Two weeks ago, the Carolina Panthers gave up their best offensive weapon, wide receiver DJ Moore, in a trade to acquire the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Since then, general manager Scott Fitterer and new head coach Frank Reich have brought in a slew of pass-catchers to surround their new franchise quarterback.
The rookie QB, who is likely to be either C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young, will be surrounded by newly signed Pro Bowl receivers Adam Thielen and DJ Chark. Carolina’s returning wideouts are a shabby-looking group featuring a 24 year-old Laviska Shenault and 22 year-old Terrace Marshall Jr.
This offense is in the infancy stages, as an entirely new coaching staff attempts to build an offense that a rookie signal-caller can succeed in from day one. But this won’t be deja vu for Panthers fans, because this staff is one of the most experienced in recent memory.
Matt Rhule’s entire 2020 staff had 72 years of NFL coaching experience, according to Darin Gantt of Panthers.com. But Reich, Jim Caldwell, Dom Capers and James Campen have 90 years among just the four of them. It’s officially a new era of Panthers football, and the newly assembled receiving corps has every area of the field covered.
Thielen out the defense
According to Pro Football Focus, Thielen has not had an intermediate catch grade below 89.7 in his entire career as a starter. From sideline-to-sideline, Thielen makes his living on one-to-two cut routes. During his career year in 2018, Thielen’s intermediate grades were all 95 or above.
Thielen specializes in reading defenses. His route running and football IQ make him a valuable commodity regardless of his production, which has waned in recent years. But even when overshadowed by Justin Jefferson, Thielen has played his part well. With pristine route-running, Thielen knows how to settle into gaps in the zone just as well as he can shake man defenders.
Over the past three seasons, Thielen’s 30 touchdown catches trail only Davante Adams, Mike Evans, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill, per Sports Illustrated. He will be indispensable as both a route technician and a mentor, as he was to Jefferson, who is now widely considered one of the top receivers in the game.
DJ deep threat
Similar to Thielen, DJ Chark excels in a particular field area: the secondary. Since his rookie year, Chark has not received a deep pass grade below 85. The LSU product ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2018, and was drafted in the second round by the Jaguars.
His Pro Bowl season came just one year later, as he caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight scores in his sophomore season. During it, he had a 99.9 receiving grade on throws to the deep right of the field, catching 10-of-14 targets for 296 yards, two touchdowns and no drops.
Last season, he didn’t drop any of his 15 deep targets in 11 games, scoring twice. He also averaged a passer rating of over 100 when targeted 20+ yards down field in both of those seasons, and he ranked third among qualified receivers in air yards per target last year.
Chark was written off by many as a “speed guy” such as Phillip Dorsett or John Ross III. But he’s proven his efficiency as a receiver under multiple quarterbacks and head coaches, some of whom actively put him in a position to fail (hint: the last name rhymes with “frier”).
Chark is more than just a speed guy. He can make contested catches and win one on ones too watch this great catch vs James Bradberry.
— The 4 Man Rush (@4ourmanrush) March 24, 2023
But Reich and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown clearly have a vision for this offense. They went out and got Chark for a reason, and one can only assume it was to give him the Ted Ginn Jr. role, streaking down the field on every pass play. Chark’s defined skill set and deep ball proclivity was lacking in the Carolina receiver room before his signing. His one-year, $5 million prove-it deal is a win for both sides.
Laviska Shenault seems to be the forgotten one on this Panthers offense, but why? In reality, Shenault fills the only weakness that Chark and Thielen both present: running after the catch. Shenault specializes behind the line of scrimmage, breaking big time tackles before capitalizing with a burst of surprising speed for a 220-lb hybrid.
Last season, Shenault caught 21 of his 27 receptions behind the line of scrimmage for 169 yards and a touchdown, good for just over 8 yards per catch. That means he averaged more than 8 yards after the catch on those plays. Only two qualified receivers, according to Next Gen Stats, managed that last season: Deebo Samuel (9 YAC/R) and Chigoziem Okonkwo (8.1).
Shenault can run the ball, too, taking nine carries for 65 yards and a touchdown last year. But he lacks route diversity, only garnering one deep target in 13 games with Carolina. That’s one place Thielen’s mentorship would come in handy. If Shenault can develop better footwork to combine with his lethal open-field nature, his ceiling will soar.
Terrace Marshall Jr. is the most intriguing receiver on the roster, being the third option on possibly the greatest college offense of all time – 2019 LSU. But in two years of pro experience, the 6’3” receiver has not been put in a position to succeed. Despite his large frame and contested catch ability, only seven of his 45 targets last season were deep balls.
But regardless of depth, Marshall thrived in the middle of the field. 220 of his 490 yards came between the numbers, and his receiving grades at all three depths were all above 90.
IT'S A CATCH @Terracemjr how?!?!? pic.twitter.com/YIcPt4zNlX
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 11, 2022
Marshall is inexperienced, lacking route-running prowess and football IQ. If Thielen and Chark can help him add to those aspects of his game, a prototypical deep threat like Marshall could break onto the scene as soon as this season.
The snap disparity between him and Shenault, along with possibly a rookie wideout, will be up in the air for a while. That’s certainly a storyline to follow during training camp.
Which QB fits the receiving corps?
Both Young and Stroud have elite 20+-yard passing grades (above 94), but Young’s medium passing grade is almost 20 points higher than Stroud’s. That distinction won’t make this decision for Carolina, but it’s important to note because Thielen, its biggest free agent signing, thrives in the intermediate field (10-19 yards).
The way that scouts and analysts have raved about Young’s processing ability is also a massive green flag. Stroud is a phenomenal player, but based on depth statistics, Young is the better choice for the Panthers offense as currently constructed.
Yet, Reich’s infatuation with tall quarterbacks and the glowing look he gave at Stroud at his pro day makes the Ohio State product the clear frontrunner right now. Either choice will be set up to thrive from the jump, but Young might be a tad better suited to do so based on the depth statistics.
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