When another long and laughable pre-draft nightmare ends, Bryce Young is expected to be the first player to saunter onto the NFL stage Thursday night, completing his melodramatic journey to predictability. He spent more than a year as the logical No. 1 pick, but over the past three months, instigators of the most tedious process in sports pretended to discover the obvious: He’s a small quarterback.
NFL front offices and obsessed football minions put Lil’ Bryce — excuse me; lil’ bryce — under the most powerful microscope. Yet for all the rumblings that Young is too short and too thin at 5-foot-10 and an allegedly exaggerated 204 pounds, the Carolina Panthers are primed to take him anyway. And they traded a pair of first- and second-round picks and DJ Moore, the former Maryland standout who has become a quality No. 1 wide receiver, to the Chicago Bears to climb into the top position to select him. The Panthers dealt a lot for a lil’ because the fixation on quarterback size is nothing more than a parody of evaluation now.
Because of excessive scrutiny, typical deception and media gullibility, the sure thing took a farcical three-month detour. Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner as a sophomore, validated his draft stock as an Alabama junior despite missing a game with a shoulder injury. Then he announced his decision to turn pro, and before he was officially measured, his measurables became an easy target in this game of lies and second-guessing.
By February, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay was interrupting his effusive praise of Young to slip in a sentence that activated all of the hot-take artists: “If I’m a GM, I’m scared to death of drafting him.”
The problem wasn’t that draftniks and well-sourced reporters brought up Young’s size. It was the ridiculousness that ensued. As usual, teams exploited an opportunity to embrace skepticism and muddy the waters. Sports debates are never reasonable, and all the talk minimized Young’s innumerable strengths — as well as his entire body. All of a sudden, he went from being a smaller quarterback in an era that has seen smaller quarterbacks thrive to someone who might as well have been Ant-Man’s sidekick.
In reality, Young has always been the safest option in this signal caller quartet that also includes C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis. Young and outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., his Crimson Tide teammate, have the highest floors among this entire crop of prospects. That’s no guarantee they will become stars, and there are others with greater upsides because of explosiveness, schematic trends and, yes, size. But if Young indeed goes first and the Houston Texans pick Anderson over a quarterback at No. 2, both teams should celebrate their ability to resist overthinking and go about building around players blessed with an abundance of winning traits.
In annoying draft discourse, the least-explored topic is the part that’s just as important as the high-profile pick: What’s next? Team building is a complicated puzzle, and while top-tier draft choices are the most valuable currency, they are just big pieces that won’t look right without the complementary ones that fit next to them.
The draft is often viewed through a boom-or-bust lens, which leaves you inspecting every player for savior potential. Beyond trying to gain an advantage, teams like to flood the overhyped run-up to the event with rumors and misinformation to create a strange form of football deniability. In any given decade, only about a quarter of the 32 teams exhibits the ability to string together the decisions that create and maintain a contender. In essence, they draft for the entire league because eventually the model franchises become victims of their good choices.
At some point, the salary cap prevents them from retaining all of their talent, which allows meandering organizations to overpay for their deficiencies in free agency. Deep down, most NFL organizations fear making the wrong draft selection as much as they embrace the chance to improve their teams. These pre-draft months of chaos and confusion are intended to level the playing field, redirect pressure to the players and create an environment in which mistakes are easier to explain.
But a good draft pick is an organizational responsibility. If Young fails, it won’t be simply because his body breaks down and he confirms worries that his playing weight actually is closer to 190 pounds. The Panthers are drafting the right to customize a winner with Young as their centerpiece. Over the past decade or so, there have been plenty of best practices and notable mistakes to provide an instruction manual for General Manager Scott Fitterer and Coach Frank Reich to assemble the proper team around an undersized quarterback.
For Young to reach the championship heights of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson — or to become the mature, consistent variation of Kyler Murray — there are clear lessons about paying attention to the interior of the offensive line as much as the tackles to create the cleanest pocket possible, about anchoring the offense with a strong running game and about weaponizing the quarterback’s unorthodox style instead of forcing convention. Of course, as the No. 1 pick, Young must show the talent to carry his team through bouts of inadequacy. He can do that and buy time. But the Panthers must embrace their potential franchise player and the project to make the most of him.
The Panthers are drafting a quarterback who has just about every elite tool besides his frame: character, leadership, work ethic, pocket presence, mobility, twitchy athleticism, football IQ, anticipatory throws, accuracy. Young has a strong arm that Alabama Coach Nick Saban also describes as “elastic” because he can deliver the ball from so many angles, which enhances his ability to improvise.
In the end, his collection of skills proved too enticing. Lil’ Bryce isn’t a big risk. He’s a big, franchise-altering deal. For the first time since Cam Newton, Carolina will have one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL.
Months of investigation couldn’t obscure that. Young proved himself worthy. Now the Panthers must do the same.