Nothing gives NFL fans more hope than a fresh crop of rookies. In 2021 general manager Scott Fitterer, himself a rookie in his new role, drafted 11 players who have now survived their first professional seasons. Here’s how the year played out for each of the new faces on the offensive side of the ball.
Note: My grades reflect players’ production relative to where they were drafted with a “C” meaning they met expectations. Anything above a “C” means they exceeded expectations for a rookie drafted where they were, and anything below means they fell short. I’m not one for grade inflation.
Terrace Marshall, Jr., WR
Drafted: Second round (No. 59)
Stats: 13 games, 422 offensive snaps, 17 receptions, 138 yards, 0 TDs
Most rookie wide receivers struggle as they adapt to new schemes, new quarterbacks, and the speed of the NFL. Trying to build rapport with Sam Darnold, PJ Walker, and Cam Newton would’ve been tough for any rookie receiver, and it really showed with Terrace Marshall. Despite playing 422 offensive snaps he only produced 17 receptions (on 30 targets) for 138 yards. His Pro Football Focus grade of 55.3 ranked 125th of 132 qualifying players at his position. Marshall had a brutal five-game stretch between Weeks 9 and 15 where he played 82 offensive snaps and recorded zero receptions on five targets. He rarely flashed the big-play potential the Panthers were hoping for given his top-shelf athleticism and lofty draft status. In all, it was a disappointing rookie season.
Brady Christensen, OT (or “guard” if you’re Matt Rhule)
Drafted: Third round (No. 70)
Stats: 16 games, 6 starts, 480 offensive snaps, 4 sacks allowed
I’ve already spilled enough digital ink expressing my thoughts about how Matt Rhule completely mismanaged Brady Christensen’s rookie season. Despite three of his six starts coming at different positions — left tackle, right tackle, and right guard — Christensen’s 62.4 PFF grade was second highest among Panthers linemen (though that’s not a very high bar) and is considered “average” for his position. With a strong offseason Christensen should be starting next year, either at left tackle or at guard, depending on what the Panthers do in free agency and in the draft. He looks like a future starter somewhere on the offensive line.
Tommy Tremble, TE
Drafted: Third round (No. 83)
Stats: 16 games, 521 offensive snaps, 20 receptions, 180 yards, 2 total TDs
Tremble wasn’t a receiving tight end coming out of Notre Dame where in two seasons he produced just 35 receptions for 401 yards, so Panthers fans shouldn’t expect him to be Greg Olsen 2.0. Known primarily as a blocker, Tremble did have a few moments as a receiver with 20 receptions for 180 yards and a touchdown. He also had three rushes for 11 yards and a score. He wasn’t flashy, he did his job just fine, but really didn’t make much of an impact for a guy who averaged more than 32 snaps a game.
Chuba Hubbard, RB
Drafted: Fourth round (No. 126)
Stats: 17 games, 612 rush yards (3.6 YPC), 5 rush TD; 25 receptions, 174 yards, 1 TD
Chuba was drafted to be Christian McCaffrey’s backup but was thrust into a prominent role starting 10 games as a rookie due to another injury-plagued season from CMC. Hubbard’s 3.6 yards per carry wasn’t great but he was running behind a shoddy offensive line that ranked 26th in run block win rate. By way of comparison, Christian McCaffrey averaged 4.5 yards on 99 carries while Ameer Abdullah averaged just 3.1 yards on 44 rushes. Football Reference tracks an advanced stat called “Yards Before Contact per Attempt” - essentially how quickly running backs are hit by defenders - and Chuba’s 1.7 average yards before contact ranked 46th of 50 qualifying runners. Despite the lack of support from his offensive line, Hubbard made solid contributions all season and proved he belonged in the NFL, which is a promising outcome for a fourth rounder.
Deonte Brown, G
Drafted: Sixth round (No. 193)
Stats: 3 games, 30 offensive snaps, 8 special teams snaps
With as shaky as the Panthers play was across the interior offensive line, I wish we would’ve seen more from Deonte Brown this year. He played 29 of his 30 total snaps in Week 18, so this was pretty much a redshirt season. Appearing in just three games is a bit of a disappointment, even for a sixth rounder. In 2021 a total of 44 players were drafted in the sixth round - No. 185 through No. 228 - so Deonte was an early sixth rounder. Of those 44 players, only 12 appeared in three games or less, including Brown. A total of 17 of 2021’s sixth rounders played in 10 games or more, so Deonte Brown lagged behind his peers in that respect.
Shi Smith, WR
Drafted: Sixth round (No. 204)
Stats: 6 games, 85 offensive snaps, 24 special teams snaps, 6 receptions, 104 yards
As I stated with Terrace Marshall, it’s not easy for rookie receivers to build rapport with their quarterbacks and get accustomed to the speed of the NFL. That’s especially true for guys drafted in the 200s who start at the bottom of the depth chart, assuming they even make the depth chart. While Shi’s 104 receiving yards don’t jump off the page, he did just fine given his draft status. A total of 15 wide receivers were drafted between Round 5-7 and only two of them exceeded Smith’s 104 receiving yards, and they only produced 133 and 116 yards, respectively. Yes, 63 of Shi’s yards came on one big play, but he at least started cutting his teeth during his rookie season.
Thomas Fletcher, LS
Drafted: Sixth round (No. 222)
While late picks rarely pan out, it was a little curious the Panthers drafted Thomas Fletcher, a long snapper, in the sixth round instead of just trying to sign him after the draft as an undrafted free agent. Many Panthers fans were pulling for Fletcher after his hilarious draft day call with coach Matt Rhule and owner David Tepper, but he suffered a preseason hip injury and missed the entire year. He’s likely the successor at some point to 14-year veteran J.J. Jansen and if that’s the case then he was worth a sixth-round flier.
In the end, Chuba Hubbard, Brady Christensen, and Shi Smith did well relative to where they were drafted. Tommy Tremble delivered as expected while Terrace Marshall and Deonte Brown left something to be desired in their rookie campaigns.
The Panthers offense was a mess in 2021. Let’s hope this crop of rookies can help turn things around in 2022.
Which grade do you think is the most inaccurate?
This poll is closed
Terrace Marshall - D
Brady Christensen - B
Tommy Tremble - C+
Chuba Hubbard - B+
Deonte Brown - D+
Shi Smith - B-