Brandon Zylstra records first NFL receiving touchdown, helps lift Panthers over Saints

Photo courtesy: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

It took 42 games, but Brandon Zylstra finally has his first NFL receiving touchdown.

The former star receiver in Edmonton, now in his fourth season south of the border, made his presence felt early in the Carolina Panthers’ Week 2 win over the New Orleans Saints. Just three minutes into the first quarter, Zylstra opened the scoring with a 20-yard crosser from quarterback Sam Darnold, trotting untouched into the endzone.

The play was made possible as the defence bit hard on a play fake to Canadian running back Chuba Hubbard, who grew up in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park and dominated the Alberta high school circuit the same year Zylstra arrived in the CFL with his hometown team.

“Everyone did their jobs. Zylstra goes out their and I thought he was really one of the players that stepped up today,” Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said post-game. ”

I don’t know how many catches he had, maybe three catches, a touchdown, he caught a slant when they overloaded the box and brought pressure, so they were kinda key, crucial plays. That probably gave us a little momentum and energy.”

Zylstra finished the game with three catches for 44 yards and a score, his most significant impact in a meaningful NFL game to date. The Minnesota native helped propel Carolina to a 26-7 victory over their NFC South rival.

“Zylstra did amazing,” said quarterback Sam Darnold. “The way he came out, he just made big plays. He was there, he was in the right spot every time. He did a great job.”

Entering his third season with the Panthers after playing in 24 games over the past two years, the 28-year-old has recorded 12 receptions for 164 yards, one rush for one yard, three kick-off returns for 47 yards and five punt returns for 26 yards. He scored his first career touchdown last season, recovering a muffed punt in the endzone in a December matchup with the Washington Football Team.

Zylstra played collegiately at Division III Concordia College in Minnesota, totaling 1,932 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in 29 games while adding 25 rushes for 394 yards and five touchdowns along with 39 kick-off returns for 885 yards with the Cobbers.

He attended the North Dakota State University pro day in 2016, recording a 4.64 forty-yard dash, 34-inch vertical, 10-foot broad jump and pressed 225 pounds 16 times on the bench. Although, Zylstra went unselected in the NFL Draft and signed with Edmonton on May 30, 2016.

The six-foot-two, 215-pound pass catcher led the CFL with 1,687 receiving yards on 100 receptions while grabbing five touchdowns in 2017 and was named a CFL all-star that season. In 2016, Zylstra burst onto the CFL scene with 34 receptions for 508 yards and three majors in six games. During 22 games in Canada, Zylstra made 134 catches for 2,195 yards and eight touchdowns, earning himself an NFL shot with his home state’s Minnesota Vikings.

Now firmly entrenched with Carolina, Zylstra is getting more reps on offence than ever before and looks poised for a break out season thanks to a growing rapport with former third overall pick Darnold and offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.