Three thoughts on Carolina Panthers’ 2023 NFL Draft class

The Frank Reich era has officially entered mundane mode at 1-9.

After weeks of wishful thinking and the slightest slivers of hope, the Panthers have officially revealed who they are: a misguided, mistake-riddled group with few answers to their plethora of pointed questions.

While tens of thousands of Dallas Cowboys fans filled up Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, the modest group of Carolina faithful that showed up to Mint Street were forced to watch as Dak Prescott and “America’s Team” marched all over their home squad in a 33-10 shellacking.

The Panthers are a terrible team for a lot of reasons. The coaching staff, with decades of NFL experience, can’t figure out how to score 20 points on a weekly basis, most of the veteran players aren’t stepping up to provide support for a rookie quarterback and the leadership group seemingly can’t figure out how to get more out of a depth (or lack thereof) chart that has put forth some of the worst numbers in the league on several fronts.

Week by week, the Panthers’ game plan — like the team’s roster — has more holes in it than the plot of a post-Avengers: Endgame Marvel TV series on Disney+. And unlike the fledgling streaming service, the Panthers don’t have a history of success (the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or another product (like Hulu) to fall back on for goodwill and customer satisfaction.

Here are three thoughts on the Panthers through 10 games:

Brain trust is too loyal to offseason failures

As we enter the holiday season, it’s worth noting that the Panthers’ stocking stuffing in free agency hasn’t been successful. It’s led to the follow-through excitement of a young boy reaching in for a gift and revealing a package of boxer briefs from grandma as his first present on Christmas.

Sure, wide receiver Adam Thielen is having a terrific year after getting jettisoned from Minnesota, but the overall haul of general manager Scott Fitterer’s dive into free agency has left a lot to be desired. Rookie quarterback Bryce Young’s haul for the holidays is a cool Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle blanket (Thielen) and a bunch of non-themed underwear and socks (everyone else added to the offense).

And yet, the Panthers’ coaching staff keeps pushing out the likes of DJ Chark, Hayden Hurst and rookie Jonathan Mingo, all while they’ve offered very little to the offense. Hurst missed the loss to Dallas due to a concussion, while Chark and Mingo combined for one catch for six yards, despite playing 100 combined offensive snaps.

On defense, the lack of explosive plays has been noticeable, as Shy Tuttle, Deshawn Williams and Justin Houston (now on injured reserve) have yet to deliver anything on that front. Vonn Bell has definitely had his moments, but like with Thielen on offense, it hasn’t been enough to turn the tide, even as the defense — under the leadership of sharp coordinator Ejiro Evero — has course corrected significantly since the bye week.

Carolina Panthers head coach Frank Reich watches the team battle the Dallas Cowboys during second-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023.
Carolina Panthers head coach Frank Reich watches the team battle the Dallas Cowboys during second-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023. JEFF SINER

Every week, with the exception of running back Miles Sanders, the Panthers trot out the same personnel with the hope for different results. Sanders needed a major reset after a putrid start to the season, and he has seemingly bounced back a bit over the past couple of weeks. Why isn’t anyone else receiving that sort of treatment as the team unintentionally tanks in the standings?

Fitterer deserves a ton of blame for the personnel’s lack of effectiveness, but the coaching staff also deserves its fair share of criticism as well. The brain trust constantly talks about collaboration and diversity of thought, but those two devices have simply led to redundancy of negative results through 10 games. At some point, the Panthers need to ignore sunk cost and focus on actually winning games.

Reich said after Sunday’s loss that he felt like the Panthers “hung in” there with the Cowboys through three quarters. They scored 10 points!?! At what point is a merit badge for showing up not a passable notion? Again, something has got to give, and if this staff is to stay in place, they need to shake up this roster.

Mike Strachan has the largest catch by a wide receiver of Young’s rookie season. Derek Wright has received rave reviews on the practice squad from teammates. The team just signed a massive nose tackle in Rashard Lawrence. At what point do you turn to the guys who really haven’t gotten a turn to try something new? Again, mundane mode isn’t just the outlook of the fan base at this point.

Rookie class is off to a remarkably underwhelming start

Young hasn’t played well over the past four weeks. That is a fact, regardless of his surrounding cast.

When the Panthers drafted Young, owner David Tepper waxed poetic about how Young was a “point guard” style distributor who could elevate the play around him because of his accuracy and efficiency. Tepper said those traits would help the team manage costs on offense while allocating more funds to the defense.

Through nine games (one missed due to injury), Young hasn’t elevated the play of anyone around him. And while the ecosystem around Young has been akin to the chaotic environment throughout Jake Gyllenhall-led flick The Day After Tomorrow, Young hasn’t been able to make up for the lackluster storms around him.

Young ranks 33rd out of 34 quarterbacks in the NFL with a 29.9 QBR. He ranks 29th among the same 34 quarterbacks with a 74.7 pass rating. His completion percentage (62.1%) is tied for 27th among quarterbacks. No. 2 overall pick, fellow quarterback CJ Stroud, has nearly doubled Young’s passing touchdown total — 17 compared to nine — despite playing just one more game. Young does lead one rookie category though — his eight interceptions are the most by any first-year quarterback with 10 rookies starting at the position this season.

Again, the environment around Young is awful, and those surroundings make Young’s rookie evaluation a hard call. Sure, he is struggling and developing some yikes-worthy habits. But he’s also a rookie with a mediocre (at best) supporting cast. If he’s not throwing to Thielen, chances are the play in going for a short gain, an incompletion or a turnover. That’s not a great situation for any rookie quarterback.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young, right, speaks with wide receiver Adam Thielen, left, during a break in second-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young, right, speaks with wide receiver Adam Thielen, left, during a break in second-quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023. JEFF SINER

Part of Young’s problem is that a pair of rookies — Mingo and left guard Chandler Zavala — are working with him on offense. Mingo, the team’s second-round pick, has had limited initial returns.

