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Carolina Panthers

Panthers select quarterback Bryce Young with first overall pick in 2023 Draft

Bryce Young

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers hope they've found an answer.

But they clearly have hope.

For the last four seasons, the Panthers have been going a year at a time at quarterback. Head coach Frank Reich has been doing the same thing for five years in his previous job.

Now, they've found the player they hope will lead them for years to come.

The Panthers brought an end to seven weeks of speculation since they traded for the top pick by choosing Alabama's Bryce Young with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft Thursday night.

The Panthers approached this decision the way they had so many in recent years — in both bulk and great detail. They sent a dozen or more people to the pro days of all the top four quarterbacks this year, and brought all four in for pre-draft visits to make sure they had a complete picture for a decision of incredible significance.

Scott Fitterer

At the end of the long, thorough, and exhaustive process, they came back to the place the search started — with the former Heisman Trophy winner who led Alabama to the national championship game in his first year as a starter, setting record after record along the way.

Young set Alabama single-season marks for passing yards and touchdowns in 2021 and finished his career second in those categories in school history despite starting for just two seasons. His 79 touchdown passes were the most in a two-year span in SEC history.

You can stack a list of his accomplishments to the ceiling, and the only real question people keep coming back to is his size.

Young measured in at the combine at 5-foot-10 and 1/8 inches and 204 pounds (with 9 3/4-inch hands).

But he's accomplished all these things at this size already, and he's done it with a measure of grace and a sense of self-awareness.

"I've been this size, respectfully, my whole life," he said with a laugh at the combine. "I know who I am; I know what I can do. And for me, I think it's fair. Everyone can speculate and ask whatever question is necessary.

"But I'm going to control what I can control and keep working my hardest to put myself in the best position. I'm confident in myself, I know what I can do, and I'm just excited to get to the next level."

He's not tall. We know that. The Panthers had to ask themselves if it was a dealbreaker. Clearly, it wasn't for them.

So it becomes fitting for him to land here with a team whose history includes 5-foot-9 linebacker Sam Mills, who led an expansion team to the NFC Championship in just their second season.

There's also a wide receiver who overcame long odds despite a short stature, a 5-foot-9 and 3/4 Steve Smith Sr.

Being small's not a prerequisite for becoming a legend here (Cam Newton and Julius Peppers succeeded despite being superhuman), but it's not a disqualifier either.

"It's not a thing the players have to overcome; it's the system and the measurables," Smith said recently. "Some of the people who are part of the evaluation process, they have to get over themselves and adjust. And I think this year's draft is going to show you that the measurables shouldn't be the standardized test to say whether a guy can play, right? I've never heard them say man, that wide receiver's way too tall, and he won't be able to reach down and comfortably tie his shoes. Nobody ever says that.

"So I just think that we use measurables when it's convenient for us."

Mills was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer.

Smith played 16 seasons, is eighth in the league all-time in receiving yards, and may join Mills in Canton someday.

But the Panthers are at peace with it, and have already built a plan around it. General manager Scott Fitterer said leading into the draft that they're confident he's solid enough to withstand what's coming at this level.

"Nutritionally, we can do some things to educate him. We get him in the weight room," Fitterer said. "You can see when you really look at his lower body, his lower body's gotten bigger. He's put on a lot of mass down there. A lot of times, quarterbacks don't want to lift the upper body because you get a little bit bound-up. But there are some things, he's going to naturally put on size as he ages as well."

Early in the pre-draft narrative, the fact that Reich had only worked with taller quarterbacks became a talking point. Of course, Pete Carroll likely hadn't worked with many smaller quarterbacks before he met Russell Wilson (who was drafted in Seattle when Fitterer was there), or Sean Payton before he worked with Drew Brees.

"If I was looking at it through a positive lens, I would say I played with (or coached) guys that were smaller for their position that had a great ability to stay healthy," Reich said last month. "Marvin Harrison, as a receiver, just had this incredible ability to never take big hits. I played with Barry Sanders. He had this knack of not taking the big hits. . . .

"I think he (Young) is good at being instinctive in the pocket and minimizing — if you're a quarterback, can you minimize the number of hits you're taking and the intensity of those hits? Because you're going to get hit, we all know that. But there's a way to minimize those hits. And you feel it, and you're instinctive."

Young's instincts are what they're banking on now.

His ability to recognize and process information at the line of scrimmage is already legendary. He played in a pro-style offense at Alabama with a longtime NFL play-caller (Bill O'Brien), and has shown his ability to both orchestrate a game and improvise.

He's also done it with humility, the ability to carry himself into big situations around (much) bigger men and lead them.

Smith has met with Young a few times lately in the context of his job as an NFL Network analyst and told Young after his pro day he was convinced he deserved to be picked first overall.

"He played at the highest level, he won the Heisman, and he's played against some pretty stellar competition," Smith said, mentioning that from talking to Young about his family, he believes those lessons came from home.

"Like I said," Smith said flatly. "I think he has been set up to be very successful."

That's what the Panthers are hoping for.

View photos of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, drafted by Carolina first overall in the first round of the 2023 Draft.

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