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Older Panthers rookies coming to NFL "mature," "focused" 

DJ Johnson

SPARTANBURG – Rookie outside linebacker DJ Johnson was born in 1998 – the same year as Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Jeremy Chinn.

Burns, Brown, and Chinn have all logged at least three years in the NFL already, establishing themselves as veteran leaders on a younger Carolina defense. And Johnson, who will turn 25 in October, just wrapped up his sixth year in college.

Johnson isn't the only member of the Panthers' draft class who spent extra years in school. Guard Chandler Zavala also took six years, and at 24 years old, he was born before 2021 draft picks Jaycee Horn, Terrace Marshall Jr., Tommy Tremble, and Chuba Hubbard.

There can be a level of hesitancy with picking older college players, and the decision between a guy who has seen a lot through the college ranks and a guy who opted for the league as soon as he could is often a toss-up. 

Panthers vice president of player engagement Kevin Winston said he took notes on how older players managed their time late into their college careers while interviewing them at the combine. A player who learned how to create his own routine and knows what he wants out of life in the NFL could be set up for success once he gets here.

"I think the bigger thing is that a guy who is probably a little bit older is more focused because, in their life's journey, they've had more experience from being out of school," Winston said. "They learned how to maybe manage their time a little bit better. They've had the chance to kind of figure out how they have to take care of themselves, whether they have a family or not; it's more, 'How do I create my day-to-day schedule,' as far as being a professional athlete coming out."  

Though Winston is going into his first season with the Panthers, he has 25 years of experience in player engagement, guiding athletes in their off-field lives. He said he has noticed that players who spent extra years in college generally have a lighter school workload in their last semesters, which allows them to create their own schedules before heading into professional football careers.

"(The) first thing you get from the fifth-year guys is that, 'Yeah, I get to give my teammates a hard time because I don't have to go to the same study hall and the same class schedule,'" Winston said. "But then they also figure out, 'They're on a schedule that I've been on for the last four years, and now I'm not. So how do I fill that void? How do I maximize that time?' 

"And you find that guys actually have put a workout routine together. They're spending more time watching film. From a career standpoint, they usually have a better understanding of things that they would like to pursue off the field. So all those things, when you have that conversation, make them a little bit more mature."

Winston said when a player comes in with an idea of what they want to do and how they want to do it, that's a head start compared to guys in their early 20s, who know they want to play football and haven't figured out the other details yet.

Chandler Zavala

Winston said many members of the Panthers' rookie class, including Johnson and Zavala, had ideas of what they wanted their lives to look like when they first met with him. 

"There's so much that you have to do when you transition," Winston said. "There's a new team. There's a new city. There's new coaches. There's new teammates. So when you know that, 'Hey, I really would like to have a one-bedroom apartment. I'm going to live by myself. I want to live 10 minutes from the complex.' Like that's awesome, as opposed to somebody who comes in and says, 'I really don't know. I just want to play football.' I know you want to play football, but you have to do these other things in order to be in a position to maximize your opportunity playing football." 

Johnson said he could tell that the extra seasons he took in college made a difference to his off-field demeanor.

"Just in general, I'm a lot more chill," Johnson said. "Like I already was, but even to a higher degree, where I don't go out, really at all, ever. A lot of extra time is spent on my sport or with the people that I like to enjoy. It's a lot more chill environment." 

When it comes to why some of the NFL's newest players are older, multiple factors are at play; it could be the effects of the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to athletes with seasons affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It could also result from newer rules around the popular transfer portal, which allows college athletes to switch programs once without having to sit out a year. Dubbed the "one-time transfer rule," it went into effect in 2021. 

Either way, it's created a noticeable difference in the talent pool. General manager Scott Fitterer said he noticed how this year's class skewed a bit older. 

"There's guys on the board that were older than some of the guys on our team right now," Fitterer said. "It's unique. And there's two ways to look at it. I mean, their bodies have had a chance to mature. Maybe they had more reps in college because they got that extra year. I think it's just kind of one of those unique years that way. I see it correcting over the next couple of years. 

"But yeah, it was wild. Like, 'This guy's 24? This guy's 25?' We ran into that a few times."

For Johnson, the decision to spend six years in college came down to losing much of his fourth year due to the pandemic in 2020, when Oregon played just seven games, and the Ducks hiring head coach Dan Lanning ahead of his sixth season in 2022.

DJ Johnson

Johnson had so many years in college to take because he sat out 2018, using a redshirt year after transferring from Miami (Fla.), where he played one season as a freshman in 2017. 

"Mainly, part of it was definitely COVID," Johnson said. "Getting a good amount of your season taken from you is something that ties into it. We had a coaching change … that was a big thing for me in my last year, one of the reasons I stayed." 

Transferring unites three of the Panthers' five draft picks from this year. Johnson, Zavala, and safety Jammie Robinson (who spent just four years in college) recorded multiple stops before coming to the NFL. Johnson spent one year in Miami before playing five at Oregon. Zavala played four years at Fairmont State before transferring to North Carolina State, having been granted an extra year of eligibility after missing seven games in 2021 with a back injury. Robinson played two seasons at South Carolina and finished the next two years at Florida State. 

Winston said he had noticed a positive maturity difference in players who have transferred and spent time at multiple colleges since the transfer portal began to grow in popularity during the 2010s, with players opting for fifth years at different institutions. 

Moving schools is a similar enough experience to transitioning to the league, and that helps. 

"As far as for the athletes, you go and have to meet a new coach, have to meet new teammates, have a new facility, meet the strength coach; you have to move around the campus. You do that one year, you come to the NFL, (it's the) same thing," Winston said. "Meeting coaches, moving around that football complex. So they've already kind of modeled that experience, which puts them in a much better position, much more comfortable to be able to start focusing in on football-specific stuff."

DJ Johnson

Yes, when things off the field are easily aligned for rookies, it helps them focus more on developing the on-field product. Wide receiver Adam Thielen, a 10-year NFL veteran, said this was "probably the best rookie group I've ever been around, as far as just coming in here and not missing a beat."

"I've never seen a group that hasn't looked like rookies," Thielen said. "Everybody has their moments and things like that, even veteran guys, but it's been really impressive. …

"I think it's their confidence. I think it's football IQ. You can tell that they're not just skilled football players. They understand leverages. They understand schemes. They understand defenses. And that's not something that you usually see out of a college guy." 

Perhaps it's because plenty of them, like Johnson, have reached a level of maturity because of their past, their experiences, and their age. Having that background can be a benefit. 

"There's a lot of mature guys, a lot of guys that already had a good process," Johnson said. "Where there's some guys finding their way, this class, I've seen, has guys that already have a good amount of stuff figured out. It's just adding onto the things that the older guys teach us."

Check out photos from Panthers practice at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.