NFL Analysis


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Panthers' Bryce Young Isn't Doomed, But It's Time Recalibrate Expectations Ahead of Year 2

Jan 7, 2024; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) drops back to pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

[Bryce] Young projects to be a solid starting-level quarterback at the next level who can lead his team to victory because of his abilities. He shows the poise, leadership, accuracy, and clutch playmaking ability that teams look for in a high-quality quarterback.”

That was the bottom line of the scouting report on Bryce Young coming out of Alabama. It was also nothing like what we saw from the first overall pick who took the field for the Carolina Panthers last season.

Looking back on Young’s rookie season raises two questions: What went wrong, and what can be fixed going forward? 

What went wrong is a somewhat easy question because the answer is nearly everything. Young was 31st among quarterbacks in EPA per play and success rate, only ahead of Zach Wilson. Young’s 5.5 yards per attempt were the lowest among qualified quarterbacks. Only Sam Howell took more hits and sacks. Young also had a league-high 15.3 percent of his passes charted as inaccurate. 

Since 2000, there have been 63 passer-rated qualified rookie quarterbacks. Young’s 2023 season ranked 61st in EPA per play and 54th in success rate. It’s not great company to be in.

Tua Tagovailoa is the only player in the bottom 15 who has turned things around. That took a few seasons and one of the most creative offensive coaches in the league. If we zoom out a bit, Derek Carr was 17th, and Geno Smith was 19th. It’s not hopeless, but there are more players who didn’t turn things around than ones who did. 

>> Other QB Breakdowns: Richardson | Lawrence

Under Pressure

One of Young’s best attributes in college was his ability to handle pressure and turn it into positive plays. But the pressure came early and often, and it felt like everything stemmed from that issue.

Young had the sixth-highest rate of dropbacks under pressure, per TruMedia, and had the highest pressure-to-sack rate among qualified quarterbacks.

As the season wore on and the hits piled up, Young anticipated pressure, and not in a positive way. Young bailed from pockets and faded away on dropbacks.

Unlike Jordan Love, who made highlights out of a fadeaway throw with a defender in his face, Young doesn’t have the size or arm strength to make those types of plays work consistently. The margin for error is much smaller.

That showed up on plays that were close to working but just missed.

This isn’t a new development, either.

It’s hard to settle down when pressure is expected. We’ve seen plenty of young quarterbacks ruined by the constant anxiety of pressure speeding up the process, while things that worked in college don’t have the same success in the NFL. 

This could be a place where new coach Dave Canales helps Young. Last season, Canales was the offensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baker Mayfield. Mayfield had long been a player who bailed from the pocket under pressure.

Last year, Mayfield played stronger from the pocket than he had in previous seasons, with the highest rate of dropbacks ending in the pocket (86.3 percent) and tied for his second-lowest pressure-to-sack rate (18.3 percent).

Getting Young more comfortable in the pocket and trusting his surroundings will stay clean could be key to any Year 2 leap.

Offensive troubles

The problem was that when Young had a clean pocket, there wasn’t much production. When in the pocket and not pressured, Young ranked 31st in EPA per play, ahead of only Mac Jones.

Overall, the offense didn’t give the quarterback much help from design or personnel. Adam Thielen was the No. 1 receiver who saw 25.7 percent of the team's targets and 31.2 percent of the receiving yards. Jonathan Mingo, a second-round pick who might have had a rookie season that rivaled Young’s, was second on the team with 85 targets.

Of the 12 players with at least 10 targets on the team, eight had less than a yard per route run. That’s not a ton of help from the supporting cast.

Young also didn’t have a lot of plays that made life easier for him by design. He threw the fourth-lowest rate of slants (3.8 percent), the third-lowest rate of crossers (7.0 percent), and the third-fewest screens (7.2 percent). Those might be the three easiest ways to get a quarterback good looks and into a rhythm on offense.

Young was the only quarterback in the bottom five in targets on all three of those routes.

Even those didn’t work as planned when they were called. The Panthers were the worst screen team in the league. Young averaged -0.53 EPA per play on those throws (under Canales, Mayfield ranked second at 0.28). 

What Does He Do Well?

When Young had time and confidence in the protection and the play, he showed off some of the accuracy that made him a compelling prospect.

He had his best game late in the season against the Green Bay Packers. In the 33-30 loss, Young went 23-of-36 for 312 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 0.23 EPA per play.

He had his second-highest aDOT in a game, throwing to the intermediate area of the field between 11-19 air yards on 36.1 percent of his throws. He also had one of his lowest pressure-to-sack rates. Young looked closer to his Alamaba self than in any other game.

That’s the ideal version of Young. The Panthers had a good mix of spreading things out — Young was in empty 18 percent of the time — and having Young under center 40 percent of the time. Getting to mix up the looks allowed the Panthers to control more of the pace when they were on offense.

It wasn’t as if a switch was flipped with this game since Young finished the season with two of his worst games in Weeks 17 and 18. Still, there were noticeable improvements in the season's final stretch after Frank Reich was fired.

From Week 13 on, Young was 11th in EPA per play on intermediate throws, and he went there more often at 20.9 percent of attempts. However, he was also throwing deep way more often (18.1 percent of throws). However, that was a mess, as he completed only 18.8 percent of those attempts.

But the short and intermediate throws, and the rhythm in which Young was hitting them, was much improved. He went from -0.03 EPA per play under Reich to 0.07 to finish the season.

What Does The Future Look Like?

Few situations could be as bad as the one Young played in last season. The offense was stale, getting a coach fired midseason in his first year, and there was not enough offensive talent to overcome the scheme's shortcomings. Young himself could not raise the level of play of those around him.

However, moves have been made to ensure last year is just a blip. Canales comes over after playing a big part in getting better play out of Smith and Mayfield. Canales' offense should set up better spacing, allowing Young to have more command of the offense and where the ball should go.

Don’t be surprised to see the Panthers lean more into empty, adding more vertical elements there. The Panthers ramped up empty usage from 8.6 percent to 16.7 percent after Reich was fired. Carolina could also use more pistol formations to use under-center concepts and play-action while still giving Young space in the pocket and the ability to run more quick-game concepts while not directly under-center.

Roster improvements were also made to help Young. Because of Young’s height (5-foot-10) and the interior pressure he faced last season, the Panthers fortified the guard spots by bringing in Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis on massive deals.

Carolina also made a big effort to upgrade the receiver room. Diontae Johnson was acquired via trade, and he’s shown the ability to get open consistently. First-round pick Xavier Legette is a big and fast prospect who can run after the catch and be a threat down the field. Those are the types of receivers who could make things easier for Young with more open throws

While those improvements should help, that’s a lot of resourses put into making sure a No. 1 overall pick has the right surroundings. The hope with a first-overall pick is that he’s the one who can make life easier for those around him.

He might not live up to those expectations — which will always feel disappointing given what Carolina gave up to acquire him on top of C.J. Stroud, selected second overall — but there is a path to good play.

Young is not a completely lost cause after one season. But we might have to recalibrate what his ceiling is and expectations heading into Year 2.