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NFL offseason power rankings: No. 32 Carolina Panthers are in state of depression

Preview focus: Can Dave Canales turn around Bryce Young and will team owner David Tepper ease up?

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)
(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

As a fan, what do you do when your team's owner is the worst in the league?

Last year erased any doubt for the Carolina Panthers. David Tepper took the worst owner belt vacated by Daniel Snyder and ran with it. The Panthers are going to have to win despite a rough situation due mostly to Tepper, but also to a trade that was supposed to change the franchise and instead might have changed it in the wrong way.

Last year was supposed to be a fresh start. Bryce Young, the top pick of the NFL Draft, represented hope. Young was going to be the answer that Tepper had been pushing for at quarterback. The Panthers hired a new head coach and former NFL quarterback Frank Reich to lead Young's development. For all of the missteps in Tepper's first five seasons owning the team — and there were plenty — it seemed like everything was going to get better for Carolina.

Then in the Panthers' first game, Young threw two interceptions, posted a 48.8 passer rating and Carolina lost 24-10 to the Atlanta Falcons.

Young isn't the first rookie quarterback to have a bad debut. But it was a sign.

Over the next few months, the Panthers won just two games by a combined four points, Reich was fired 11 games into his first Carolina season and Tepper ruined whatever was left of his reputation by throwing a drink on a heckling fan. On top of that, Young rarely showed any glimpses of future stardom (Yahoo Sports' Nate Tice broke down his concerning rookie season) and C.J. Stroud, selected right after Young in the draft, had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. Then, after the season, the Panthers traded defensive end Brian Burns, the team's best player. In 2022, Carolina turned down a trade offer from the Los Angeles Rams of two first-round draft picks for Burns. When the Panthers did trade an unhappy Burns, they got just a second-rounder back from the New York Giants.

The Panthers were the worst team in the NFL and didn't even own the first overall pick they'd earned for a horrendous season. They had traded it to the Chicago Bears in an expensive trade up for Young that looked worse and worse with every game. That had to be a reason general manager Scott Fitterer was fired, replaced by Dan Morgan.

By the time the season was mercifully over, the Panthers not only were the NFL's worst team, their owner had been completely exposed and it looked like they drafted the wrong quarterback, too. All of that optimism leading up to Young's first season was gone, replaced by the depressing state of a horrible franchise whose infrastructure was broken.

Young's high school team, Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California, went 53-4 in his four seasons on varsity. Young appeared in 34 college games at Alabama and the Crimson Tide went 30-4. He went from eight losses in high school and college to 15 in his first NFL season.

To the Panthers' credit, they understood many of the issues that led to such a miserable season. Young simply had no talent around him. He was cautious, perhaps because the offensive line was bad or that his receivers were among the worst in the NFL.

"You can’t make a play if somebody don’t block," Stroud told "The Pivot" podcast when talking about Young, via Panthers Wire. "You can’t make a play if somebody don’t catch a ball. And when you watch the tape, Bryce did a lot great things. He’s gonna be a great player."

The Panthers hired a new head coach, Dave Canales, coming off a very good season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator. He did wonders for Baker Mayfield's career, which had to catch the Panthers' interest. Carolina spent $153 million on guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, traded for receiver Diontae Johnson and drafted receiver Xavier Legette, running back Jonathon Brooks and tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders. Those were the first steps in helping Young reach his potential.

It's not like the dark cloud is gone. Tepper is still around, bothering bar owners who take a shot at him, ready to make the Panthers U-turn all their plans when he gets impatient with losing again. Young has a long way to go and he might never come close to Stroud as a player or to paying off what the Panthers gave up in that trade. The roster still has massive holes on both sides of the ball.

It would be a step forward for the entire franchise if Young played better this season. That would give some reason for hope. The Panthers need some hope. Badly.

The Panthers overpaid for some players in free agency, but that's what bad teams have to do. The Panthers gave guard Robert Hunt a five-year, $100 million deal, which was a shocker. Guard Damien Lewis got $53 million over four years. It's smart to build the interior of the line in front of a short quarterback, which the New Orleans Saints did for Drew Brees. If tackle Ikem Ekwonu, the sixth pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, can develop after really struggling last season, the Panthers might have the start of a good offensive line. The Panthers added to the defense with lineman A'Shawn Robinson and linebackers Josey Jewell and Jadeveon Clowney. However, they also traded edge rusher Brian Burns and cornerback Donte Jackson, who was sent to Pittsburgh in return for receiver Diontae Johnson. Burns was Carolina's best player last season and he just turned 26 years old. The draft class will help determine the trajectory of the offense the next few years. Three of the first four draft picks were on receiver Xavier Legette, running back Jonathon Brooks and tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders. That should help Bryce Young, even if Brooks' rookie season is a bit light as he recovers from a torn ACL.

