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The Panthers WR corps could change drastically this week; what does that mean for those here?

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CHARLOTTE— Only two days into voluntary minicamp, no one yet really knows what this Carolina Panthers offense will look like.

There is an expectation for it to take a step forward, if for no other reason than there wasn't much room left to regress. There is an expectation that quarterback Bryce Young, entering his second year, will become more confident and decisive. There is an expectation with a head coach and offensive coordinator that rose the ranks as wide receiver coaches, that the WR unit will collectively take the field more polished, concise and open.

There is an understanding that this could all look different after this week.

"It really is cool though to be out there on the field right now, to see plays happening, to imagine different players in the draft and how they would fit in with the actual bodies and the guys that we have there," Dave Canales shared Wednesday.

The draft is set to kick off Thursday night, and the Panthers are on the clock for Friday night, holding the first pick of the second round. Like most football junkies, Adam Thielen is camped out in front of the television, ready to see who lands where.

"I'm locked in," Thielen said Tuesday of the draft spectacle.

But like his head coach, Thielen knows his unit could be drastically different after the weekend has concluded. If the Panthers draft a receiver—and high—like many predict they will, whoever he is will undoubtedly reshape how the corps doles responsibility. And with that very real possibility on the horizon, the thought is filtering through the room in much different ways.

For Thielen, unquestionably the statesmen in the room entering his 12th season, the idea is exciting. This is a receiver that over the course of his career, has welcomed three different first round pass-catchers into the room. One was in the same draft class (Cordelle Patterson) but two came after Thielen had already established himself with the Minnesota Vikings (Laquon Treadwell and Justin Jefferson).

"It's happened a lot in my career and that's something I really enjoy," Thielen said. "I mean, even if you look back to Justin and there's been so many, Laquon Treadwell and there's just been a lot of guys that we've drafted high and high expectations and I really enjoy that part of the game to really just help them where I need to help them.

"I think that's the most important thing in anything you're doing. It's building those relationships first and then you can be a mentor. A lot of people want to be the mentor first and it's like, no, no, just build a relationship, earn that trust and then be a mentor and then you can kind of speak life and football into someone when you have that relationship."

Thielen has done this throughout his career, with more than just first-round picks. When Ihmir Smith-Marsette was drafted by the Vikings in 2021, he came into a loaded room with two of the league's top 30 receivers; Jefferson and Thielen. The latter immediately brought the fifth-round pick into the fold.

"He was my rookie in Minnesota a long time ago. But we have a great relationship and really love that kid," Thielen said of his teammate now in Carolina as well.

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In their first year with the Panthers, Thielen and Smith-Marsette had two different experiences. From the beginning of the season, Thielen was a safety blanket for Young, a dependable target with a depth of experience. He finished the season with 103 receptions for 1,014 yards. Smith-Marsette had 16 touches on offense, for 125 yards and one touchdown.

No matter who the Panthers might draft on Thursday, Thielen's role likely won't change all that much, on the field or in the locker room. Smith-Marsette, despite finding chemistry towards the end of the season on which he believes he and Young can build, knows a shiny new pass catcher could affect his job. So, every time he hears the pundits and reads the predications, he makes note of the talk.

"I take it personally, I won't lie to you," Smith-Marsette admitted on Wednesday, just a little over 24 hours ahead of the draft.

"I'm tired of getting people put in front of me, put in front of me, put in front of me, of course, I get annoyed at that. But I mean, it's just football at the end of the day and I'm going to show that I belong in this league again…it adds fuel to the fire cause it's like, I got to go out there and prove myself."

The dichotomy of Thielen and Smith-Marsette's mindset ahead of this year's draft is proof how this time of year can shift the hierarchy of a unit. The Panthers have another factor to consider when looking at their board now as well; the addition of Diontae Johnson.

Johnson was acquired in a trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers during the free agency period, and it was so unexpected, that Johnson sat shell-shocked at dinner the night of the trade with Panthers coaches, without even knowing which one was his head-coach.

Since then, Johnson has locked himself into a single-minded focus, proving the Steelers wrong and the Panthers right. What he adds to this offense though does inevitably shift what they will look like on the field.

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Johnson told reporters on Tuesday that coaches told him he would play the X position and be the first read on progressions; "So, because of my unique skill set I bring to the table and, I'm going to utilize it."

The plan is actually so to start Johnson at the X since he is already familiar with the role, having played it exclusively with the Steelers, and then once he's mastered that position within this offense, move him down the line to the next one, let him master that one, and so on.

Regardless of where he lines up come September though, the addition of Johnson does give the Panthers a bit more flexibility when considering their immediate needs. And what does Johnson provide exactly?

"Just a guy that can get open, no matter where I'm at on the field," he answered Tuesday. "So just give (Bryce) sense of comfort when he's back there knowing he got a guy that can get open anywhere on the field. And that's, that's what I'm here to do."

According to ESPN analytics, over the past four seasons, Johnson has been the most open receiver in the NFL.

If that is Johnson's role, what does that make a guy like Smith-Marsette?

"A mix of everybody," he provided. "Adam brings the juice, I bring the juice. Diontae Johnson gets open. I get open. I'm just a mix of everything. (Jonathan) Mingo blocks, I can block. So, I'm just a mix of everything and wherever they need me to be, I will be there 100 percent, giving 100 percent effort."

Then there's Thielen, who boasts the best statistics in this current snapshot of the Panthers wide receiving corps. As he watches the draft this weekend, thinking of how each prospect could fit into his unit room, he's looking not so much for diversity, but someone adaptable.

"I think when you have multiple guys that are versatile and can do a lot of things, it provides flexibility for the coaching staff to put guys in positions to have success," Thielen explained. "And I think when you start feeding off each other, you do a lot of things very similar. And at a high level, I think it just provides a lot of opportunity for your offense to do a lot of different things.

"It's not just two guys, it's so many; the more weapons, the more guys that can do a lot of things and be versatile, it makes it tough on the defense."

Diontae Johnson is one of those guys, Thielen goes on to say. And Johnson has sent the praise right back, lauding all he can learn from Thielen.

During the first two days of minicamp, it wasn't uncommon to see Thielen, Johnson and Smith-Marsette circle offensive coordinator Brad Idzik, soaking up his general coaching, and then pulling him aside for extra imput. Each representing scattered points on the axis of this unit, the trio, along with guys like Jonathan Mingo, David Moore and others, will approach practice much the same this week, and the draft this weekend with vastly different mindsets. This roster, and particularly this unit, could be completely changed by the end of the week.

Despite any upcoming roster moves though, Adam Thielen is reserving judgement on this offense until well in the season. Because no matter how much changes, one thing always stays the same.

"You can't (know your team) until about week six," Thielen said "You have no idea, you have expectations. But until there's live bullets flying, you have no idea what kind of team you have, what kind of leadership you have. You still got to stick to the process here. You can't win a Super Bowl right now, but you can sure lose it."

View photos of the Panthers' voluntary offseason workouts on Wednesday.

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