ATLANTA (AP) — The Carolina Panthers begin a new era with Bryce Young as the face of the franchise.
Just the sort of hype one would expect for the NFL's No. 1 draft pick.
There's far less hoopla surrounding Atlanta's quarterback, though the Falcons have equally high hopes for Desmond Ridder in his first full year as the starter.
These two young signal-callers will be at the center of attention when the Falcons host the Panthers in the season opener Sunday.
With Frank Reich taking over as coach, Carolina pinned its rebuilding hopes on Young, who won the Heisman Trophy during a brilliant career at Alabama.
Young isn't thinking beyond Week 1.
“I'm a not a huge long-term guy,” he said. “It’s never just straight up. There’s going to be ups and downs.”
Ridder was far from a top pick. Even after a stellar college career at Cincinnati, he slipped all the way to the third round in the 2022 draft.
Ridder spent most of rookie campaign as a backup to journeyman Marcus Mariota before taking over for the final four games of the year. He guided the Falcons to a 2-2 mark, showing enough promise to lock down the No. 1 job for 2023.
For now, this is Ridder's team.
“I've prepared for this moment and where I need to be,” he said.
These NFC South rivals have followed similar paths in recent years. Neither has had a winning record since 2017, which was also the last season either made the playoffs.
Now, both franchises are counting on young quarterbacks to lead them to a brighter future.
The Falcons doled out upward of $140 million in free agency to rebuild a defense that has long been among the bottom feeders of the NFL.
A year ago, the Falcons were 27th in yards surrendered and 23rd in points allowed — which was about par for the course during their run of losing seasons.
The spending spree brought in safety Jessie Bates III, defensive tackle David Onyemata, outside linebackers Kaden Elliss and Bud Dupree and cornerback Mike Hughes.
The Falcons also have a new defensive coordinator, Ryan Nielsen.
“There's a lot of excitement around this building because we've got some good stuff growing,” Bates said. “A great opportunity to win our division, get back to the playoffs, and get this thing back on track.”
The Panthers may be without Brian Burns, a two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker who had a career-high 12 1/2 sacks last season.
With talks stalled on a contract extension, Burns skipped a couple of practices to start the week before returning to the field in full pads.
It's not known if he'll be willing to play Sunday without a long-term deal. He's in the final year of a rookie contract that will pay him him slightly more than $16 million.
Burns is a vital part of the team’s defense, which is moving to a 3-4 scheme this season under new coordinator Ejiro Evero.
Atlanta has two of the NFL's most intriguing weapons in the backfield, though Bijan Robinson and Cordarrelle Patterson are sure to be lining up all over the field.
Defying conventional wisdom that first-round selections should not be used on running backs, the Falcons grabbed Robinson with the No. 8 overall pick.
Coach Arthur Smith believes he's the sort of player who can redefine the position, not only taking handoffs but working out of the slot or moving outside as a wide receiver.
“There are great expectations," Smith said. ”When you make those investments, you have to make sure it’s the right person, you’ve got the right plan. So far, so good."
The Falcons already had Patterson, who provides many of the same skills as Robinson.
Patterson was slowed by injuries in 2022, but two years ago he rushed for 618 yards and six TDs to go along with 52 receptions for 548 yards and five scores.
Patterson is listed on the depth chart at a new position — J, for joker.
“Well, he can play a lot of different spots from quarterback to wideout to running back to tight end,” Smith said. "You just try to keep finding ways to evolve, and we think it works for us.”
Young has gotten much of the attention in Carolina, but he's hardly the only change on the offensive side.
Chark is questionable for the opener, however, because of an ailing hamstring.
EYES ON KYLE
After a brilliant rookie season in 2021, Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts took a step backward during his sophomore campaign.
Defenses focused on shutting him down, limiting Pitts to 28 receptions for 356 yards and two touchdowns over the first 10 games. Then, he was lost for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.
One of the Falcons' big goals is finding ways to get the sort of production out of Pitts that they did two years ago, when he had 68 receptions for 1,026 yards.
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