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Ihmir Smith-Marsette and DJ Chark offer signs of possibility for offense

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

The 2023 Carolina Panthers season has primarily been about the development of rookie quarterback Bryce Young. His maturation and comfortability within not only the offense but the NFL, has been paramount. For that to happen though, relies heavily on forging chemistry with his weapons.

Young played his best game of the season on Sunday, albeit in a 33-30 loss to the Green Bay Packers, as the rookie passer picked up 312 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was decisive and in control. He also got the return needed from his pass catchers, as guy after guy stepped up to help out their quarterback not only on tough throws, but to create breathing room in which he could work.

Two of those were DJ Chark Jr.and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Chark, the veteran receiver here on a one-year deal, finished with six receptions on eight targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns. His final stat line just slightly edged out that of Adam Thielen , who finished with six receptions for 94 yards. It's the kind of production the Panthers were hoping for when bringing in two tenured options for their young quarterback.

For Chark in particular, the quantity of his receptions weren't as important as how they came about. It's a testament to a unit-wide effort says Young.

"For me it's just getting the ball to the open receiver. They're doing a great job getting open, they're winning matchups, they're taking advantage of that. So I'm super grateful for that, just, trying to find the right people and get to them."

Chark was the recipient of both of Young's touchdowns, the second off a scramble drill that resulted in a highlight-worthy catch. It's the sort of play that can be a building block for an offense that has been looking for a foundation, and what Chark knows he needs to become for Young's progression.

"I feel like for us to get where we need to be, I obviously have to do my part and contribute," Chark said Sunday. "So getting opportunities, I felt like I have to make the most of them whatever opportunities that is and just continuing to be positive and be the guy that I said I was going to be.

"Even when situation doesn't seem so bright or whatever it may be, try to continue to be consistent…shout out to Bryce because he's been trusting me to make some plays and rather than make one and don't make one, I know he's coming back to me and that's a great feeling to have."

For Smith-Marsette, his emergence has been a gift. In November, he scored the club's first punt return for a touchdown in six years. Brought in primarily as a special teams returner in a late-summer trade with the Chiefs, his skill set boded well to translate to offense.

"He's a special player when he gets the ball in his hands. Obviously, you saw it early with his punt return ability, and making some big plays there," Thielen said of Smith-Marsette. "Usually, that stuff usually translates over to offense when a guy can make plays consistently in special teams…And so we're going to need him to make plays and even running routes, and he does a great job when he gets opportunities. And usually in this league if you make some, you make the most of your opportunities, usually that keeps coming."

Those opportunities came in short bunches on Sunday, but, to Thielen's point, the third-year gadget player made the most of each of his three touches. One catch for 18 yards and two rushes for 33 yards, were capped by a 20-yard end around touchdown run, in which Smith-Marsette used all of his returner juke moves to work his way into the endzone.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Adam Thielen

"Shoot the ball in my hands, I'm thinking touchdown every time," Smith-Marsette said. "I just get the ball and just try to make a play. Just try to provide, enough yards to the point where the crowd can cheer and the offense, keep putting me out there. The coaches keep putting me out there.

"I feel like I'm one of the most dangerous players and league. And when I get rolling, I feel like I'm unstoppable. And that's just my mindset. If you're a player out here and don't have that mindset, I don't know what you're doing."

The former fifth-round pick has bounced around four teams in his three years in the league. As his role on both special teams and the offense has grown, he hopes he's found a home in Carolina, developing alongside Young.

Said Smith-Marsette: "I appreciate you, Bryce. Let's keep this thing rolling, tell everybody, I'm trying to stay with Bryce for a long time."

View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16.

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