Panthers rally around Bryce Young and Brian Burns with no regrets
David NewtonESPN staff writer6 minutes read
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you’re a fan of revisionist history, the backdrop to Thursday night’s game between the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) is for you.
This is because of the second guessing Carolina is facing regarding the trade they made with the Bears and the trade they didn’t make with the Los Angeles Rams.
In March, the Panthers traded their 2023 first-round (No. 9) and second-round (61) picks, their 2024 first-round pick (currently No. 2) and receiver DJ Moore (2018 first-round) to the Bears to select No. 1. A year so they can draft Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.
And before the trade deadline last season, they declined two first-round picks (2024, 2025) from the Rams in favor of outside linebacker Brian Burns.
Carolina is 1-7, Young has the NFL’s worst 29.5 total QBR, and Moore’s 735 receiving yards with the Bears rank sixth in the NFL, making the organization an easy target.
But the Panthers aren’t looking back, even though they did trade Moore for a true No. 1 receiver to help Young and an offense that ranks 27th in scoring with 17.5 points per game, and replace Burns, who will miss Thursday’s game. With a concussion, it would have given them more capital to build their roster.
“He’s a great player, but when you find your quarterback, you have to give it everything you can — and you can’t look back,” coach Frank Reich said of including Moore in the deal to acquire Young. Work stinks, but you’re taking steps to build a championship franchise, and getting a quarterback is a big deal.
Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer still believe in the plan they devised when they traded to Chicago, even though the current season has not gone as planned, due in part to a rash of injuries that has resulted in 13 players currently on injured reserve.
The scheme calls for the Panthers to add around Young and Burns in free agency, with a projected $42 million in cap space, and through the draft with their six remaining picks (their second-rounder, their third-rounder, their fourth-rounder), and their fifth-rounder in San Francisco, fifth-rounder Tennessee, and sixth-rounder Arizona).
“You know, you’re just looking to build a team, and it starts with your quarterback,” Reich said. “(Young) is our guy. We have a blueprint in our mind of how we’re going to build this team. What are the pieces? On offense and defense, there are more valuable positions and you’re trying to get your best players in valuable positions.”
“We want to stick to this plan. We know some of this will take time.”
While they feel good about valuable positions like quarterback and pass rusher with Young and Burns, the position they need to fill is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, preferably a speedy one, to play alongside veteran Adam Thielen and help take Young’s progression to another level. . .
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (No. 1 pick in 2020) improved dramatically in his second season after they added Ja’Marr Chase (No. 5 pick in 2021) to play alongside Tee Higgins. Same for Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles after they acquired AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith (the No. 10 pick in 2021), and for Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills after they acquired Stefon Diggs.
The Panthers understand that. They pursued Higgins from the Bengals and elite receiver Davante Adams from the Las Vegas Raiders before the trade deadline, according to an NFL front office source with knowledge of the discussions, but neither team was willing to deal.
They also traded edge rusher Montez Sweat to the Washington Commanders to pair with Burns, but he was traded to the Bears for a 2024 second-round pick.
The Panthers still plan to sign Burns to a long-term deal because the organization remains adamant that the 25-year-old is a rare find and someone who cannot easily be traded with draft picks.
That five teams — including the Bears, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter — contacted Carolina about Burns before this year’s trade deadline shows his value.
According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, Carolina and Burns were far apart before negotiations were suspended in September. If a new deal isn’t reached, the team will use the franchise tag during the offseason to secure him.
“He’s one of the most pass-dominant players (in the NFL). The sky’s the limit for him,” Fitterer said during training camp of Burns, who currently leads the team with five sacks.
Fitterer’s focus is on adding another pass rusher in free agency to play opposite Burns. Jacksonville’s Josh Allen and Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter are among those who could be targets as free agents.
One NFL executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, understood the decision to pass on a pair of first-round picks and keep Burns.
“These elements can be used to help build around a young quarterback, but having a highly productive pass rusher like Brian Burns is what every team is looking for,” he said.
And finding elite pass-catchers like Burns, who the Panthers selected with the No. 16 overall pick in 2019, is no easy feat. That’s why the Rams had so much going for it last season and why five teams approached the Panthers this season, even though it never got serious. That’s why Reich appreciates it.
“I’m really glad Brian Burns is still here. He’s elite in every way,” he said.
The same NFL executive also agreed that it was too early to judge Carolina on the decision to draft Young.
“With these young players you have to be patient. Overreacting after (eight) matches is the easy thing to do,” he said.
The overreaction has intensified because C.J. Stroud, taken second overall by the Houston Texans (4-4), is having a Rookie of the Year-type season with 14 touchdowns to just one interception. Things escalated further on Sunday when Young had two pick-sixes in the loss and Stroud threw for an NFL rookie-record 470 yards plus five touchdowns in the win.
Reich never blinked, citing the same reasons Carolina traded to Chicago for the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner that haven’t changed.
Revisionist history buffs might argue that Carolina would have had one of the better quarterbacks in this year’s class between USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake May, or Colorado’s Shadere Sanders had it retained the 2024 first-round pick. In particular, it can be special.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper suggested that Williams would receive a higher grade than any quarterback from last year’s class.
Once again, Reich does not look back, even when the losses to the outside world seem to outweigh the improvements he sees. As much as he would like to stick with Moore, he believes the long-term value of acquiring Young will pay off.
“Those are the really tough decisions. When you find the quarterback you want, you have to be willing to make that deal,” Reich said.