Bryce Young’s franchise quarterback potential. Yes, the Panthers offense didn’t score a touchdown against Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to assessing Bryce Young’s potential. At one point the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft was 16-for-16 in the second half for 129 yards. Young is looking poised, decisive, and wise beyond his years. The Panthers had a virtually nonexistent run game against the Vikings - Chuba Hubbard and Miles Sanders combined for 27 carries for 60 yards (2.2 YPC) - and poor pass blocking, yet Bryce Young made stars out of Adam Thielen and - gasp! - Terrace Marshall! Bryce Young looks like the real deal, and that’s the only thing that really matters for the Carolina Panthers in 2023.
Terrace Marshall’s professional development. Speaking of Terrace Marshall, the young wide receiver struggled in his first two NFL seasons. Over his first two NFL campaigns the 2021 second round pick appeared in 27 games but produced just 45 receptions for 628 yards. But in 2023 he set a career high with five receptions against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3, then bested that mark with eight receptions against the Vikings in Week 4. The last two weeks have been the best two-week stretch of Marshall’s career with 14 receptions on 18 targets for 91 yards. That’s progress.
Derrick Brown’s contract extension - The fourth-year former first round draft pick has been spectacular this season. Against the Vikings he was only credited with three tackles, but he impacted the game on so many levels that don’t show up in the stat sheet. He stuffed holes, ate up blockers, and collapsed pockets. Most importantly, he drew a holding penalty that negated a Justin Jefferson touchdown and set up Sam Franklin’s 99-yard interception return touchdown two plays later. On the season Brown’s 23 tackles are second on the team and he’s currently on pace for 98 tackles this year, a ridiculous sum for an interior defensive lineman.
Adam Thielen’s career-high in receptions. Through four games the 33-year-old veteran is averaging an astonishing 6.8 receptions per game, the second highest mark in the two-time Pro Bowler’s career. In 2018 he averaged 7.1 receptions per game and over 16 games hauled in a career-high 113 receptions. The NFL has expanded from 16 games in 2018 to 17 games now, so if Thielen keeps his current pace (and stays healthy) he’s on track for 116 receptions. That’s an eye-popping total for a 10-year veteran who was expected to come to Carolina to play out the golden years of his career.
Yetur Gross-Matos’ fit in the defense. For the first three years of his NFL career, YGM was underwhelming. In his first two seasons he was a part-time starter and over 26 games had just six sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Then last year he was a full-time starter and really struggled, registering just 2.5 sacks in 846 defensive snaps. But this year under new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, YGM is making more regular, noticeable contributions even though he isn’t starting. Against the Vikings he had four tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, and a sack. YGM was also directly responsible for Kamu Grugier-Hill’s interception as it was Gross-Matos who hit Kirk Cousins when he released the pass, causing the ball to flutter high into the air and into Grugier-Hill’s waiting arms. YGM’s 2.5 sacks this season already matches last year’s total and he’s showing far more potential on a per-snap basis this year than he did at any time in his previous three seasons.
Carolina’s pass blocking. Yeesh! The Panthers front five was repeatedly confused and abused by the Vikings defensive line. The Vikings did relatively straightforward things like twists on the defensive line, faking pressure and dropping guys into coverage, or just sending Harrison Smith off the edge (three sacks on the day). The Panthers patchwork offensive line had absolutely no answers for Minnesota’s actions. Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu’s play has been especially concerning with his seven penalties (second most in the league) and 54.3 PFF grade, ranking just 56th of 69 tackles. Rookie guard Chandler Zavala was considered to be the Panthers “steal of the draft” but his abysmal 27.4 PFF grade is the worst in the league for his position.
The front seven run defense. The most simple play in football is to run the ball right up the middle, and the Vikings did this with ease against the Panthers soft front seven (Derrick Brown excluded). Minnesota running backs Alexander Mattison and Cam Akers combined for 22 carries and 135 yards (6.1 YPC). Take a look at Mattison’s Next Gen run chart. He had six runs for five or more yards coming off the guard/tackle gap on either side of the line, so essentially avoiding Derrick Brown. The Panthers defensive line and linebackers need to be better stuffing runs up the middle.
HC Frank Reich’s* usage of Laviska Shenault. Given Carolina’s offensive struggles through four games, I’m scratching my head as to why gadget player Laviska Shenault only has 10 touches for 54 yards on the season. Shenault is a big play waiting to happen, and the Panthers need more big plays. I’d like to see at least a couple of jet sweeps or bubble screens going Shenault’s way every game and give him more chances to pop a big play when the defense loads the box. Remember, last year Shenault had two explosive plays on limited touches, one a dump off to the flat that he took for a 67-yard touchdown against the Saints and a swing pass (technically a run) he took 41-yards to the house against the Falcons. HC Frank Reich and OC Thomas Brown should be looking for more creative ways to incorporate Shenault into the offense.
(Editor’s note: Frank Reich is currently calling plays, not OC Thomas Brown. Correction made.)