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Five things to watch at Atlanta: Bryce Young starts in NFC South road opener

Bryce Young

CHARLOTTE – The moment they've all been preparing for has finally come.

The Panthers start off the 2023 regular season Sunday in an NFC South road matchup with the Falcons on Sunday. First-year head coach Frank Reich, an all-new coaching staff, and a host of new faces across the roster will debut in a 1 p.m. kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Fans can watch the game on FOX, and all the broadcast information is here.

Here are five things to keep an eye on as you're watching.

Bryce Young's NFL debut

The first overall pick from this year's draft is taking the field for his first regular season outing this Sunday, as Bryce Young will lead the Panthers' offense as its starting quarterback (and one of six newly-elected team captains) against the Falcons.

Young played a few series with the first-string offense throughout the preseason, peaking in his final preseason game against Detroit. He threw his first touchdown pass (to veteran wide receiver Adam Thielen) and extended plays with his legs in the preseason finale while continuing to show the poise and football aptitude that got him drafted in the first place.

In the preseason, Young threw for 129 yards on 14-of-24 passing with one touchdown and no interceptions.

With attention focused on the 22-year-old rookie, he said he's centered his focus on preparation.

"It's a blessing to be here," Young said of making his first professional start. "With it around the corner, it's surreal. But at the same time, there's so much energy and focus that just goes into the game plan, goes into trying to prepare to get ready – myself, us as a team, we're all in that mindset.

"Of course, I'm super excited. And it's definitely a blessing to be in this situation. But, obviously, it's a results-based business. And we want to have success. For us to be able to have that, we have to earn that. And that's by locking in, grinding throughout the week, making sure that we're focused. So really, all my energy has gone to that."

He's not the only new starting QB. The Falcons will start Desmond Ridder, and with Baker Mayfield in Tampa Bay and Derek Carr in New Orleans, the NFC South will be the first division since the 2002 realignment with all new starting quarterbacks from the previous year's opener.

Wide receiver availability

The Panthers had a challenging week of injuries across their receiving corps, though things were looking up toward the end of the week.

DJ Chark Jr., who missed Wednesday and Thursday practice with a hamstring injury, returned on a limited basis Friday, though he was ruled out for the Atlanta game as he continues to recover. Thielen was listed as questionable for Sunday as he works through an ankle injury, and he was limited in Friday's practice.

Terrace Marshall Jr. (back) was a full participant in Friday's practice and received no injury status for Atlanta, which was good news after he was limited earlier in the week.

Should the more veteran pass-catchers be limited in some capacity against the Falcons, rookie Jonathan Mingo will have his chance for targets, as well as new receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (he was on the injury report this week with an ankle, though he participated all three days and is expected to be available). Laviska Shenault Jr., who was in concussion protocol last week, returned to practice this week and should be ready to go as well.

Young could also look to target tight ends in the passing game, such as veteran Hayden Hurst (the former Falcon making his return to Atlanta with a divisional foe), Ian Thomas, and Tommy Tremble, or see more of running back Miles Sanders, who caught a significant number of passes as a rookie with Philadelphia in 2019.

Brian Burns

Brian Burns' status

After attending meetings but missing two practices with a "personal issue," outside linebacker Brian Burns participated in every session Wednesday through Friday.

Reich said he had "no further updates" when asked about Burns' status for Sunday. He also said he "looked good" in practice.

Burns hasn't spoken to reporters since he missed his first practice last week, as he and the team continue to have discussions about a contract extension, though nothing has been finalized. He has been present in the building each day, and participated in the three recent practices leading up to the Falcons game.

Derrick Brown

Facing the Falcons' run game

The trip to Atlanta will pose a challenge for the Panthers' front seven, as the run-heavy Falcons will look for a solid start from their first-year running back (and eighth overall pick of this year's draft) Bijan Robinson.

Robinson was another addition to an already productive room, which includes second-year running back Tyler Allgeier, who totaled over 1,000 yards as a rookie in 2022, and versatile four-time Pro Bowler Cordarrelle Patterson.

"We have a lot of respect for this Atlanta team," Reich said. "They're very well coached. Arthur Smith does a great job. They've established that they know how to run the football, can be dynamic in the play action game. ... We're looking forward to the challenge."

Eddy Piñeiro

Piñeiro's return to Atlanta

Eddy Piñeiro would probably prefer to hold off from thinking back too much to last year's road matchup at Atlanta.

It was a rough outing for the Panthers' starting kicker last October, as he missed multiple potential game-winners in an eventual overtime loss to the Falcons.

Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said Thursday he and Piñeiro hadn't discussed last year's game, and Tabor said he was more encouraged by how Piñeiro finished the year – on a streak of 19 consecutive field goals with a 33-of-35 clip (94.3 field goal percentage).

"We could turn on golf, and somebody's having a bad day; it's just one of those days," Tabor said. "That's what happened. I think what he did after that kind of speaks to who he is. And we're just trying to build off that."

Piñeiro was limited at the start of the Panthers' preseason with a groin injury sustained in camp, though he returned to kick field goals in the final preseason matchup against Detroit and is ready to go for Week 1.

View photos of the Panthers' practice on Thursday.

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