Panthers coach Dave Canales on plan for Bryce Young's rebound

Carolina Panthers coach Dave Canales believes he has a plan in place to get the most out of 2023 No. 1 pick quarterback Bryce Young. Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- New Carolina Panthers coach Dave Canales prepped for his first podium appearances at the NFL combine with a strenuous workout that included cardio on the bike, a weight circuit and an incline walk at Level 12.

His preparation for Bryce Young's second NFL season, after a historically bad rookie campaign for a quarterback drafted No. 1, sounded simple compared to that.

"No big plan to fix him,'' said Canales, who last month was given a six-year deal to become the Panthers' third head coach in three years. "For me, it's about building an offense that we can be proud of, something that is tough, something that is smart, that takes care of the football.

"It's really elevating the whole group, and just asking Bryce to do his part of it."

The bottom line is Canales doesn't want to overcomplicate the offense, as often seemed the case last season. Young finished tied for the fewest touchdown passes (11) for any quarterback in NFL history with more than 500 pass attempts, and the Panthers' offense finished in the bottom five of the league in most major categories, including scoring (tied for 31st, 13.9 points per game) and total offense (32nd, 265.3 yards per game).

Canales didn't think Young was the problem, as much as the rookie was being put in situations that didn't allow him to showcase the strengths that convinced Carolina to trade two first-round picks (2023, 2024) and top wide receiver DJ Moore to the Chicago Bears in March 2023 to move from ninth to first in the draft.

"He's got the tools that we saw a year ago,'' said Canales, who was a first-year offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a year ago.

Canales said the first thing he'll do is teach Young a new offense that isn't based on four- and five-receiver sets, which was the case last season under coach Frank Reich, who was fired after Week 12. He'll base his offense around the run game with a lot of play-action passes and bootlegs that will showcase the talents of Young and help their much-maligned offensive line.

"I just see a really accurate player, a real decisive player,'' Canales said of Young. "For him, some of the basic things, that for any quarterback improvement is footwork. Let's continue to grow more specific to the pass concept, more specific to who is this person running this route?

"Three different receivers run the same route, it could be three different things. That's a coaching thing. Maximizing some of his abilities are going to help that.''

Canales has talked to Young by phone at least twice a week during this period when in-person meetings aren't allowed. He wants to do for the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner what he did for Baker Mayfield last season in Tampa Bay and Geno Smith in 2022 at Seattle -- both quarterbacks had career-best seasons in passing yards and touchdown passes.

One of the focuses will be getting Young to release passes in 2.7 seconds or less. Young ranked 24th in the NFL last season with an average release time of 2.9 seconds.

Canales said that not only will help the quarterback and receivers but also an offensive line that allowed 65 sacks in 2023, which was tied with the Washington Commanders for the second most in the NFL behind the New York Giants at 85.

"I think the average pass comes out in 2.2 seconds,'' Canales said. "For our concepts, if you kind of get more specific to what we're trying to do, the ball gets to the checkdown in about 2.7, definitely under 3.

"Bryce better be really be moving towards the line of scrimmage, ready to take off, checking it down to the back in three seconds or less.''

Understanding that and having the foundation of his offense based around the run game, Canales and general manager Dan Morgan plan to leave 2022 first-round pick (No. 6) Ikem "Ickey" Ekwonu at left tackle instead of moving him to guard, as some NFL sources with knowledge of the situation suggested would be a better move.

"He's just a mauler in the run game,'' Canales said of Ekwonu, whose 11 sacks surrendered ranked among the worst for left tackles in 2023. "Just being able to pile on that from a strength standpoint, and then just the nature of what our concepts are for our pass game.

"We're really committed to getting the ball out. This is going to be a big emphasis for Bryce. We're going to be on a clock every single time in the spring, every single time in camp. I'm selling to Ickey, I'm selling to these tackles, be aggressive and we're going to get the ball out.''

Canales also is counting on a strong defense led by coordinator Ejiro Evero, who was retained along with his entire staff by Canales.

"That was the whole part of my master plan,'' Canales said with a smile. "I'm like ... I'll fix the offense. You kind of have [things] in place here [on defense].''

Keeping most of the core talent in place defensively is the next challenge. Morgan said negotiations on a long-term deal with outside linebacker Brian Burns are ongoing and if a deal can't be done, then he'll use the franchise tag.

Morgan also said he wants an extension for inside linebacker Frankie Luvu, who is set to become a free agent, and defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who is set to play this season on his fifth-year option.

The goal of Morgan and Canales is not simply to focus on building an offense around Young, but on building an entire team.

"It's about improving the Carolina Panthers,'' Morgan said. "Bryce is just one piece of the puzzle.''