It didn't take long for Chase Young to prove that he belonged in the NFL, from a talent perspective.
The first quarter against the Eagles was drawing to a close when Young spun past the left tackle, hawked down Carson Wentz and batted the ball loose from the quarterback's grasp. It didn't result in a turnover, but it was the start of an impressive rookie campaign that included 7.5 sacks, 44 tackles and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
It was a good start to Young's career, but all players, even the Defensive Rookie of the Year, have improvements to make in the offseason. Physically, Young is about as prepared as one could hope, although that's only part of his development. One of his main goals for Year 2 is to be more comfortable on the field, and that means he'll need to continue building on his play recognition.
"Really it's just his feel for things," said head coach Ron Rivera. "How he moves in terms of the guys he's working with on the D-Line."
Young feels like his comfort level with understanding what offenses are trying to do to him will come naturally, which is essentially what happened last season. The last six games were when he was a terror for offenses; half of his sacks came during that span, along with two forced fumbles and his touchdown against the 49ers. He had a grade of 73 or higher from Weeks 12-16, according to Pro Football Focus, with his best of the year (93.7) coming against the Panthers.
Defensive line coach Sam Mills III saw that growth firsthand, and it stemmed from Young playing at a quicker pace than earlier in the year. Young was starting to understand how the opposing team was trying to block him and what type of looks he was getting from offensive linemen. That kind of acute recognition, Mills said, is part of being an established pass-rusher.
"You could see Chase from the very first game to the last game...really start to understand, 'Okay, this is what's going on. These are the looks I'm getting. This is how I'm gonna have to beat my opponent,'" Mills said.
Mills wants to see Young continue to master that craft, and there's only one way to accomplish it: time. "It's knowing pass sets," Mills said. "It's knowing formations. It's knowing, 'Okay, well I'm probably going to get a double-team here, so maybe I'll work with my partner next to me. It's just time on task and being very familiar with situations that you're gonna encounter."
Young has had a busy offseason between balancing his workout routine and shooting commercials and appearing on Family Feud -- after all, being the Defensive Rookie of the Year does deserve a smidge of national recognition. But as he was going through team drills during minicamp, Rivera could tell on the first day how much he had grown in reading offenses.
"There are some things that he did yesterday that were really good to watch," Rivera said. "He ran the counter and ran up to meet the guy and it was almost natural. So he's getting the feel back and that was good to see."
There are some things that Rivera hopes to see from Young, such as how he's improved at handling double-teams, but there's only so much Young can do without pads and no helmet. That leaves film study as the best way for Young to improve the moment, and he's already been diving into that.
"I've peeped at it already," Young said. "I'm trying to get my play recognition down way better. Really just all parts of our game. The run game, pass rushing, my hands, my get off and staying low around the edge. There are a lot of things on my mind that I'm working out when I step on the field."
Mills said Young's rookie season was "solid." That might sound slightly undervalued based on Young's numbers, but it's not far from the truth after considering that they're only the start of his growth. Young has proven he has the tools; the next phase is to sharpen, which will hopefully help him earn a spot among the NFL's best edge rushers.
"This year will be different," Mills said. "[Chase] will have seen a lot of different looks. So yeah, we do expect growth."