Skip to main content
Carolina Panthers

Bryce Young's job: To maximize "superpowers" of his targets

Bryce Young and his receivers

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers built a receiving corps for Bryce Young in a very deliberate manner, even before they knew specifically it was going to be for Bryce Young.

To insulate a rookie quarterback, they wanted to give him easy completions and to put parts around him to make his life easier as he adapted to the NFL game.

What they didn't give him was a true number one target, a star, the kind of singular player that can draw a defense's attention on every snap. As a result, they have a group of receivers that might not be appreciated as deeply outside these walls. One analytics website ranked the Panthers' group of pass-catchers 32nd in the league.

"That's good," offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said with a nod, appreciating any motivational edge he could find. "I'll make sure they know about that."

While they might not have name recognition or a proven star quality, they hope that having a balanced group can help maximize Young's gifts in a way that they might not need to invest $20 million plus (the current market rate) for a top-shelf receiving target.

Panthers head coach Frank Reich said that in the way they designed their system, Young has a different first option on each play. It's not always a particular guy, a particular side of the field, or even a particular position; as Reich said, sometimes that first option will be tight end Hayden Hurst.

"We really design it so that we have a different number one receiver on every play," Reich said. "That's not just number one in the progression, which everybody does that. But we're gonna really move guys around.

"I think everybody's got a superpower. Right? We always say, 'What's your superpower?' And put guys in a position to use their superpower. Maybe there's one or two routes that they run better and just have a better feel or instinct for, so let's put him in a position to run that. Use that superpower on that route, on that play. He's our number one receiver on this one."

That's not unusual for Reich. In his two best seasons with the Colts (with established quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers), they were known for spreading the ball around. In 2018 with Luck, four different players had at least 50 receptions, which included tight end Eric Ebron and running back Nyheim Hines (and their top four in receptions had 76, 66, 63, and 53, showing how even the spread was). In 2020 with Rivers, four players had at least 40 receptions, and six had at least 30.

Contrast that with Adam Thielen's experience. Last year in Minnesota, he played alongside stud wideout Justin Jefferson, who caught 128 passes (among the 424 quarterback Kirk Cousins completed), while Thielen was second on the team with 70 receptions — a huge gulf. Jefferson's talent makes that reasonable, but if you don't have one of those on your roster, it makes sense to spread it out as evenly as you can.

"I've seen it throughout my career; sometimes teams know what you're doing because you line up in a certain formation, and you throw to this guy," Thielen said. "It makes it tough for the offense. The best offenses I've been around, you spread the ball around, you use what guys are good at to do different things.

"And you have to make everything look the same. If you try to move one guy around and get him the ball, it does make it tough on your offense at times."

Of course, there's a benefit to having a singular talent on the outside, the guy a quarterback knows he can find when things get weird. If Cousins is ever in trouble, throwing it in the vicinity of Jefferson and letting him make a play is a reasonable thought process.

But to play that way, you have to have top-shelf talent and time.

"You're trying to build that trust with quarterbacks, to say, 'Hey, when things aren't going well, or when the game's on the line, screw the reads, I'm going to this guy because I know he's going to make a play for me,'" Thielen said. "I think that's something young guys forget sometimes. You have to go prove that in practice; you have to prove that in preseason games.

"It's not just something you go into a game blindly with. It's built over time. You've got to go make those plays so he trusts you the next time."

So for the Panthers, the development of Young as a distributor has been an ongoing process.

Adam Thielen, Bryce Young

Early in OTAs, Thielen was his target of choice, and he found him often in the red zone. As DJ Chark Jr. got healthy and was back to full participation in training camp, he emerged as a legitimate downfield threat in his own right. And with Laviska Shenault Jr., a receiver who's built like a big running back who can do a bunch of different things, Young has choices to make. Having that kind of variety among his targets is helpful, since he can go different places with the ball out of a consistent personnel grouping.

Chark said that demands an extra layer of attention for receivers, and his position coach Shawn Jefferson demands that their routes remain sharp, even if they're Young's third or fourth read on a given play.

"Coach Jefferson always lets us know that even if you're the last read, you can still get the ball, so you've got to run your route like you're the one," Chark said. "Because there's a lot of times Bryce goes through his progressions, where he's going to the side that's called, he goes one, two, three, then comes backside, maybe it's a dagger, and that's me coming across, and we hit the play.

