How Panthers' revamped TE corps can help Bryce Young

The highlights from newest Panther Ja'Tavion Sanders (0:57)

Check out the highlights from the Panthers' newest TE Ja'Tavion Sanders. (0:57)

CHARLOTTE, N.C -- Carolina Panthers tight end Tommy Tremble was in full stride early during team drills on Wednesday when he caught a pass on a crossing route and turned up field for a big play. On the next play, tight end Ian Thomas caught a pass over the middle for a solid gain.

The trend continued later.

Tight ends making plays has been anything but a trend for Carolina the past four seasons.

"We've been kind of in purgatory for a little bit,'' said Tremble, a third-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2021.

Purgatory, indeed.

Over the past four seasons, seven Carolina tight ends totaled 181 catches for 1,734 yards and 10 touchdowns to rank last in the NFL in all three categories. The next lowest total was 248 catches for 2,321 yards and 12 touchdowns. The NFL average for that span was 319 catches for 3,354 yards and 25.1 touchdowns.

The Kansas City Chiefs led the way with 505 catches for 5,888 yards and 47 touchdowns, thanks in large part to Travis Kelce. They also ranked among the top six in team scoring in three of those seasons and won two Super Bowls.

Carolina has ranked 24th or worse in scoring each season during that span, including 31st during an NFL-worst 2-15 2023 season.

Tight end production and prolific scoring haven't been a factor for Carolina since Greg Olsen was in his prime and playing every game between 2013 and 2016. The three-time Pro Bowl selection had 314 catches for 4,001 yards and 22 touchdowns during that four-season span.

During that stretch, the Panthers' tight end corps ranked sixth in the NFL in receptions (358), fifth in receiving yards (4,448) and tied for 11th in receiving touchdowns (26). They ranked 19th or better in scoring each season, including first in 2015.

"We're ready to bring that back,'' Tremble said.

New coach Dave Canales believes the self-proclaimed "tight end friendly'' scheme he learned during 11 years with the Seattle Seahawks and made his own last year as the offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can help.

"We don't ask our tight ends to be dominant blockers at the point of attack on runs a lot,'' he explained. "We're looking for tight ends with versatility. We're not necessarily looking for that big 270-pound baller type of tight end, although those guys are awesome and have a place in this league.

"But if you have a smaller guy who's more of a route runner and he's a little bit crafty ... then just within the scheme, because we throw a lot of play-actions, the tight ends are involved in different ways.''

That allows them to get open in the flats, run drag routes underneath against overmatched linebackers and make plays the way they've been doing so far during voluntary offseason workouts.

"The ball finds those guys a lot,'' Canales said.

Thomas is a prime example. Considered one of the better blocking tight ends in the league, he's looked more like Kelce than a player who had only five receptions for 56 yards last season.

"It's perfect for tight ends because you get to be yourself,'' Thomas said of the system. "They give you a lot of opportunities, a lot of chances to fit in and mold into the offense. It's different setups that have given us mismatches. It is working well so far.''

Asked if either he or Tremble could be the next Kelce in this system, Thomas laughed and said, "I mean, that's what it's looking like.''

Ja'Tavion Sanders was selected in the fourth round because the Panthers felt he had the best chance to contribute like top NFL tight ends such as Kelce, George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers) and Mark Andrews (Baltimore Ravens). The former Texas star calls himself one of the "new age tight ends.''

"I feel like I'm kind of advanced as far as my receiving goes,'' said Sanders, who was a wide receiver in high school.

Sanders went so far as to say he wanted to be the next Olsen.

"He's one of the tight ends that changed the game back in the day,'' he said. "I feel like they [saw] what he did in me. ... I'm just trying to be the new face of the offense for sure.''

Canales referred to the versatility that helped the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Sanders catch 99 passes for 1,295 yards and seven touchdowns in his final two college seasons.

"He's definitely not the traditional in-line type of tight end,'' Canales said. "He made some dynamic plays with the ball in his hands and is really strong at the catch.''

Olsen wasn't traditional, either. He gave Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft, a security blanket that allowed the quarterback to excel his first six seasons.

The Panthers are hoping the combination of Sanders, Thomas and Tremble will do that for 2023 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young, who made 59 of his 315 completions to tight ends last season. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had 93 completions to Kelce alone.

Linebacker Josey Jewell already can see the benefits.

"It gives him the option on those short-area throws,'' he said of Young. "They've been doing a great job, and Bryce holds a good presence in there.''

Tremble believes the upgraded middle of the offensive line (which allowed 35 of Young's team-record 62 sacks last season) and the added talent at wide receiver also will help the tight end production. He reminded there were many times last season when the tight ends were open but Young didn't have time to find them.

Thus, the purgatory.

"It's hard because you feel like you're always open,'' Tremble said. "I mean, I'm going into my fourth year and we've learned eight different offenses. We're getting this one locked down collectively, getting comfortable.

"It's time for the tight ends to take off.''