Quarterbacks Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud will meet Sunday when the Houston Texans travel to Charlotte to play the Carolina Panthers (1 p.m. ET, Fox). It will mark the fifth time in the common draft era (since 1967) that two QBs taken with the first and second picks have played against each other as rookies, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Most recently, the Jets’ Zach Wilson beat the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence in 2021.
Stroud — the No. 2 pick in April, by Houston — has stood out through six games, sitting 15th in the NFL in Total QBR (56.8) and throwing nine touchdown passes to just one interception. And that one pick came on his 192nd pass attempt of the season, the longest streak without one to begin a career. Young — the No. 1 pick this year, by Carolina — has had a bumpier start, sitting last in Total QBR (32.1) and missing a game to an ankle injury. What’s worse, the Panthers are 0-6, while the Texans come out of their bye at 3-3 and in contention for the AFC South.
To set up the head-to-head matchup, we asked our reporters and experts six questions about the pair of signal-callers. What has surprised so far? What are the coaching staffs saying about the first two months of their careers? Could either team add help to the supporting casts? And what’s next for Young and Stroud?
What has been most impressive about Stroud’s hot start?
Dan Orlovsky, NFL analyst: Stroud’s ability to make the right throw at precisely the right time has been most impressive to me. Sometimes he needs to step into an in-route and rip it. Sometimes he must layer the ball over a defender. Sometimes he has to hit a seam ball on time or a corner route with more air under it to avoid a trailing defender. It doesn’t matter what the ask is; Stroud has consistently shown the ability to throw it with the right pace and trajectory. I see spectacular ball placement on tape, and it reminds me of Joe Burrow.
I’ve also been surprised by Stroud’s pocket presence. There is detail in his subtle movements and suddenness in the pocket. When operating inside the pocket, Stroud is averaging 7.8 yards per dropback. That’s third in the NFL behind Tua Tagovailoa and Brock Purdy.
Lastly, I can’t get over how fast he sees things. He is really good for a rookie at reacting to what the defense is doing and responding. A++ in that category so far.
What are the Panthers and Texans saying about their QBs?
David Newton, Panthers reporter: The Panthers are still confident they made the right decision in taking Young over Stroud at No. 1 back in April. Young’s production is trending up even if the statistics don’t necessarily show it, and he has shown a strength in dealing with adversity. Wide receiver Adam Thielen said, “The way he approaches the game, the way he handles himself, the way he just continues to try to get better and tries to make people around him better … he’s the right guy for us.”
Carolina coach Frank Reich agreed: “Six games into it, physical and mental toughness, he checks that box big-time. That’s going to continue to grow and demonstrate itself.”
DJ Bien-Aime, Texans reporter: The Texans have also praised Stroud’s ability to learn from his mistakes. After an interception in his first preseason game, he didn’t throw into another until Week 6 of the regular season. And the team is excited about what it is seeing so far. “[Teammates] see the plays that he is able to make. And when they see what he can do, guys want to play for him,” coach DeMeco Ryans said.
“I’ve seen [Stroud] grow in that regard of, as a leader, being more confident to speak up when he needs to speak, and as a rookie,” Ryans said, “that’s not always a comfortable thing to do.”
What has surprised you most about Stroud and Young so far?
Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst: I’m surprised Young has only eight rushing attempts (including scrambles). Part of the reason the Panthers took him at No. 1 was his off-script creation and ability to turn negative plays into positive outcomes, but we haven’t seen those flash plays in the pros. We saw glimpses of his high-end field vision and poise during the Panthers’ Week 6 game against the Dolphins, but the first five games of his career haven’t gone as most of us envisioned. The key to getting him on track might be getting him outside of structure a little more.
With Stroud, I’m shocked how quickly he has adjusted to the speed of the NFL game and how decisive he has been. Young passers tend to be inconsistent with their decision-making, but Stroud doesn’t seem fazed. I’m a little surprised that Stroud’s off-target percentage is second-worst in the league (20.4%), considering he was extremely accurate at Ohio State. All in all, Stroud has been fantastic and is the early favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Could Young lean more on Thielen, or could the Panthers make a move for WR help before the deadline?
Newton: No doubt the Panthers need a true No. 1 receiver, particularly one with speed. Until Young gets a few playmakers around him, it’ll be hard for him to reach his full potential. Thielen is the No. 1 receiver simply by default right now. Having said that, Young trusts Thielen, the team’s best route runner, and he will continue to lean on the 33-year-old veteran over the rest of the season. The duo has a 97.4 QBR together, completing 38 of 45 targets.
At the moment, there really aren’t many receivers available as either a street free agent or a trade target who would be an upgrade. Those supporting cast improvements will happen in the offseason, mostly through free agency since Carolina will have plenty of cap room in 2024. (Remember, the Panthers gave up their 2024 first-round pick to get Young.) Instead, the Panthers could actually be dealing away players this year, with Terrace Marshall Jr. recently getting permission from the team to seek a trade.
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What about the Texans? Could they add any help on offense to further support Stroud?
Bien-Aime: The Texans are content with their receiver room, and any legit difference-making wideouts who could be available aren’t realistic options for them at the moment. And because they’ve invested a lot in the offensive line, there isn’t much room to bring in a new starter there. Houston has promising assets and cap space coming in the 2024 offseason, so I just don’t envision the organization using any of that capital to acquire a player to push toward an AFC South title.
But in the offseason? The Texans must continue improving the offensive line and add at least one more dynamic receiver in the spring. The blueprint for young quarterback development is pairing him with a top-tier pass-catcher, whether that happens via the draft, a trade or free agency.
What is one key for each quarterback the rest of the way?
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Let’s start with Stroud, who has to start hitting the layups. His tape is loaded with big-time throws, especially to the third level of the field. In fact, he has 25 passes gaining 20 or more yards, sixth-best in the league. But his 59.6% completion percentage ranks 31st. I want to see Stroud get the ball out faster and take the throws that are available — the flats, checkdowns and unders. His average time to throw is 3.02 seconds right now, 29th in the NFL.
Young, meanwhile, must play faster and be more decisive as a thrower. He has averaged just 5.3 yards per attempt (tied for worst) and taken 16 sacks (tied for 11th most). Yes, the Panthers can be better in pass protection, especially on the interior, but there are throws to be made on the tape. Young has to be more willing to cut it loose. And cutting down on the unnecessary movement we are seeing at the top of his drop would improve his eye level in the pocket.