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"Revitalized" Hayden Hurst ready to bring veteran presence to young offense

Hayden Hurst

CHARLOTTE – Hayden Hurst will admit it took him five years in the NFL to figure out who he was as a player. There was some time needed to build a reputation in the league, come into his own, and do some "soul searching," as he put it.

Now, the 29-year-old tight end is coming to Carolina with the kind of veteran attitude and experience that should bolster the Panthers' young offense – including the quarterback they'll draft at No. 1 overall.

"Tight ends are always a quarterback's best friend," Hurst said. "Especially (for) a rookie coming in, you want that reliable guy in the middle of the field, where your vision is. Obviously, you need the guys on the outside, too, to make your life easier. But if you can have that reliable guy where you know he's going to be somewhere within 10 yards or going down the middle of the field, and just put it up, that's why I came here."

Hurst is a Jacksonville, Fla. native coming here with some pre-established connections. He played college ball at South Carolina and overlapped with center Bradley Bozeman at his first NFL stop with the Ravens.

Baltimore drafted the 6-foot-4 tight end with their first-round pick in 2018, and he scored his first NFL touchdown at Bank of America Stadium in a loss to the Panthers. He played his first college football game in Charlotte, as the Gamecocks played the North Carolina Tar Heels at Bank of America Stadium in 2015.

Hurst spent two seasons with Baltimore in more minor roles before he was traded to the Falcons in 2020. He played seasons in Atlanta and posted his best statistical season in 2020 – 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns with more opportunities as a starter.

But it was Hurst's most recent stint with the Bengals – a 2022 campaign that saw Cincinnati make a run to the AFC championship game – where he said he became a more realized version of himself.

In Cincinnati, Hurst started 13 games, a career-high, and put up 414 yards with two touchdowns on 52 receptions in the regular season. He added another 13 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown throughout the Bengals' playoff run, the third postseason berth he has been a part of (the Ravens made the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 but didn't win a playoff game).

"It's a really, really cool feeling when you come into your own and figure it out," Hurst said. "Just listening to the coaches saying, 'We've watched your film; we see what you bring to the table. We're excited to have you in this building. Because it's taken five years, I hadn't really been given the opportunity until last year in Cincinnati, where they kind of let me be me.

"You do a lot of soul searching; you try to figure out, 'Am I the problem in this situation? Is it me? Is it my skill set?' It's really just all about opportunity. I was given that last year in Cincinnati, and it kind of revitalized me and helped me learn who I am. So that's what I'm going to bring here to Carolina."

Hurst's poise and experience in high-stakes matchups are two of the reasons the Panthers pursued him. Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said he expects Hurst to serve as a veteran presence for their rookie quarterback and in a young tight end room. Last year, Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble, Giovanni Ricci, and Stephen Sullivan combined for 50 receptions and 517 yards as a position group. Their three touchdowns were all scored by Tremble, and no tight end eclipsed 200 yards all season. In 2021, the entire position combined for 38 catches for 368 yards and one touchdown, and they had just 27 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns in 2020. So you have to go back to the days of Greg Olsen to have the kind of production Hurst has provided.

"Veteran leadership, a true pro that's done it from a high-level standpoint, has played in multiple schemes and systems, but also should be in a mentor-type role to a younger tight end room," Brown said of what he sees Hurst bringing to the locker room. "To find ways to maximize those guys' ability from a learning standpoint, but also technique, fundamentals, working with (tight ends coach) John Lilly."

Brown made the point that he views Hurst as a "combo tight end," meaning he can block and create matchup problems, especially on third down.

But he's also excited about what Hurst's presence in the huddle will bring to the offense, especially with a rookie quarterback.

"He'll be a calming voice that's been there before," Brown said. "(He has) played in big games, been at the highest level when you talk about a tight end that can be activated in every aspect."

Hurst said he sees himself providing reliability to Carolina's pass-catching corps. He said he knows how to get open, beat man coverage, and use his physicality to become a go-to target.

Off the field, Hurst said he starts off leading by example. He said he isn't necessarily the type to give rallying speeches in the locker room or get in his teammates' faces, but he'll be ready to show what he can do throughout offseason workouts and training camp.

"When you get up there and try to give speeches before you even get on the field and prove that you're able to do it, it seems inauthentic," Hurst said. "So throughout training camp and stuff like that, I'll let everybody know who I am, what I represent. And, of course, on Sundays, it'll follow."

Game days are when Hurst finds himself in a different state of mind. He hit the griddy in the end zone at Cincinnati, dancing to celebrate with teammates, and says he's at his best when letting loose.

"Throughout the week and in the building, I'm pretty quiet, pretty low-key; I just go about my business," Hurst said. "But Sundays, I flip a switch. I'm kind of a maniac. It's just who I am. It's how I'm wired. So I go out there, and I cut it loose. It's fun."

It's been helpful for Hurst to spend his first five seasons in the league finding himself, and he comes to Carolina to bring that experience for the younger players around him.

Follow along with Hayden Hurst through the facility as he met staff and coaches and officially signed his contract to become a Panther.

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