How a trade made (Bryce Young) and not made (Brian Burns) shaped the Panthers' future

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you’re into revisionist history, then the backdrop to Thursday night’s game between the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) is for you.

That’s because of the second-guessing Carolina is facing for a trade it made with the Bears and a trade they didn’t make with the Los Angeles Rams.

In March, the Panthers traded their 2023 first-round (No. 9) and second-round (61) picks, their 2024 first-round pick (currently No. 2) and receiver DJ Moore (their 2018 first-rounder) to the Bears for the No. 1 overall pick so they could draft Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

And prior to last season’s trade deadline, they turned down two first-round picks (2024, 2025) from the Rams for outside linebacker Brian Burns.

That Carolina is 1-7, Young has an NFL-worst 29.5 Total QBR, and Moore’s 735 receiving yards with the Bears rank sixth in the NFL, makes the organization an easy target.

But the Panthers aren’t looking back, even though they haven’t replaced Moore with a genuine No. 1 receiver to help Young and an offense that ranks 27th in scoring with 17.5 points a game, and trading Burns, who will miss Thursday’s game with a concussion, would have given them more draft capital to build out their roster.

“He’s a great player, but when you find your quarterback you’ve got to go all in — and you can’t look back,” coach Frank Reich said of including Moore in the deal to get Young. That’s part of the business that stinks, but you’re taking steps to build a championship franchise, and getting your quarterback is a big deal.’

Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer still believe in the plan they devised when they traded with Chicago, even though the current season hasn’t gone as planned, partly due to a rash of injuries that has led to 13 players currently being on injured reserve.

The blueprint calls for the Panthers to add around Young and Burns in free agency, with a projected $42 million in cap space, and via the draft with their remaining six picks (their own second-rounder, their own third-rounder, their own fourth-rounder, San Francisco’s fifth-rounder, Tennessee’s fifth-rounder and Arizona’s sixth-rounder).

“You know, you just look to build a team, and it starts with your quarterback,” Reich said. “[Young’s] our guy. We have a blueprint in our mind of how we build that team. What are the pieces? On offense and defense there are more valued positions and you’re trying to get your best players in value positions.

“We want to stick to that blueprint. We know some of that is going to take time.”

While they feel good about valued positions like quarterback and pass-rusher with Young and Burns, one they need to fill is a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, preferably with speed, to play alongside veteran Adam Thielen and help take Young’s progress to another level.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (No. 1 pick in 2020) improved greatly his second season after they added Ja’Marr Chase (No. 5 pick in 2021) to play alongside Tee Higgins. The same for Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles after they acquired A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, (No. 10 pick in 2021), and for Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills after they acquired Stefon Diggs.

The Panthers understand that. They went after the Bengals’ Higgins and elite receiver Davante Adams of the Las Vegas Raiders before the trade deadline, according to an NFL front office source with knowledge of discussions, but neither team was willing to deal.

They also made a run at Washington Commanders edge rusher Montez Sweat, to pair up with Burns, but he was traded to the Bears in exchange for a 2024 second-round pick.

The Panthers still plan to sign Burns to a long-term deal because the organization remains adamant the 25-year-old is a rare find and somebody who can’t easily be replaced with draft picks.

That five teams — including the Bears, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter — approached Carolina about Burns before this year’s trade deadline shows his value.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, Carolina and Burns were far apart before negotiations were put on hold in September. If a new deal can’t be reached, the team will use the franchise tag during the offseason to secure him.

“He is one of the most dominant pass-rushers [in the NFL],” Fitterer said during training camp of Burns, who currently leads the team with five sacks. “The sky is the limit for him.”

Fitterer’s focus is on adding another pass-rusher in free agency to play opposite Burns. Among those who could be targets as free agents are Jacksonville’s Josh Allen and Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter.

One NFL executive, who talked on the condition of anonymity, understood the decision to pass on the pair of first-round draft picks and keep Burns.

“Those 1s could be used to help build around the young quarterback, but having a highly productive pass-rusher like Brian Burns is what every team looks for,” he said.

And finding elite pass-rushers such as Burns, whom the Panthers took with the No. 16 overall pick in 2019, isn’t easy. That’s why the Rams were offering so much last season and why five teams approached the Panthers this season, though it never got serious. And for that, Reich is appreciative.

“I am really, really happy that Brian Burns is still here,” he said. “He’s elite in every way.”

The same NFL executive also agreed it’s too early to judge Carolina on the decision to draft Young.

“With these young quarterbacks you have to exercise patience,” he said. “The overreaction after [eight] games is the easy thing to do.”

The overreaction has intensified because C.J. Stroud, taken No. 2 by the Houston Texans (4-4), is having a Rookie of the Year-type season with 14 touchdowns to only one interception. And it ramped up even more Sunday when Young had two pick-sixes in a loss and Stroud threw for an NFL-rookie record 470 yards plus five touchdowns in a win.

Reich never blinked, reiterating that the reasons Carolina traded with Chicago to get the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner haven’t changed.

Revisionist history buffs might argue Carolina could have had one of the top quarterbacks in this year’s class among USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye or Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders had it held onto its 2024 first-rounder. Williams, in particular, could be special.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper suggested Williams would have a higher grade than any quarterback from last year’s class.

Again, Reich isn’t looking back, even as the losses seen by the outside world seem to outweigh the improvements he sees. As much as he would have liked to have hung on to Moore, he believes the long-term value of getting Young will pay off.

“Those are the really hard decisions,” Reich said. “When you find the quarterback you want, you have to be willing to make that deal.”

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