As classmates atop the 2023 NFL Draft, Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud (who face each other for the first time this Sunday) will be forever linked. As of now, the team that selected the latter is looking like the wiser of the two.
Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick, is playing at an exceptional level through seven weeks for the Texans, ranking in the top five among qualified passers in passing yards per game (276.7), passing yards per attempt (7.8) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (9-1). His Texans are 3-3 largely because of his performance (and DeMeco Ryans’ feisty defense), which has all but eliminated the previously persistent uncertainty regarding the quarterback position in Houston.
Young, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in Carolina. The No. 2 pick is not in a great situation with the Panthers, but he’s also having a tougher time adjusting to the pro game and his own limitations within it. His numbers (193.4 YPG, 5.3 YPA, 6-4 TD-INT) pale in comparison to Stroud’s, the visual difference in performance is even more drastic, and as the average NFL fan will quickly point out, he has yet to finish as a victor with Carolina.
Still, Panthers head coach Frank Reich wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s not interested in rehashing past decisions and believes Young remains the future of football in Carolina.
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“Yeah, I mean, we got the guy we wanted to get and couldn’t be happier about that in every way,” Reich said on Wednesday, via the team’s official site. “And I would say this: I’m happy for CJ. He’s had six good games, and I have no doubt he’ll have many more good games. But I know this: when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks or any position, it’s years, not weeks. You can’t put a label on a guy after six weeks or even a year. I’ve seen guys have Pro Bowl seasons and then a year later, fighting to be a backup somewhere else. I mean, it’s a crazy league.
“What you’re looking for and what we’re looking for, not just from our quarterback, but in every position, is sustained success at a high level for a very long time. And you can’t measure it in weeks on that.”
Reich is correct, of course: Even in today’s win-now environment, where patience is approaching historic scarcity and nobody receives a long leash anymore, the coach understands all too well how important it is for Carolina to give Young every opportunity to develop into the franchise quarterback they chose him to be. The Panthers’ biggest mistake would to react drastically to one season’s worth of struggles, especially considering what was required to move up to select Young.
It could also behoove the Panthers to turn off the TVs and block keywords such as “Stroud” and “Texans” on social media in the weeks, months and year or two ahead, because comparing Young to his counterpart might only influence a worse decision. Few things sting more than buying a new flat-screen TV for your home, then quickly discovering a newer, better model was available — and it was on sale.
They won’t be able to avoid it this weekend when Houston and Carolina meet, and where Stroud is — against the wisdom of draft prognosticators who attempted to bury him beforehand — seen as the expected winner.
Strangely enough, history suggests this isn’t a new phenomenon, at least when it concerns head-to-head meetings between top-two picks. Of the last four pairs of quarterbacks taken first and second in a draft, three of the No. 2 picks have won in their head-to-head matchups. Only Peyton Manning (class of 1998) was able to beat his notorious runner-up, San Diego’s Ryan Leaf, in 1998.
Add in the element of friendship between Young and Stroud, which dates well beyond the start of their NFL careers, and this one becomes just a little bit more interesting.
“I try to be, just internally motivated and draw from that and try to run my own race and try to be the best version I can and focus on the stuff that I can control and stuff that I can improve on,” Young told reporters on Wednesday. “And, you know, there’s never going to be a time that I’m not rooting for CJ, I guess outside of, I guess, obviously this weekend will be the exception.
“I don’t want to speak for CJ, but I think the same way; we just both want what’s best for each other. We both want each other to be successful.”
So far, one of the two is succeeding. The Panthers hope they can soon say the same for the other half of the 2023 QB pairing, perhaps starting with his first career win this weekend.
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