Mingo has just 24 catches for 226 scoreless yards. He has picked up a new set of downs just 10 times and he is averaging a pedestrian 9.8 yards per catch, despite having a 40-yard snag this season.

Despite being the fifth wide receiver selected in this year’s draft at No. 39 overall, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound receiver ranks 17th among rookies — including tight ends and running backs — in catches and receiving yards. Five rookies have at least four receiving touchdowns on the season, as Mingo searches for his first score.

Part of the issue is that Mingo was a dynamic slot receiving during his final year at Ole Miss. The Panthers have lined up the rookie at the Z (or flanker) position regularly during his initial campaign, and he is struggling to get open and make plays, to say the least. While Thielen is a killer in the slot, it’s fair to acknowledge that changing up roles for the pair could help the offense. Right now, Mingo is a non-factor, despite starting eight of nine games and playing 86% of the offensive snaps this season.

Zavala returned to the starting lineup against the Cowboys and was immediately worked by Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons in pass protection. The fourth-round pick from N.C. State has had a disastrous five-game stretch at left guard after a strong showing at right guard in Week 1.

The Panthers cut veteran Calvin Throckmorton — who started seven of the first nine games — to get Zavala back with the first-team offense. The results on Sunday were more of the same sad stuff for the rookie. Zavala was initially taken out of the lineup after sustaining a scary neck injury in Week 5. But after sticking to the sideline for a few weeks, the reset didn’t really lead to promising results and Young paid the price.

On defense, third-round pick DJ Johnson and fifth-round pick Jammie Robinson have been supporting characters. Johnson was a healthy scratch for a couple of weeks early in the season, while Robinson received that treatment for one game as well.

Since then, Johnson has started three of seven games with injuries piling up on defense. The Oregon product has yet to register a sack or a quarterback hit, despite receiving heavy snaps. Robinson, who is part of a revolving door of injuries in the secondary, has only played 55 defensive snaps all season. The Panthers signed fellow rookie defensive back Alex Cook off the New York Giants’ practice squad during the bye week, and he was starting over Robinson just two weeks later.

Similarly, former practice squad rookie, Eku Leota, has outplayed Johnson when given a chance. Leota went undrafted while the Panthers traded up in the third round for Johnson, who — in fairness — has shown some flashes as a run defender.

Overall, the rookie group has been remarkably underwhelming. But, again, they’re just rookies. The immediate returns have been poor, but maybe there’s hope yet.

Does the hot seat even matter at this point?

We’ve touched on this before, but the fan base wants action taken immediately and rightfully so.

The issue with the potential firing of a GM is that Fitterer’s job is largely done post-trade deadline and his departure won’t impact the product all that much. Reich, the once-lauded offensive play-caller, has shown that even with switching up the headsets, the offense is an inept hodgepodge soup of two different ideologies.

Making moves just to make moves is not a sound strategy for attracting replacements. Like it or not, potential candidates are watching the Panthers closely.

CBS Sports, by way of Observer alum Jonathan Jones, noted that “sharks” are angling to succeed Reich if he’s fired. Unless those sharks have laser beams attached to their heads, it’s hard to feel like a possible solution to fixing this problem will come from the college ranks or the unemployment line. That’s why the Panthers need to show some sort of restraint over the next seven weeks.

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, center, speaks with former general manager Bill Polian, left and senior defensive assistant Dom Capers, right, prior to the team’s game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, November 19, 2023 at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, center, speaks with former general manager Bill Polian, left and senior defensive assistant Dom Capers, right, prior to the team’s game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, November 19, 2023 at Bank of America Stadium. JEFF SINER

From this beat writer’s perspective, the GM and head coach jobs of the Panthers aren’t particularly appealing.

At GM, an exec is going to take over a team with a quarterback he didn’t pick — and will be tied to for the foreseeable future — while inheriting a bottom-five roster and no first-round pick to make up ground. He will also have to deal with involvement from his owner, who is willing to spend but hasn’t found the answer for winning, as hard as he’s looked.

For a head coach, particularly a first-year option, this job is kind of scary. If Reich is fired, Tepper will have shown a lack of patience (even if that’s warranted). Most coaches only get one shot to lead a team, and a short clock on a stint is typically a death sentence for a head coaching career in the NFL. If Reich can’t even last a full season, what does that say about the next guy’s margin for error?

Ultimately, there are only 32 GM jobs and 32 head coaching gigs in the NFL. Those numbers make all of those jobs appealing to some extent, but it’s hard to imagine the Panthers would be anyone’s distinct first choice, even as the league is unaware of which jobs will come open.

While old-school fans will yearn for Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh or someone of that ilk, younger fans will desire the likes of Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik.

Harbaugh flirted with the Panthers last year and it didn’t feel like a good fit then, so why would that change after a year, especially as another former quarterback-turned-longtime play-caller has come up empty? Johnson passed on his interview with Carolina last offseason, and again, it’s hard to believe his situation and outlook will change all that dramatically.

That’s why Tepper needs to play this the right way. He hasn’t had a lot of strong answers for previous on-field problems, but how he handles the next two months should have a major sway on the franchise’s future.

Mike Kaye covers the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer. Kaye previously covered the entire NFL for Pro Football Network, the Philadelphia Eagles for NJ Advance Media and the Jacksonville Jaguars for First Coast News. He is a graduate of the University of North Florida.

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