CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young took one step back out of the shotgun and quickly hit tight end Hayden Hurst, matched up against a New York Jets linebacker and safety, for an easy 5-yard gain.
It was just a snapshot of Young’s performance from Saturday’s 27-0 preseason loss at Bank of America Stadium, but one you should remember as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2023 draft enters the season.
“We’re always matched up on linebackers and safeties,’’ Hurst said. “That’s kind of a mismatch to begin with. With our size and our speed, we’re able to get open. And we’re his first line of sight. When you’re a rookie quarterback, you need to get the ball out fast, make plays and get up the field and get yards.
“So it helps a rookie quarterback out.’’
The tight end was almost nonexistent as a pass-catcher in the Carolina offense the past three seasons under coach Matt Rhule and interim coach Steve Wilks. The team ranked last in the NFL in receptions (122), receiving yards (1,173) and touchdowns (6) from the position during that stretch.
Carolina hasn’t had a legitimate tight end receiving threat since Greg Olsen in 2016, when he caught 80 passes for 1,073 yards and three touchdowns.
Former NFL tight end Pete Metzelaars -- a teammate of Panthers coach Frank Reich with the Buffalo Bills and a tight ends coach with the San Diego Chargers when Reich was their offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015 -- believes that’s about to change under Reich and will benefit Young.
“I thought the Panthers' tight ends were a really good group the past few years, but maybe underutilized a little bit,’’ said Metzelaars, now the tight ends coach of the Helvetic Guards, a European League of Football team based in Switzerland.
“Then they went and got Hayden Hurst. He understands the NFL game and what it takes to operate and to get open, create space, body people up.’’
You saw that with Hurst's catch in Saturday’s preseason game. That’s a big part of Reich’s philosophy going back to his Buffalo days.
“It’s a team game, but within the game there are these little matchups that you have to try to find and create and take advantage of,’’ Reich said. “One of those is at the tight end position.’’
History is on Reich’s side. He has coached four Pro Bowl tight ends as an offensive coordinator and head coach.
Antonio Gates caught 69 passes for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014, Reich’s first season as the Chargers' offensive coordinator.
Zach Ertz had 78 catches for 816 yards and four touchdowns in 2016 when Reich was the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. He followed that with 74 catches for 824 yards and eight touchdowns the next season, making the Pro Bowl for the first time and helping Philadelphia win Super Bowl LII.
Eric Ebron had 66 catches for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018, Reich’s first season as Indianapolis Colts' head coach. The 13 touchdowns were two more than he had in his first four NFL seasons combined.
Jack Doyle made the Pro Bowl under Reich the following season, catching 43 passes for 448 yards and four touchdowns despite sharing time with Ebron.
Outside of Gates, already on his way to a Hall of Fame career when Reich joined the Chargers, the others were just coming into their own when Reich began coaching them.
“You can see the numbers that the tight ends have put up in those offenses with him calling the plays,’’ Carolina tight ends coach John Lilly said of Reich. “That's the first thing that kind of jumped out even to the guys in the room.
“They’re like, ‘Hey, if we can prove ourselves to be dependable in the passing game, we're gonna have some opportunities.’’’
Young called tight end in Reich’s offense “super important.’’
“Tight ends in general, especially the ones we have, they create a lot of mismatches,’’ Young said. “It’s going to be something we want to take advantage of throughout the season.’’
Young understands the necessity of having that security blanket, just as former Carolina quarterback Cam Newton did as a rookie in 2011 when the Panthers signed veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey and traded for Olsen to help the No. 1 overall pick.
Olsen had 45 catches for 540 yards and five touchdowns, Shockey 37 catches for 455 yards and four touchdowns.
They accounted for nine of Newton’s 21 touchdown passes (42%) and 995 of his 4,051 passing yards en route to winning NFL Rookie of the Year.
Reich has created a similar situation for Young, signing Hurst to a three-year, $21.75 million deal in free agency to pair with Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas. Hurst's best season was 2020, when he caught 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns with the Atlanta Falcons. Tremble and Thomas are known more for their blocking.
All three caught a pass against the Jets and accounted for 31% of the passing yards of Young and backup Matt Corral.
“We’re really the kind of a centerpiece that holds everything together,’’ said Tremble, who had only 31 catches and three touchdowns in his first two seasons. “That’s just really what makes this offense thrive.’’
It’s a weapon Metzelaars can’t wait to see develop at Carolina.
“A tight end is vital to any quarterback,” he said. “I’m sure it will be for Frank’s.’’