Bryce Young [608x342]
Bryce Young [608x342] (Credit: Morgan Tencza-USA TODAY Sports)

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first practice of voluntary offseason workouts was almost over Monday when Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young uncorked a pass over the middle to wide receiver Diontae Johnson.

"Bryce knew his read was open and didn't stare it down,'' tight end Tommy Tremble said with a smile. "He turned his head and flicked it, and the second the ball left his hand, he turned around, pointed to coach [Dave Canales to say], 'Completed, man!'

"He's still got that swag.''

Swag wasn't a word used to describe the No. 1 overall pick of the 2023 draft during his rookie season. He ranked near the bottom of the NFL in almost every major statistical category. At times he looked shell-shocked during the Panthers' NFL-worst 2-15 season, going 2-14 as the starter, with coach Frank Reich being fired after a 1-10 start.

But as Young insisted immediately after the season, he hasn't lost his confidence. Monday's performance, while early, was the first real evidence.

It started early, when Young, who didn't have a touchdown pass of more than 18 yards last season, threw a dime more than 40 yards to a well-covered Adam Thielen in the end zone.

It ended with the deep pass to Johnson, whose job was to get vertical and through a narrow gap so Young could see him and make his read. Young did, fitting the pass perfectly into the window so Johnson could make a play.

"He's a great quarterback,'' Johnson said. "Accurate. Smart. He knows how to get his guys in position. Whenever we're out there, you can always count on him to get us in the right spot and make sure everybody knows what they're doing.''

Tremble agreed.

"He's throwing the ball with confidence,'' he said. "He's not worried about a thousand things like last year. You saw that deep ball to Adam. He's having fun with it.

"The ball to Diontae towards the end of practice, he knew he'd made the play before the ball even reached the receiver. So you can see that swag confidence. It's exciting, man.''

One reason for his improvement is the arrival of Canales, whose quarterback-friendly offense and positive coaching style helped Baker Mayfield put up career-best numbers last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Russell Wilson with the Seattle Seahawks in 2020.

Another reason is the arrival of new weapons such as Johnson, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers, wide receiver Xavier Legette (first-round draft pick) and tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders (fourth-rounder).

Young will get another big weapon by training camp when second-round pick Jonathon Brooks is expected to be cleared medically from a torn right ACL.

"It's always good to have new juice, have different juice,'' Young said.

The new juice could also help the old juice step it up a notch. Veteran tight end Ian Thomas, known for his blocking, had a touchdown catch of more than 40 yards early Monday. He also had another big play on a crossing route.

Last season, Thomas had five receptions with one longer than 9 yards, a 28-yarder against the Detroit Lions. None was for a touchdown.

Tremble noticed right away he and the other tight ends were being covered by a single safety instead of being double-teamed like last season when opponents didn't have to double the wide receivers. Thielen is the only 2023 Panthers receiver currently working among the top three.

"He's got everyone on the field he can trust that he can get the ball to,'' Tremble said. "And having that trust with everybody is going to help him make his decisions and just make the right throw every time.''

Having time to pass is key. That's why the Panthers spent $150 million on guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, and moved veteran guard Austin Corbett to center. Thirty-five of Young's team record 62 sacks in 2023 came from inside pressure.

Tremble said Young was under so much pressure he seldom had time to find him and the other tight ends.

"We've been kind of in purgatory a little bit,'' he said. "This puts us in one-on-one situations, and we can't lose one-on-one.''

It's way too early to predict whether Young and the offense will make a huge leap from being last in the NFL in total offense (265.3 yards per game) and tied for last in scoring (13.9 points per game). But there is reason for optimism, and past turnarounds by No. 1 overall picks indicate there could be significant improvement.

Peyton Manning, the top pick of the 1998 draft, was 3-13 as a rookie. The Indianapolis Colts beefed up their offensive line during the 1999 offseason and drafted Edgerrin James fourth overall.

James led the league in rushing to take some of the pressure off of Manning, and the Colts went 13-3.

Joe Burrow was taken No. 1 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020 and went 2-7-1 as the starter. The team drafted wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase fifth in the 2021 draft and beefed up its offensive line with players such as free agent tackle Riley Reiff. Chase became the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the team made it to the Super Bowl after a 10-6 regular season.

Canales hopes the new pieces the Panthers have added will have similar results.

"I love bringing in young talent to raise the level of competition for every room,'' he said.

Cornerback Jaycee Horn believes it goes beyond that.

"It's going to help him just because he's got a year under his belt,'' he said of Young. "Your first year is kind of fast, and the second year, things slow down a lot. So weapons or not -- I don't really get into all that -- he's going to be a better player just because he's going into Year 2.''

The way Young responded after the throw to Johnson was a good first sign.

"He's having fun with it,'' Tremble said. "It feels like he's ready to just take off.''