While finding answers at quarterback and left tackle have been at the top of the agenda for the Carolina Panthers over the past few years, another position that has needed some serious upgrades in both quality and depth is tight end.
The last tight end to make a meaningful impact was Panthers legend Greg Olsen in 2019, his last season in Carolina, when at age 34 he played in 14 games with 52 receptions for 597 yards. Since Olsen’s departure the Panthers have relied heavily on Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble with very little to show for it in the passing game.
The Panthers tight end woes
Over the last three seasons Ian Thomas has played in 50 games (38 starts) with 59 receptions for 530 yards and one touchdown. That averages out to 1.2 receptions for 10.6 yards per game. In 2021 PFF ranked Thomas 69th of 73 tight ends and last year PFF ranked him 69th of 75.
In 2021 the Panthers made the curious decision to invest the No. 83 overall pick in Tommy Tremble who in two years at Notre Dame had just 35 receptions for 401 yards. Tremble was known more for his blocking than his receiving in college and that hasn’t changed in the NFL. Through two seasons in Carolina he has played in 33 career games 39 receptions for 354 yards and four touchdowns. His per game averages are distressingly similar to Ian Thomas at 1.2 receptions for 10.7 yards. In 2021 PFF ranked him 62nd of 73 tight ends and in 2022 they ranked him 70th of 75.
Over the last two seasons the Panthers have probably had the least amount of tight end production in the NFL. And, yes, tight ends are also responsible for blocking, something that both Thomas and Tremble do well enough, but even good blocking tight ends can average well above one reception for 10 yards per game.
And don’t get me wrong - I’m not trying to dump on Ian Thomas or Tommy Tremble. They play hard and give their best. They have certain skills the team can and does utilize. Contributing in the passing game just isn’t one of those skills. My frustration lies with GM Scott Fitterer and the front office more than the players themselves.
After Scott Fitterer went out and signed Hayden Hurst on a three-year, $21.8 million deal with $13 million guaranteed, my frustration has dissipated.
Hayden Hurst’s contributions
While Hurst isn’t a dominant receiver, he’s still a very capable one. In his five-year career he has averaged about 25 receiving yards per game and has scored 14 touchdowns. His best season came with the Atlanta Falcons in 2020 when he pulled in 56 receptions for 571 yards and six touchdowns, which is impactful coming from the tight end spot.
Last year with the Cincinnati Bengals he played in 13 games with 52 receptions for 414 yards, or an average of four receptions for 31.8 yards per game. He also caught 76.5% of his targets coming from Joe Burrow. PFF ranked him No. 29 of 73 tight ends last year. The Panthers haven’t had that level of productivity from a tight end since Greg Olsen’s swan song.
Hurst also started four playoff games in his career and made a mark in the postseason. Over those four playoff starts he registered 17 receptions for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers could realistically be vying for the postseason in 2023, and Hurst should bring some veteran perspective in reaching that goal.
The main concern with Hurst is his health. Despite being a first round pick in 2018 (No. 25 overall), he’s older than most fifth-year NFL players. Out of high school he played two unsuccessful years of professional baseball before walking on to the University of South Carolina’s football team. He’ll turn 30 in August. Hurst missed three games in 2021 with an ankle injury and missed three games last year with a calf strain so hopefully he can stay on the field in Charlotte.
Hayden Hurst isn’t Travis Kelce in the passing game, but he’s the best receiving option at tight end that the Panthers have had in a couple of year. He’ll be a good security blanket for either veteran Andy Dalton who lacks the mobility to escape pressure, or for an overwhelmed rookie quarterback getting accustomed to the speed of the NFL.
With free agent wide receivers Adam Thielen and DJ Chark coming to Carolina and the continued development of Terrace Marshall Jr., Hurst should be able to find some open seams over the middle of the field.
For the first time in a long time, the Panthers just may have a difference-making player lining up at tight end.