The Carolina Panthers are set to pick first in the 2023 NFL Draft, setting up their most important draft pick in 12 years.
Since the (first) departure of Cam Newton, the Panthers have struggled to find a quarterback capable of taking them to the postseason even once, let alone on a consistent basis. Though there is always time for things to change between now and Thursday evening, all signs point towards Alabama signal caller Bryce Young as the team’s next hopeful franchise quarterback.
So now the question remains: How good exactly is he?
There’s a difference between being a great college quarterback and being a great NFL prospect. Of course, it’s possible to hit both marks, but many scouts and analysts won’t be impressed merely by gaudy numbers and racking up wins. In the case of scouting, flashing pro-level plays, making good decisions under pressure, and piercing passes into the tightest of windows earns their respect.
This isn’t to say scouts have a perfect understanding of what it takes to be a franchise quarterback (far from it), but when it comes to Young, he’s both a really good college quarterback and a really good prospect. Let’s take this play against Kansas State for example:
Off the snap, Young surveys his left, noticing that his first progression isn’t open. As he looks back to the middle of the field, the defensive line’s stunt concept creates interior pressure, forcing Young to step up.
Young does, and keeps his eyes up to boot. It is then that the intermediate crosser is in plain sight, and he is just able to get off the pass before getting hit on a terrific play highlighted by great poise and great vision.
Next, let’s highlight this pocket play against LSU:
At first, it doesn’t seem like much is going on: All Young is doing is holding onto the ball and firing to an open receiver, right? Well, one thing to note about the NFL is that, while the best quarterbacks are often mobile freaks, these same players also have to be able to pass from the pocket at soaring levels.
Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert often receive accolades for their high-end athleticism, but part of what makes them successful is how they’re able to make quick reads and get the ball off before the pressure consumes them.
He turns his head about six times before he finds a read he’s cool with, but he never loses his calm. Both edge rushers seemingly have him in their mitts, but by then Young already has the ball out of his hands. This isn’t one of the most stunning plays on Young’s tape, but it showcases how comfortable he is as a pocket passer and how far he’s developed in the Saban system.
Admittedly, this play demonstrates something that is both a pro and a con of Young’s game, namely his willingness to hold onto the ball a long time. But let’s focus on the positive side of that first.
The edge pressure creates inner pressure right away, and Young knows it. He gallops sideways to escape duress, then scrambles back inside before settling his feet. Unfortunately, the same defender grabs him by the legs, disrupting a sideline pass that may not have worked out anyway (the receiver was out of bounds at the time).
Nonetheless, I see this as a positive play despite not going down in the play-by-play as one. Young’s ability to keep his eyes up even under stressful scenarios is something that’s lost on most of the prospects that have entered the century wide history of the NFL. Having that trait right as the speed fastens will hopefully make Young’s development easier.
Another one of Young’s finest traits is in his overall accuracy: Especially to the intermediate side of things he’s often pinpoint, exactly where you want the football to be. That extends to the middle of the field as Young seems to have a third eye that’s six inches taller, because he has a knack for seeing over the place that should be the toughest area for quarterbacks of his stature.
Getting this pass over one defender is impressive enough, and pretending the official is also a Texas defender makes it all the better.
Similar to some of the plays we’ve shown against LSU, Young cycles through his reads in a clean pocket here, anticipating an opening in the middle of the end zone. He’s able to nicely fit this touchdown in between a hoard of defenders as a result.
So by this point we know Bryce Young is an extremely smart pocket passer who cycles through his progressions with exceptional speed and the pinpoint accuracy to top it off. That is only one half of his game, however. The other half shows why he has top 10/top 5 potential in the NFL, and it comes from his ability to create plays outside of structure.
Obviously, improvisation in the NFL is nothing new. Top quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Jalen Hurts have all shredded defenses by using their mobility to escape sacks and hits. Out of these three quarterbacks, I see Young’s mobility as most similar to Burrow, showcasing that fluid, Tony Romo-esque subtlety that makes him such a dangerous scrambling threat.
The same plays that have football fans concerned for the durability of certain players are the same ones that are among the most thrilling and successful. It is here that Young’s Super Mario-esque size could also be a strength, as it makes him more agile and a more slippery foe to tackle.
Even though he’s not going to be the next Cam Newton or Lamar Jackson, he is certainly mobile enough to turn to his legs to make critical plays when needed.
However, before you start booking your flights to the Superbowl, it’s also worth taking a moment to look at some of the concerns with taking Young first overall.
The main thing that has kept coming up as a negative in discussions of Young during this draft cycle is his size. At 5 ’10 and 204 lb, his size is not just below average for the position but a notable outlier for top-tier QB prospects.
Aside from the durability concerns, one criticism for such quarterbacks is their smallness prevents them from seeing over linemen and making plays over the middle of the field but, as already mentioned, Young has excelled in that area during his time at Alabama.
To Young’s credit, Nick Saban has mentioned he isn’t worried about his quarterback’s size when it comes to translating his game to a higher level of football. Considering Saban’s recent history of working with quarterbacks that find some form of success in the NFL (Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, and Mac Jones), the same should be expected of Young.
However, the size issues do come up at times when he’s trying to thread the needle there.
The read here is the correct one, as a receiver is wide open and it isn’t close. The trouble is the ball gets batted down, something that smaller quarterbacks normally face more often than their taller counterparts. So the vision isn’t the problem for Young as much as actually getting these passes beyond the line of scrimmage without getting batted.
However, while this shouldn’t just be dismissed out of hand, Young had far fewer batted passes than the average college quarterback over a fairly large sample size, so this criticism is really more conjecture than something based on data.
Outside of his height, one issue with Young is his arm strength. Like Burrow, it’s not bad, but it lacks the high-end ceiling associated with many of the top prospects that have been drafted high in the NFL. He has no problem fitting darts into tight windows in the short and intermediate levels, but deep downfield that’s where his power somewhat falls apart.
Here, the issue is not that Young can’t throw the ball very far and very high. It’s that here he can’t throw the ball very far and very fast, at a lower angle. What this does is allow the receiver to catch the ball quicker while ensuring the defender has less of a chance to either break it up or prevent yards after the catch. Young tries to throw this on a rope, but there isn’t enough mustard to squeeze this low-trajectory attempt in.
Finally, being a mobile quarterback is seen by some as possessing a double-edged sword. They can create plays that statues in the pocket can’t even dream of, but at times guys like Young will hold the bar longer than they’d ought to, resulting in coverage sacks.
Young’s reads often aren’t too late, but in the NFL he’ll need to find a healthy balance between extending the play to the last possible second and knowing when the play is dead and when to throw the ball away.
With the good and the bad applied, I think Bryce Young has a real chance at ending the arduous journey the Panthers have faced in finding the next quarterback to take them back to the promised land. What he lacks in height, great arm strength, and frame, Young makes up in acumen, pocket smarts, standing tall under pressure, standout vision in all directions, playmaking excellence, and a cool, calm poise behind the center.
The performances, pro traits, and intelligence speak for themselves, and behind a highly regarded offensive line in Carolina, Young should be protected well right away. As the first step of a rebuild, it’ll take time for the team to develop a team that can give him all the help they can, but in turn Young has the talent to mask some of the offense’s weaknesses and give them some help himself.
Bryce Young will struggle to adapt to the speed of the NFL, a fact every rookie quarterback faces. Through lesson learning and consistent refinement, he should give the Panthers plenty of reasons to rally around him, something we’ve all been looking for from the Cardiac Cats in quite some time.
Ultimately, I think the reward is worth whatever risks come with it. Size matters, but so does Bryce Young.
(Top photo via Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)