The Carolina Panthers have struggled to find consistent tight end play ever since Greg Olsen left the team in 2019. What was formerly one of the organization’s strengths has become a glaring weakness the past three seasons.
New Panthers tight ends coach, John Lilly, most recently served as the University of North Carolina’s tight ends coach from 2020-22. In 2022, his tight ends led the Atlantic Coast Conference in receiving yards, with 1,087 yards. Lilly has also spent time with the Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams, University of Tennessee, and University of Georgia.
Carolina’s tight end position has hope after the team added a new leading tight end and hiring Lilly, a 30-year coaching veteran.
Carolina Panthers Tight End Room Breakdown
Hayden Hurst, a 2018 first-round pick, is now on his fourth team in his 6-year career. Hurst was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, but was traded to the Atlanta Falcons after two lacklustre seasons. With the Falcons, Hurst had a career year in 2020. He managed 571 receiving yards and six touchdowns. The tight end followed up his career highs with a poor 2021. He played 13 games, regressing to 221 receiving yards. As his rookie contract expired, Hurst signed with the Cinincianti Bengals in 2022. He excelled as the fourth receiving option, with 52 receptions and 414 yards in 13 games.
This off-season, Hurst signed a three-year, $21.75 million deal with the Panthers. Having played for the University of South Carolina, this is a homecoming for Hurst. Hurst is expected to serve as a safety blanket for rookie quarterback Bryce Young the same way Olsen did for Cam Newton.
“Tight ends are always a quarterback’s best friend,” Hurst said. “Especially [for] a rookie coming in, you want that reliable guy in the middle of the field, where your vision is. Obviously, you need the guys on the outside, too, to make your life easier.”
Even with a rough start to his career, there is upside to Hurst because of his success in 2022 with the Bengals. Along with his receiving talent, Hurst brings swathes of run-blocking ability with him too. With a rookie at the helm, Carolina will rely on the run game early in the season. Hurst will therefore have the opportunity to show his blocking abilities, which were on full display in Cincinnati.
Not the first time in this game Hayden Hurst was asked to block a DE one-on-one, and Cam Jordan is good! But Hurst does well here to not let Jordan collapse a running lane created by fantastic double teams from LC+Cappa and Karras+Volson.pic.twitter.com/WqnlXUEvbk
— Jake Liscow (@JakeLiscow) October 18, 2022
Ian Thomas was the original successor to Olsen after being drafted in the fourth round in 2018. He seemed to be the future leading tight end with Carolina after 36 receptions and 333 receiving yards in his rookie year. Since 2018, Thomas has failed to eclipse over 200 receiving yards in a season. That is coupled with his measly touchdown output, catching just two touchdown passes in four years.
Thomas was oddly rewarded with a three-year $16.95 million contract before the 2022 season. Carolina, at the time, thought he would excel in a Ben McAdoo-coached offense. With a revitalized coaching staff and a new leading tight end, Thomas could be on the chopping block. He’s already had to take a pay cut this offseason to reduce his contract to $3 million in 2023 and $3.65 million in 2024. It is thus safe to assume that Thomas has become a fringe player in Carolina. He will likely compete with Tommy Tremble for reps.
Tremble, a 2021 third-round pick out of Notre Dame, drew comparisons to George Kittle because of his versatility as a blocker and receiver. In his two years with Carolina, Tremble has been used primarily as a blocker. He has amassed only 354 receiving yards in 2021 and 2022. At times, Tremble was lined up as a fullback instead of tight end due to the Panthers’ heavy running attack.
In year three, the hope is that Tremble will make strides in his game so that he can be utilized more in this year’s offense. At just 22 years old, Tremble is still a raw talent and will have much to prove in a make-or-break 2023.
“He’s still a young player. You look at most of the guys that were drafted, and they are older than what he is. I think it’s kind of time for him to take another step,” Lilly said. “I think he made a great decision in the off-season. He stayed here, he trained all last off-season. [I have] Been very impressed by the way he’s approached the day-by-day and trying to pick it all up and take it to the field.”
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