Grade: B-

Here's what the Panthers traded to move up to draft Bryce Young:

• No. 9 overall draft pick in 2023 that became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Jalen Carter

• WR DJ Moore, who was sixth in the NFL with 1,364 receiving yards

• 2023 second-round pick that the Bears used to move up to get CB Tyrique Stevenson, who started 16 games as a rookie

• 2024 first-round pick which was No. 1 overall and used on QB Caleb Williams, a much better prospect than Young

• 2025 second-round pick

On top of all that, the Panthers drafted Young ahead of C.J. Stroud, who had one of the greatest rookie seasons for a quarterback in NFL history and looks like a future MVP.

Young had an anemic rookie season and rarely looked like a player who was the No. 1 pick of the draft. If there's optimism, it's based on a better environment around him this season, his prospect pedigree and a strong outing against the Green Bay Packers (312 yards, his only 300-yard game, and a 110 passer rating, one of two games over 100) in a close Week 16 loss. That was the only game after a Week 7 bye in which the Panthers scored 20 points.

"I think that when he's in Year 12, [he'll be] winning a lot of games and slicing people up a little bit, dicing it around, throwing it around," Chris Tabor, the Panthers' 2023 interim coach, said. "I said, you'll remember this first year, and you'll probably look back and say, you know what, it stunk at the time, but this really helped me get to where I'm at. He has a really bright future."

The Panthers have the longest Super Bowl odds at BetMGM, and it's not close. They're 250-to-1 to win it all, and no other team is longer than 150-to-1. However, there is some optimism for Carolina in the betting market. Their win total has moved from the opening line of 4.5 to 5.5 with some action on the over. Carolina was the only NFL team whose win total moved up. That means the New England Patriots at 4.5, not the Panthers, have the lowest win total on the board.

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Bryce Young's rookie season was hard to watch, as he was below code in every primary efficiency stat other than interception avoidance. Maybe head coach Dave Canales can fix Young. Canales's fingerprints were all over Baker Mayfield's career season last year, and he also was an architect for the Geno Smith emergence in 2022.

"Even if Young improves, it might be difficult for him to claim fantasy value in a traditional league. He's probably best left as a backup option or a superflex consideration. But if we're modestly hopeful for Young, that would likely press Diontae Johnson into credible fantasy territory. Johnson has little competition for targets in Carolina, and won't have to do much to outkick his current Yahoo tag of WR37."

Last season, defensive tackle Derrick Brown had 53 stops, Pro Football Focus' mark for a tackle that results in a failed play for the offense. That ranked second among defensive linemen, behind Maxx Crosby's 58. No other defensive tackle had more than 43. Brown had 103 tackles, an NFL record for a defensive tackle. That's why the Panthers signed Brown to a four-year, $96 million contract. The addition of A'Shawn Robinson, another elite run-stopping lineman, should solidify the Panthers as one of the best run defenses in the NFL. There's limited value in being an elite run-stopping team, but the Panthers have to start somewhere.

When Dave Canales was hired to be the Panthers' new head coach, there was a line from the team's site that should make their fans shudder: "As with [general manager Dan] Morgan, Canales will report directly to owner David Tepper." The only thing Tepper has proven as a team owner is that he is out of his depth. Impatience is becoming his trademark. Canales is Tepper's sixth head coach in his seventh Panthers season, counting interims. Bryce Young was the sixth quarterback in Tepper's first six seasons to lead the team in passing yards. Even Tepper's MLS team, Charlotte FC, has had three coaches in three seasons.

Frank Reich, fired after just 11 games as Carolina's coach, danced around the Tepper subject during his lone Panthers season, saying the conversations with Tepper were "always very challenging." That's what Canales can look forward to. Tepper did refuse questions at an introductory media conference for Canales, and maybe that's a good sign. We'll see.

There's probably not a world in which the Panthers make the playoffs. Weirder things have happened in the NFL, but it's a heck of a stretch. Still, you can tell yourself a story in which the Panthers are much better after all the offseason additions and the hiring of Canales. It would be a positive season, regardless of the final record, if the new coaching staff and upgrades on offense help Bryce Young look like the future star the Panthers thought they were drafting. Remember, while Young's size was debated often before last year's NFL Draft, most analysts believed he had excellent traits as a prospect. A nice improvement from Young would mean Canales isn't fired at the end of the season by Tepper. Maybe.

When Tepper owns your franchise, no scenario is too outrageous. Could Canales get fired by Halloween? Sure. Might the Panthers give up on Bryce Young after just two seasons if he doesn't play well? Yep. Unless there's a big surprise, the Panthers are going to lose a lot of games again. How will Tepper handle that? Will he turn over the apple cart and start over again? Maybe the mark of a good season would be Tepper getting through it without throwing a drink on another heckler or worrying about what a bar's sign says about his management.

I'm not willing to bury Bryce Young, though there were few signs last season that he's going to be an elite quarterback. He should be better with an improved team around him, though I'm way more skeptical of his ceiling than I was a year ago. Even if he's better this season, the Panthers are likely to lose double-digit games. Another first overall draft pick could be in their future, but at least they'd own that selection this time. The Panthers will be bad, Young will be better but not great, and good luck predicting how David Tepper reacts to that.