable, and a decent sign that the roster wasn’t a lost cause.
The Panthers had to part with talented receiver D.J. Moore in the trade to get Young, and running back D’Onta Foreman left in free agency. The Panthers signed veterans Adam Thielen and Miles Sanders to replace them, and gave pretty strong deals to other veterans like safety Vonn Bell, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and tight end Hayden Hurst. The Panthers weren’t acting like they want a multi-year rebuild, nor should they in a division that didn’t have one winning team last season.
And maybe if Young hits right away, the Panthers could be a big surprise. Already Young is impressing in the offseason, with Reich saying his command during late-May OTAs was “10 of 10.”
“Just complete command, control, poise,” Reich said, via Pro Football Talk. “You could tell the way he was seeing it, the way he was working through progressions, accuracy in the throw, ball placement of the throw, it was all very good.”
It would be a surprise if Young isn’t a good quarterback. Maybe the durability concerns with his size end up setting back his career, but Tepper should be very happy to have a long-term quarterback in place. Maybe he’ll figure out the NFL after all.
The price the Panthers paid to get Bryce Young was steep. The Bears got the ninth overall pick and a second-rounder this year, a first-round pick in 2024, a second-round pick in 2025 and No. 1 receiver D.J. Moore. But if Young works out, nobody in Carolina will care about the cost. The Panthers followed up the Young pick by taking receiver Jonathan Mingo in the second round. Carolina’s draft got pretty good grades. The Panthers were active in free agency. Adam Thielen probably wasn’t a great investment (three years, $25 million) considering he’s on the downside of his career. But they needed some help at receiver. Running back Miles Sanders got $25 million over four years, and that seems like a lot too. But Sanders is Carolina’s clear featured back replacing D’Onta Foreman, who left to the Bears. The Panthers kept spending: safety Vonn Bell, tight end Hayden Hurst, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, receiver D.J. Chark and veteran backup QB Andy Dalton. All in all, it was a successful offseason.
We’ve talked a lot about Bryce Young, so let’s take a look back at why the Panthers spent so much to get Young. Here is the quarterback history during David Tepper’s ownership:
2018: Cam Newton had a decent season with 3,395 yards. This would be the high point.
2019: Newton dealt with a foot injury that limited him to two games. Kyle Allen led the team in passing, though Will Grier got two starts. Newton is cut after the season.
2020: Teddy Bridgewater is signed to a three-year, $63 million deal. Bridgewater wasn’t great and the team moved on after one season.
2021: The Panthers traded for New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who had shown all the signs of being a draft bust, sending a 2021 sixth-round pick and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022. Yikes. As Carolina’s starter, Darnold was pretty much the same up-and-down quarterback that caused the Jets to trade him.
2022: Carolina didn’t invest as much in Baker Mayfield, shipping a conditional fifth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns, who ate $10.5 million of Mayfield’s salary just to be rid of him. But Mayfield didn’t pay off on that modest investment. He was benched after struggling badly and cut before the season was even done.
That’s a lot of squandered resources and wasted time to get to Young.
BetMGM odds breakdown
The Panthers’ win total at BetMGM is 7.5, and it takes some optimism to get the Panthers to eight wins. It’s not impossible, but it’s still a team with a rookie quarterback, middling receivers and a defense that wasn’t great most of last season. Despite some pessimism for the Panthers as a whole, I will take some of Bryce Young to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year at +450 odds. Always remember: Voters like quarterbacks.
Yahoo’s fantasy take
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The Panthers are one of the least buzzy fantasy teams entering 2023, but Yahoo drafters seem keen on Miles Sanders and Adam Thielen. Sanders has an early Yahoo ADP of 40 — that’s 24 slots higher than his NFFC tag — while Thielen checks in around Yahoo pick 130, a 20-slot leap from NFFC.
“I suspect the national market has both of these players in the right pocket. Sanders had some issues as a pass-catcher in his Philadelphia days, and he’s never been a dynamic runner in short-yardage situations. I can’t spend a fourth-round pick on him. Thielen turns 33 right before the season — old for a receiver — and he’ll probably be adjusting to a rookie quarterback. Perhaps I’ll grab some later shares of speculation RB Chuba Hubbard, but overall the Panthers don’t look like a fantasy destination this year.”
Stat to remember
Carolina was better late last season but still not great. The defense was a big letdown. The Panthers finished 25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA on defense, 27th against the pass and 18th against the run. The Panthers weren’t above average on defense in any meaningful category. The pass rush was poor, with 35 sacks (tied for 25th in the NFL). The Panthers grabbed only 10 interceptions (tied for 24th). There wasn’t a lot to like. Ejiro Evero was hired to change that.
Evero had a fantastic season as Denver Broncos defensive coordinator but when Sean Payton took over as their head coach he was free to leave. He landed in Carolina, where he’s changing the defense from a 4-3 base to 3-4. That will take some time to get used to.
There is talent on defense like edge rusher Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Jaycee Horn. If Evero is as good as he was in Denver last season and the team takes to his scheme right away, the Panthers defense could have a huge rebound.
Is Frank Reich the answer?
Through four seasons with the Colts, Reich looked like a good hire. He had a 37-28-1 record. It wasn’t great, but neither was the quarterback situation in Indianapolis. If you include Reich’s job as offensive coordinator for a 2017 Philadelphia Eagles team that won the Super Bowl, Reich looked like a plus coach. Then the Colts started last season very poorly and he was fired in midseason. Reich was respected enough that he was back in the head-coaching interview circuit right away and he was hired by Carolina.
Like most coaches on their second stop, Reich could be even better this time around.
“We had four good years of good success. Then you go through one year where there’s a struggle,” Reich said in his introductory news conference. “Now you have a chance to reflect on that and it’s like getting an app. I like to talk to the players like this. In apps, you get version one. Then version two. I feel like this provides me the opportunity to de-bug some things. Make things better. Now come out with version 2.0 or version 3.0. It’s better. It’s cleaned up.”
I like Carolina’s aggression to get Bryce Young and I like the Frank Reich hire. Reich should be very good for Young’s development. The Panthers have some holes on the roster but they also play in the NFC South. Had the Panthers won at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17 last season, they would have been in line to win a division title. They led that game 21-10 in the fourth quarter. They blew the Bucs game, but Carolina was that close to the playoffs even after a 1-4 start, the coach being fired and a Christian McCaffrey trade. Young was a heck of a college quarterback and maybe he has a rookie season on the Joe Burrow/Justin Herbert/Cam Newton level. If he does, the Panthers can win the NFC South and feel like the division will be theirs for a while.
Over the course of Bryce Young’s career, you’ll hear about his height roughly a million times. There is a reason for that though. It is possible his height keeps him from being a top quarterback, and his size as a whole leads to durability issues. Maybe we’ll see that right away this season. The worst thing for the Panthers would be feeling they passed on CJ Stroud and Anthony Richardson for the wrong QB. There were some good signs for the Panthers last season but they weren’t a great team in any way. Even if Young is good right away, the Panthers could get to the end of the season realizing that drafting him was only the start of a long rebuild.
The crystal ball says
Year 1 with the Frank Reich/Bryce Young partnership should bring some promise. But let’s not expect everything to be great right away. Rookie quarterbacks struggle. Carolina could be bad at receiver. The defense might not rebound. But it’s OK if this isn’t a breakthrough season. Young should show enough to make the Panthers excited about the future. Reich will be fine. Carolina will keep adding pieces next offseason and if Young is anywhere near as good as he was at Alabama, big things are ahead.
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