Watching the Carolina Panthers 2023 offense might be similar to watching a kindergartner eat a two-scoop ice cream cone on a hot summer day. The cone is the solid, firm, reliable foundation providing the underlying structure. The tower of ice cream scoops are mashed together in a precariously delicate balance that can just as easily tumble off the cone on to the hot concrete than arrive in the kid’s mouth.
For the Panthers, the offensive line is the cone. The skill positions are the ice cream scoops.
It will be interesting to see how the two come together.
The “cone” of the offensive line
Comparing an offensive line to the actual cone of an ice cream cone is pretty accurate because both are as essential as they are unglamorous and often overlooked. I worked at Baskin-Robbins through high school so I’m something of an ice cream expert, and most consumers are about 95 percent focused on the ice cream flavors and indifferent about the cone, excluding, of course, waffle cones aficionados.
In 2023 the Panthers will return all five of last year’s starting offensive linemen - tackles Ikem Ekwonu and Taylor Moton, guards Brady Christensen and Austin Corbett, and center Bradley Bozeman. Carolina’s tackles and guards started all 17 games last year while Corbett assumed the starting center spot in Week 7. Now, both Christensen (broken ankle) and Corbett (torn ACL) suffered unfortunate injuries in Week 17 last year and their recoveries are still ongoing, but this five-man unit forms a solid foundation.
Ikem Ekwonu, the No. 6 pick in the 2022 draft, struggled early last year at left tackle against quality competition, but he made noticeable strides as the season progressed. Moton has been a borderline Pro Bowler over the years. Brady Christensen is developing well at guard for a converted college left tackle now entering his third season. Established veterans Corbett and Bozeman were outstanding free agent pickups in 2022.
Most ice cream eaters only really pay attention to the cone if it breaks, cracks, or leaks. It’s nearly impossible to fully enjoy the ice cream when the cone is falling apart.
The Panthers have a solid offensive line that shouldn’t have any cracks or leaks. The foundation is in place.
The “ice cream scoops” of the skill positions
If Carolina’s offensive line is the firm cone, the skill positions are the unstable scoops of ice cream balancing on top of it. Every one of the Panthers skill positions will likely have different starters from a season ago.
Quarterbacks Bryce Young and Andy Dalton will replace last year’s rotating cast of underperformers. At running back Miles Sanders will step in for the duo of Christian McCaffrey and D’Onta Foreman.
Carolina’s main wide receivers will largely be new as well. DJ Moore, sadly, is now a Chicago Bear and his production will need to be replaced by free agents DJ Chark and Adam Thielen. Terrace Marshall Jr., a part-time starter last year, will likely reprise that role in 2023 so he’s the one source of stability among the skill players. Carolina drafted Jonathan Mingo in the second round (No. 39 overall) of this year’s draft and if all goes to plan he’ll assume some of the reps that went to Shi Smith and Laviska Shenault last year.
At tight end, free agent Hayden Hurst should quickly supplant Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble, finally giving the Panthers a viable receiving option over the middle. Hurst is accustomed to changing zip codes with Carolina being his fourth team in six years. There’s hope he can hit the ground running.
Throw in a new coaching staff in 2023 and the Panthers skill positions will be going through about as much change a unit can experience from one year to the next.
Like a child eating an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, all of the ingredients are in place with the Panthers offense to make something delicious, but it might be a bit messy as everything comes together.