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Thielen without a big-name running mate, but likes Panthers depth at wide receiver

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Whether it’s been Justin Jefferson or Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen always seemed to have an elite running mate at wide receiver during his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings.

That isn’t the case with his new team, the Carolina Panthers.

Thielen caught 534 passes for 6,682 yards and 55 touchdowns in 10 seasons with the Vikings, including 30 TDs in the past three seasons. But he joins a Panthers wide receiving group that largely lacks another big-name receiver.

“I think there’s always been that duo, right?,” Thielen said of his career. “But I think this is a talented group. It’s not just one or two guys; it’s a group effort. We are able to put a lot guys in there and not miss a beat.”

The Panthers traded away their top wide receiver D.J. Moore as part of a package that allowed them to move up to the No. 1 spot in the NFL draft and select quarterback Bryce Young from Alabama.

Carolina signed Thielen, D.J. Chark and Damiere Byrd and drafted Jonathan Mingo from Mississippi in the second round. They’ll join a group of holdovers from last season that includes 2021 second-round pick Terrace Marshall Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr.

Panthers coach Frank Reich is hopeful the team's overall depth at wide receiver is enough to offset the lack of so-called star power opposite Thielen.

“We like to spread the ball around,” Reich said. “Thielen is the leader. Chark is our big-play guy. But I think the ball will get spread around. That is the way our offense has always been built and that is what we want to do this year.”

Thielen thinks it will work.

“Usually you can see a drop-off in the NFL when you go to the twos and threes (on the depth chart). I haven't felt that here,” said Thielen, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. “I think that is a really cool thing here and I think it says a lot about this group and this team.”

Chark is the most experienced of the remaining wide receivers, having caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards in 2019 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He hasn't quite approached those numbers since, but the Panthers think he can still be a key player and appears most likely to start opposite Thielen.

But there is other talent, too.

After an injury-filled rookie season, Marshall bounced back to catch 28 passes for 490 yards in 2022. The team is high on Mingo, the 39th overall pick who caught 51 balls for 861 yards and five TDs last season for the Rebels. And Reich also called Shenault a “unique piece" who'll allow the Panthers to do some different things on offense.

“I like this group,” Reich said.

The 32-year-old Thielen seems to be relishing his role as a mentor to some of the team's younger receivers. He's often seen going over minor details with them about route-running or how to break press coverage at the line of scrimmage.

He's even shared a few celebration dances with them.

“I've always said if there is anything, ask me questions,” Thielen said. "I'm an open book. I will give you my opinion and you can take it for what it's worth."

Wide receiver isn't the only offensive position Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer overhauled this offseason.

Along with drafting Young and signing veteran Andy Dalton to be his backup, the Panthers also added versatile running back Miles Sanders and tight end Hayden Hurst to the mix in hopes of improving a passing game that finished 29th in the league last season.

Young has already earned the respect of his teammates, and Thielen said he likes what he's seen from the rest of the rookies, too.

“It's probably the best rookie group I have ever been around as far as just coming in and not missing a beat,” Thielen said. “In my time of 11 years in the league I've never seen a group like this that hasn't looked like rookies. It's been really impressive."


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