Young shoulders: Panthers forge ahead with rookie QB

A look at what first-year QB1s have done in recent history

Panthers quarterback Bryce Young greets young fans Saturday at Carolina training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

When it comes to elapsed time, the Great Carolina Panthers’ Quarterback Competition of 2023 will go down in history with some of Mike Tyson’s early fights and the tenure of many Yankees managers that George Steinbrenner hired.

The Kentucky Derby may be the greatest two minutes in sports, but the battle to be Panthers’ QB1 didn’t go much longer than that.

Three months after the Panthers selected him first overall in the NFL Draft, trading up to land the pick, Bryce Young was crowned as the opening-day starter before bags were even unpacked at preseason training camp.

“I just think Bryce has proved what he put on tape in college, that he has what it takes to be QB1,” Carolina coach Frank Reich said. “The way he handled the offseason program, just seeing how he’s responded and how he’s continuing to grow. We’ve got a long way to go, he’s got a long way to go. Seeing how the team’s responded to him, everything’s made this decision very easy.”

Now, the question turns from “Who will start?” to “How will he do?” Panthers coaches, players and fans hope Young’s term as starter lasts significantly longer than the quarterback derby did.

Regardless of how his competition with veteran offseason acquisition Andy Dalton had turned out, the odds were overwhelmingly in favor of Young starting at some point this season.

Young will be the first Panthers rookie to start on opening day since Cam Newton in 2011. Since Newton, like Young, was picked first overall, a total of 38 quarterbacks have been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Out of that group, 36 started games as a rookie — all but Jake Locker and Jordan Love. Twenty-eight of the 38 draftees started at least half of the year, and 22 started 12 or more games. Eight — Newton, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz, Kyler Murray, Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones — started every game of their rookie year, an accomplishment that is on the table for Young.

So the odds are good that Young will put in a full season, or at least a good portion of it, as starter. And how will he do? That is still very much up in the air.

The 38 first-rounders started an average of 10.7 games as rookies and, rounding things up, had an average record of 4-7. For the full season, the team that drafted the quarterback in the first round improved by an average of 0.7 wins.

The higher a quarterback went in the draft, the bigger the impact he had in his first year. Top-10 quarterbacks went 5-8 as starter and saw their teams improve by 1.4 wins. Top-five draftees produced a 2.6-win improvement, and first overall picks went 4-9 with a 3.5-win improvement.

The eight rookies who started every game as a rookie went 7-9 and boosted their team’s win total by 3.2.

The Panthers were 7-9 last season and only drafted so high because of a blockbuster trade. That means that, based on history, Young will be hard-pressed to match last season’s Panthers’ record. Only seven quarterbacks had seven-win seasons as rookies: Locker (who didn’t start), Luck, Robert Griffin III, Tannehill, Wentz, Jones and Kenny Pickett.

There’s also no guarantee the team will improve with a rookie taking snaps. Fourteen of the 38 first-rounders saw the team post fewer wins than the previous year. That includes eight of the 25 top-10 draftees, However, only three of the 17 top-five quarterbacks and one of the eight taken first overall saw their teams take a step back.

As for Young’s performance on the field, history indicates he’ll be productive and leave room to improve in the interceptions category. The past rookies on average completed 60% of their passes for 2,400 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 picks, producing a quarterback rating of 78.3, about seven points lower than their career rating. Top overall picks threw for 3,400 yards with 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a rating of 81.5, eight points lower than their career mark.

As for his Panthers career, the history isn’t as optimistic as many might hope. The average first-rounder started 43 games for the team that drafted him, or fewer than three full seasons. Top-five picks started 54 games and top overall picks started 67, or just under four seasons. Cam Newton’s 124 starts for the Panthers are the most by any of the quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2011. Carolina would be more than happy for lightning to strike a second time.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Reich said. “You know, it’s Day 1, and I know you guys all understand that, but I like where we’re at.”