The Carolina Panthers are undergoing a foundational transformation this offseason with the hiring of new head coach Frank Reich and their trade up to the top overall spot in the 2023 NFL Draft. Other key moves in the team's total re-do of their offense have been the free-agent signings of running back Miles Sanders, wide receiver Adam Thielen, and tight end Hayden Hurst.
However, with the subtraction of wide receiver DJ Moore, part of the trade package sent to the Chicago Bears for the first overall pick, the Panthers will rely heavily on their new wide receiver, D.J. Chark, to stretch the field in a similar manner to Moore. The team signed the former Detroit Lion (2022) and Jacksonville Jaguar (2018-2021) to a one-year, fully guaranteed $5 million contract four days ago with the hope that his 16.7 yards per catch from 2022 translates to their offense in 2023.
"Make no mistake; I really wanted D.J. [Chark] -- a lot of us did. I've had my eye on him for a couple of years now," Reich said at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, Arizona, on Tuesday, per the Panthers' official website. "I think D.J. is a down-the-field threat. I think he's a very competitive, hard-working player, from all the intel that we've gathered. And if you look at his career, even though there have been some injuries along the way, he's consistently producing over 14 yards per catch. That's not a mistake. You might do that for one year, but to do that year in and year out ... and you need that in your offense, right? ... You need those chunk plays. And he's been a proven chunk-play guy."
Chark has averaged 14.4 yards per reception since entering the league in 2018, the same as Pro Bowlers Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton. But like those aging veterans, the 26-year-old has dealt with injury concerns the past couple of seasons.
The former second-round pick has played in just 15 games combined since 2021. Chark also has yet to play an entire season in his five-year career, but he came close twice, playing 15 games for Jacksonville in 2019 (73 catches, 1,008 yards and eight receiving scores -- resulting in his only career Pro Bowl appearance) and 13 games once again for the Jaguars in 2020 (53 catches, 706 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns). However, a broken ankle two seasons ago (2021) is among the laundry list of nagging injuries that have caused Chark to miss 28 games across his five NFL seasons.
Reich revealed Tuesday that Chark is working to fully eradicate the ankle issue, since the receiver has had surgery to fix a foot and ankle ailment. The goal is for Chark to be able to participate in organized team activities this offseason and build a rapport with the quarterback it selects at the top of the 2023 NFL Draft.
"We're very optimistic that the procedure that he had done is going to end up to be a good story that is going to clean up the issue that he's been fighting for a couple of years and really give him the best chance to stay on the field," Reich said.
Given Chark's age and his ability to compete to be the Panthers' new top wide receiver, Reich's hope for a healthy Chark is to be more than just a deep-shot guy: Reich wants Chark to do it all.
"D.J.'s your big-play receiver," Reich said. "Also, I talked to D.J. about this; we're going to expand his role. We want to develop him into a complete receiver, and widen his route tree. It's not just going to be all the vertical stuff down the field."
The Panthers can begin their offseason workout program on Monday, marking Chark's first opportunity to officially work alongside his teammates if his ankle is good to go.