Are Carolina Panthers right to be confident in their TE options?
By Thomas Bray
Are the Carolina Panthers right to feel confident in their tight end option after ignoring the position during the 2023 NFL Draft?
As the Carolina Panthers enter the 2023 season, let's take a look at a position that has showcased flashes of playmaking ability, but ultimately lacked the consistency to make it anything more than a league-average unit. That, of course, is the tight-end group.
The tight end position has become one of the most demanding in football and it’s clear Frank Reich values it more than most around the league. They’re asked to contribute as an extra offensive lineman on running downs and serve as a dynamic athlete in the passing game for good measure.
Carolina Panthers should get more from their TE group in 2023
Each player brings something different to the table. Hayden Hurst was one of Carolina’s more notable free agent additions, signing a three-year contract worth up to $21.75 million this offseason.
Hurst has been an asset for young quarterbacks for the majority of his career. The former first-round pick caught passes from Lamar Jackson during his rookie and NFL MVP campaigns, accounting for 43 receptions and 512 receiving yards.
After a two-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons that featured a breakout season of 56 catches and 571 receiving yards, Hurst served as a reliable outlet for the Cincinnati Bengals in Joe Burrow’s second full season.
His departure from Cincinnati wasn’t considered a major blunder amongst the national media. But there’s something to be said about hauling in 52 passes for 414 receiving yards in an offense that featured Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd in the wide receiver room.
Hurst’s versatility, reliable hands, and ability after the catch immediately raise the ceiling of this Panthers’ offense
The first returning face in the tight end room is Ian Thomas. After signing a three-year extension in 2022, the former fourth-round pick agreed to a restructured deal this offseason.
When Greg Olsen missed time with a foot injury in Thomas’ rookie year, the Indiana product showed promise with Cam Newton under center. Many viewed him as the eventual Olsen successor, which didn't quite materialize.
After breaking the franchise record for rookie receiving yards for a tight end, Thomas hasn’t lived up to those expectations as a receiver. However, he has excelled as a blocker in his career thus far and helped the Panthers boast a dominant run offense after Steve Wilks was named interim head coach.
Thomas will primarily serve as an in-line blocker this season. But a new staff led by a head coach with a knack for tight ends could help unlock the 26-year-old’s ability as a playmaker.
Thomas and Hurst could complement each other in a way similar to how Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron did in 2018 under Reich.
The most intriguing tight end on the roster isn’t one from the 2018 NFL Draft class, it’s Tommy Tremble. The former Notre Dame star was selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft after excelling in college in a role similar to the one fullback Kyle Juszczyk plays for the San Francisco 49ers.
The 22-year-old was dominant as a blocker out of the backfield and that created opportunities for him off of play-action. Something that hasn't transitioned to the NFL prominently as yet.
Tremble’s blocking has translated to the next level, but the creativity on the offensive end didn't follow him to Charlotte. He became a more viable pass-catching option late in the season with Sam Darnold under center, but the Panthers are hoping that the acquisition of Bryce Young mixed with a revamped coaching staff will elevate every offensive weapon.
Without a proven No. 1 wide receiver on the roster, the Panthers could lean heavily on this group. There isn’t an All-Pro tight end on this team, but there are three players that excel in certain areas - whether it be run-after-the-catch ability, in-line blocking, or positional flexibility.
Creativity will be the key to unlocking this group.