CHARLOTTE — The rookie wall is real, and plenty of first-year players hit it at full speed.
But for Panthers wide receiver Jonathan Mingo, he's actually making his way through it and playing better of late, actually putting up better numbers than he was in the middle of the year.
Mingo has 10 catches for 129 yards the last two weeks, hardly the kind of numbers that attract fantasy football attention. But he was coming off a stretch when he had five catches for 31 yards combined over his previous three, so it stands out in some degree of relief.
The first-year wideout laughed when asked about the difference of late, at a time when many of his classmates were exhausted from playing more football than they had before in their lives.
"I ain't got to worry about class no more," he joked. "So that takes the stress off. But really, December football, I've always been kind of fond of because we were playing in the cold, getting ready for bowls, stuff like that.
"So just trying to enjoy football, my family, trying to finish the season strong."
The enjoyment part is scarce, with a 1-11 team playing out the five-game conclusion of the season. And for his teammate DJ Chark Jr., it's bringing back some flashbacks. When he was a rookie with the Jaguars in 2018, he didn't have a great time of it, missing five games late in the year with a quad strain and posting a grand total of two catches for 15 yards in the final eight weeks of the season (he only had 12 catches for 159 in the first half of the year, but acknowledged the physical component was a big factor).
"When you get to Week 13, 14, 15 and on, when you've never played that, really just taking care of your body and getting rest," Chark said when asked the advice he gives young players like Mingo. "Rest is huge, and just dialing in for the rest of the season the next five weeks, just making sure you've been giving yourself the best chance, which he seems to do that."
Chark said the recognition that this is your profession now comes with a responsibility to prepare, which he admits he might not have understood in 2018.
"My first year was kind of difficult," Chark said. "The next year, I was prepared. I think I was really ready. My first year was a lot of learning for me to be a professional, but it worked out.
"It's just staying locked in on what you've been doing for the past few weeks; we know that we have five more on a schedule that we get to play. So give yourself the best chance to be the best version of yourself in those five games."
Mingo has at least taken the advice to heart and tried to be intentional in his habits. He was headed to a post-practice hot tub on Wednesday and said he was careful to build in recovery time during all those hours he's not spending in a lecture hall like he was a year ago at Ole Miss.
"I take care of my body better now," Mingo said when asked about the difference between the December version of himself and the September version. "I even felt like, in college, classes and stuff like that intervened with the time taking care of your body. So when I get done with football now, I've got more time to get myself right."
Mingo described a routine of massage therapy and chiropractic work, the kinds of things he didn't come to the league thinking about as keys to maintaining through what's now his sixth month of non-stop football.
Quarterback Bryce Young has been able to walk that road alongside him and said he can see a difference in his draft classmate now and a different confidence in what they're trying to do.
"It's just that familiarity and comfort with the offense within the system," Young said. "Whether it's the calls or the routes that become the second nature, it's for all of us. But the less you have to think about what you're doing, the more comfortable you get, the easier it is to execute, and then when you just get to focus on the little things and the details, it always becomes a lot easier.
"And you could definitely see him going in that way."
It's not an easy thing to get through, and the situation makes it harder to concentrate on it fully. But as they move into the final months of their rookie season, they know there's still something to be gained on the back side of what's happening now.
"This is my job now," Mingo said. "So I expect to just prepare the same every day, man. Just go out there and try to work, try to get better every day, just try to find something to keep working on and keep me motivated.
"You push through now, and once you push through it, you're on the other side."
View photos from the Panthers' practice on Wednesday in Week 14.