#1: Panthers Adam Thielen thinks Bryce Young’s rookie year will be ‘best thing that ever happened to him’

Bryce Young’s rookie season wasn’t one for the record books. But it was one full of valuable lessons. Namely, it can be devastatingly hard to to be an NFL quarterback.

Adam Thielen thinks Bryce Young’s rookie year will be ‘best thing that ever happened to him’

Young — whom the Panthers selected No. 1 overall in the 2023 NFL Draft after making a blockbuster trade with the Chicago Bears — started 16 of Carolina’s 17 games as a rookie, completing 59.8% of his passes for 2,877 yards and 11 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. His total QBR of 33.4 ranked 30th in the league among qualified quarterbacks, while his 5.5 yards per attempt was dead last.

Nearly a year after he was drafted, Young is now tasked with helping the Panthers improve upon their league-worst 2-15 record in 2023 while simultaneously proving he’s the franchise’s quarterback of the future. It might seem like a tall order, but Young has at least earned the confidence of veteran wide receiver Adam Thielen.

Thielen told The Sporting News in an exclusive interview from the Invited Celebrity Classic, a PGA Tour Champions event featuring celebrity golfers, that he believes Young is poised to turn things around this upcoming season.

“I think (his rookie year)’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to him, looking back at it,” he said. “Obviously while it’s happening, it’s not fun, but I’m super excited to be around him and see him going into Year 2 with a lot more confidence in himself and being a natural leader instead of having to force it. I think sometimes when you come in as a rookie and you don’t have a whole lot of time to be around guys after the draft, you just sort of get forced into this role as the quarterback. I think he’s excited to just earn that and be natural about it.”

Thielen was Young’s best friend on the field for most of the 2023 season, leading the team by a wide margin in targets (137), catches (103) and receiving yards (1,014). But being unable to consistently find open receivers  — or have the time to find them — were two things that hampered Young’s confidence throughout his rookie year.

Carolina has already made steps before next week’s NFL Draft to ensure things play out differently in 2024. The Panthers made a splash in free agency by signing offensive guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis to massive contracts. They also made a trade with the Steelers for receiver Diontae Johnson to help bolster their receiver room.

Johnson played in 14 games for Pittsburgh in 2023, totaling 51 catches for 717 yards and five touchdowns. The best year of his career came back in 2021, when he caught 107 passes for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns.

The 27-year old receiver has experience playing on the outside as well as in the slot, giving Carolina some added dynamism among its pass-catchers.

“(Johnson’s) ability to play a lot of different positions creates opportunities for all of us to be able to move around and do what we’re good at,” Thielen said. “He does a lot of things really well and he can bring a lot of versatility and consistency to what we’re doing. It’s a great addition, and I’m excited to get to know him as a person and as a player.”   

While many expect the Panthers to add one or two more receivers in the upcoming draft, the team also expects more from Jonathan Mingo in 2024.

Mingo ranked second on the team in catches behind Thielen with 43, but he had zero touchdowns and his catch rate of 50.6% ranked 191st of 197 qualified receivers.

Like Young, Thielen believes Mingo is poised for greater things in 2024. He also emphasized how impressed he has been with the fellow receiver’s maturity already.

“It obviously wasn’t probably the year that he maybe wanted to have, but I think when you look at the body of work, he just didn’t have a lot of opportunities last year,” Thielen said. “You can’t create opportunities by yourself. I’m excited to see him flourish as he continues on.”

As a team, Carolina ranked last in the league in total offense (4,510 yards) and passing yards per game (161.2) in 2024. Tasked with turning the ship around in that regard is new head coach Dave Canales — who was hired this offseason after spending 2023 as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator.

The Buccaneers were ranked 20th in the league in total offense, but many believe Canales’ play-calling was responsible for helping the team reach the divisional round of the NFC Playoffs, as well as the renaissance of Baker Mayfield’s career.

While he hasn’t interacted with him too much yet, Thielen said that from everything he has heard, Canales is the right guy to help Carolina enter a new era.

“He brings that energy and that attitude that’s very positive and vibrant and someone who you just want to be around,” he said. “And you trust it, because it’s not just talk. It’s day-in, day-out, through the good, through the bad. I haven’t been through any critical situations with him yet, but that’s what I’ve heard from people who have played for him. I’m excited to be around him more and go to battle with him.”

Thielen earned 32 points in the first round of the Invited Celebrity Classic and sat in seventh place entering Saturday. The tournament is using a Stableford scoring system that awards points based on a person’s number of strokes on a particular hole.

You can watch the Invited Celebrity Classic on Golf Channel beginning at 9 p.m. ET on Friday night. Coverage continues Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m. on Golf Channel and Peacock.

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