"That really just tells him where he's looking first, but we have to run our routes with the same intensity and detail. As the game goes, four seconds in the pocket is like this, but it's a long time for him to get through it."

Asked if he could provide examples of that during camp, Chark laughed.

"All the time. All the time," he said. "It's just how the dice rolls. Maybe he prefers to go ahead to this guy and get the completion, but a lot of times, that's not how it works.

"There's a lot of times you're the backside, and he goes through the reads and comes back to you, and you have to be there. He's counting on you to be in that spot because you're the last guy."

DJ Chark, Bryce Young

Reich has made a number of basketball analogies with Young because they want him to be a bit of a point guard. His size has drawn comparison to a local favorite since Davidson's Steph Curry has a similar knack for being able to distribute but also make plays off-schedule.

"He has great vision, knows how to get the ball to the right people at the right time," Reich said of Young, though it obviously applies to Curry too. "I think that's the big thing, distribute the ball. You've got to attack the defense and make the defense declare what they're going to do. And then you got to be able to get the ball to the right guy. And so that's what we want to do, offensively.

"We want our quarterback to be in charge of, if we're putting in basketball terms, push the ball up the court, put the pressure on the defense, make them declare what they're doing, read it, and get the ball to the right guy. And I just think that's what Bryce is at the end of the day. That's one of the things he does best. He sees the field extremely well and then can distribute it with accuracy and timing."

While Thielen's age (he turns 33 next week), Chark's injury history, having a rookie in Jonathan Mingo, and injury concerns throughout the room (Terrace Marshall Jr. won't play this week with a back issue) make that position hard to predict, the Panthers have enough other options to give Young things to choose from.

Between running back Miles Sanders (who caught 50 passes as a rookie in Philadelphia) and a productive tight end such as Hurst (who caught 52 passes with the Bengals last year), the Panthers have alternatives in the passing game.

Hurst played with one of the elite receivers in Ja'Marr Chase last year but said having the balance (he was one of five Bengals with at least 50 receptions) helped Joe Burrow on a weekly basis.

It takes a special grade of quarterback to maximize it, but Hurst said he's seen enough Burrow-like traits from Young in practice to see the carryover.

Adam Thielen, Hayden Hurst

"A guy like Bryce, he's just so poised back there, he's going to make the right read," Hurst said. "I think maybe with a less mature guy back there, or a guy who doesn't have the experience or the guy hasn't done it at a high level, possibly (it's harder not having a top wideout). The reads that Bryce is making, he doesn't remind me of a rookie back there. Being with Burrow last year, obviously, Joe is proven in this league. He shows flashes of those, like fitting it into tight zones, especially to me. And I think without having a clear, so to speak, number one, the tight end position comes pretty heavily in this offense. . . .

"What Joe's been able to do is just like this incredible. Don't want to take anything away from him. The stuff that I see similarities is how they process the game. Bryce, he's throwing some footballs to me in some tight windows, and he's ripping it without hesitation. It's just cool to see stuff like that from a rookie. He's very poised back there. Like I said, he doesn't really remind me of a rookie. He doesn't really have those big, for lack of a better term, F-up moments, right? It's just the game's slow for him, which is awesome to see."

The Panthers don't have a proven pass-catching tight end beyond Hurst, but Reich has been complimentary of the rest of the group throughout camp, and Hurst laughed and shrugged when asked about that unfavorable ranking of the group of them.

"People are continuously telling me that I'm not good enough or my group's not good enough," Hurst said. "So yeah, I don't really care."

For his part, Young doesn't seem to mind either. Having a star receiver is a luxury for a quarterback, but as he surveys the group he's been surrounded by for his rookie season, Young doesn't see what he has as a liability.

"Honestly, I think that it just makes us more efficient as an offense," he said. "Obviously, we have some great concepts from our offensive staff, and it makes it so that we really can read the concepts out. And we have a plethora of guys who can be number one guys, are number one guys, and it changes from play to play.

"I feel like it makes us more versatile. So I think it's an advantage, really, for me to know the concept, try to dictate where my eyes go based off coverage. And, again, know that we have confidence that we have multiple guys that can win. And we have a bunch of guys who have stepped up and are confident within one-on-one matchups and getting open."

It might not be the easiest way to move the ball downfield, but if you have the right people, it can be effective. Any quarterback might enjoy playing with Superman, but until then, it's about maximizing the "superpowers" he has on hand.

View photos from Panthers practice Tuesday in Charlotte.

Related Content