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.

The Panthers have overhauled the skill positions, bringing in running back Miles Sanders, tight end Hayden Hurst and wide receivers Adam Thielen, D.J. Chark and Jonathan Mingo.

Chark is questionable for the opener, however, because of an ailing hamstring.


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.

CAROLINA (7-10) at ATLANTA (7-10)

Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT, FOX


SERIES RECORD: Falcons lead 35-21.

LAST MEETING: Panthers beat Falcons 25-15 on Nov. 10, 2022, at Charlotte, N.C.





TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Panthers minus-4; Falcons minus-4.

PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: Panthers QB Bryce Young is expected to become the 18th No. 1 overall pick to start Week 1 since 1970. The bad news for Carolina is the other top picks were a combined 3-13-1 in their debuts as starters. Panthers coach Frank Reich knows there will be some growing pains with throwing Young to the wolves right away but called it an “easy decision.” Reich says Young is “unflappable.” Look for Young to spread the ball around with short catch-and-run type passes to his receivers, many of those coming over the middle.

FALCONS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Desmond Ridder was 2-2 in his audition as a starter to close the 2022 season. That was enough for him to be declared the starter in 2023, but he faces pressure to prove he can handle the job. Unlike Young, who has job security as the No. 1 pick, Ridder was a third-round pick in 2022 and must prove he can add passing balance to an offense that leaned on the running game last season. The Falcons’ streak of five straight losing seasons puts an added burden on the young quarterback. Ridder has shown good poise but he will be judged on his ability to utilize two recent first-round picks — tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Drake London — to boost the passing game. Veteran Taylor Heinicke was signed as Ridder’s backup.

KEY MATCHUP: Falcons RB Bijan Robinson vs. Panthers 3-4 defense: Robinson was the eighth overall pick this year and is expected to take the lead role, even though Tyler Allgeier topped 1,000 yards as a rookie last season and Cordarrelle Patterson also returns. Robinson will face a Carolina defense that switched to a 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. Carolina’s run defense struggled at times in the preseason, so Robinson potentially could be in for a big day.

KEY INJURIES: Carolina’s depth at wide receiver could be tested. D.J. Clark (hamstring), Terrace Marshall Jr. (back), Adam Thielen (ankle) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (ankle) were on the injury report, though Smith-Marsette had full participation on Wednesday. The absence of Chark, the team’s leading deep threat who missed practice on Wednesday, could mean the Panthers may not take many shots down the field. … Panthers LB Sam Franklin Jr. was limited by a knee injury. … The Falcons have not ruled out CB Jeff Okudah returning from a foot injury.

SERIES NOTES: The teams split their two regular-season games last season, each winning at home. It was the third straight year the teams have split their regular-season series.

STATS AND STUFF: Reich started the expansion Panthers’ first regular-season game at quarterback against the Falcons in 1995 in Atlanta. Now, 28 years later, he’s returned to Carolina and will coach his first game for the Panthers in Atlanta. … The Panthers and Falcons have not made the postseason since 2017. … Carolina has essentially revamped all of its offensive skill positions with Young, Miles Sanders (from Philadelphia) at RB, Thielen (Minnesota) and Chark (Detroit) at WR and Hayden Hurst (Cincinnati) at TE. … The Panthers view Sanders as a three-down back, but expect backup Chuba Hubbard to get some work. … Panthers OLB Brian Burns had 12½ sacks last season and was selected to his second Pro Bowl. … Carolina bolstered its pass rush with the addition of OLB Justin Houston as a pass-rush specialist. .. K Eddy Pineiro was the league’s second-most accurate field goal kicker last season making 94.3% (33 of 35) of his attempts. However, he struggled in one early season loss at Atlanta where he missed a go-ahead extra point at the end of regulation and a field goal in overtime. … Atlanta’s new-look defense includes such additions as Okudah, veteran end Calais Campbell, free safety Jessie Bates III, nose tackle David Onyemata and linebackers Bud Dupree and Kaden Elliss. … Campbell leads active players with 165 tackles for loss and is sixth with 99 sacks. … London set Falcons rookie record with 72 catches in 2022. … LT Jake Matthews has 144 consecutive starts and will pass former C Todd McClure (2001-10) for the second-longest streak in team history behind QB Matt Ryan’s 147 from 2009-19.

FANTASY TIP: Pitts had 68 catches for 1,026 yards as a rookie in 2021 before a knee injury limited him to 10 games in a disappointing 2022 season. Pitts should be a natural fit for Ridder, who appears to be more comfortable when throwing shorter passes. Pitts’ quiet 2022 made him an afterthought in some fantasy projections, but he could re-emerge with a big game against a Panthers defense which likely will be looking to stop the run.