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NFL Draft: Carolina Panthers Recap

Did the Panthers Draft Themselves into Contention?

The Carolina Panthers were one of the teams that people had their eyes on during the 2022 NFL Draft as the player chosen with the sixth overall pick could impact the NFL betting lines for the rest of the opening round.

Would Carolina be the first team to select a quarterback? The answer was – almost. Carolina didn’t take a passer with the sixth overall pick but did trade into the third round to select Matt Corral out of Ole Miss.

NFL Draft: Carolina Panthers Recap
Grant Halverson/Getty Images/AFP

Carolina has used its top pick on a defensive player in each of the last three days including going defensive with all seven of its selections during the 2020 draft.

That all changed when offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu was selected sixth overall as he became the first offensive lineman taken by Carolina in the first round since Jeff Otah was the 19th overall pick in 2008.

It is interesting that Corral, linebacker Brandon Smith, and offensive lineman Cade Mays were all ranked in the top 63 players nationally in the 247sports.com Class of 2018 recruiting database.

Carolina (+1000) is a distant third in the odds to win the NFC South Division despite a solid draft.

Here’s a pick-by-pick look at how the Panthers drafted.

  • Pick 6 Ikem Ekwonu | OT, North Carolina State Wolfpack

There was some buzz that the Panthers might reach a bit for a quarterback, especially considering that when the draft started, they had no selections in either the second or third rounds as a result of trades for quarterback Sam Darnold and cornerback C.J. Henderson.

In spite of that, the Panthers stayed true to their draft board and made a move to improve its offensive line.

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Ekwonu was considered to be a guard coming out of high school and there were 35 players at that position rated ahead of him in the Class of 2019. Less than four years after he committed to North Carolina State,

Ekwonu was not only the first offensive lineman selected which went along with many of the NFL predictions coming into the draft but the first offensive player to be taken off the board. Ekwonu has all the physical traits to be a dominant force in both pass protection and run blocking. He impressed scouts with his nasty demeanor on the field.

Carolina landed one of the top quarterbacks after all. After Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett went 20th overall, the other quarterbacks thought to have a chance to be selected in the first round tumbled down the draft boards. Eight picks after Liberty’s Malik Willis became the third quarterback selection, Carolina packaged a fourth-round pick as well as a third-rounder in 2023 to take Corral.

Corral dropped his interceptions from 14 in 326 attempts during the 2021 season to only five in 386 passes during the 2022 campaign. Corral also ran for eight touchdowns in his first five games. He dealt with an injury in the second half of the season which limited his rushing ability.

Sam Darnold and Cam Newton will stand in the way of Corral seeing snaps as a rookie. If Corral looks like he is ready to be the No. 2 quarterback in training camp, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Newton was sent packing.

According to the Las Vegas odds, Corral (+2200) has the fourth-best odds among quarterbacks in the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year race.

  • Pick 120 Brandon Smith | LB, Penn State Nittany Lions

The Panthers weren’t done moving up in the draft. Carolina was willing to trade No. 149 and drop to 189 so it could jump up 24 spots to select Brandon Smith.

After recording 51 tackles in 21 games during the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Smith had a breakthrough season with 81 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and two sacks. Smith had 10 tackles in an early-season win over Auburn and also hit double digits in a near-upset of eventual Big Ten champion Michigan.

The 250-pound Smith has the size NFL teams are looking for. With a time of 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a 37½-inch vertical leap, and a 10-8 broad jump, he certainly has the athleticism to play at the next level. Scouting reports on Smith suggested that the speed and agility he displayed in the pre-draft process didn’t always show up on tape.

Carolina has pretty solid starting options at all three linebacker spots but those who bet online might want to keep an eye on Smith as a darkhorse candidate in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year race.

Barno had better numbers in 2020 including 16 tackles for loss and 6½ sacks than he did in 2021. It will be interesting to see how Barno is utilized. There seems to be more of an opportunity for playing time at defensive end than at linebacker.

Carolina did lose 2021 team sack leader Haason Reddick in free agency. Brian Burns, coming off a nine-sack campaign, as well as Yetur Gross-Matos figure to head into camp as the starters. Marquis Haynes offers some depth but there could be a chance for Barno to become part of the rotation.

Amare Barno | Scott Taetsch/Getty Images/AFP

Mays started his career at Georgia and started seven games as a true freshman. He saw time at all five offensive line positions in his two seasons at Georgia before the Tennessee native transferred back home. Cade Mays started 11 games at right tackle and six at right guard for the Volunteers over the last two seasons.

He could offer some depth on the offensive line for the Panthers and his experience at a variety of positions in the challenging SEC could prove beneficial.

Speed is the top attribute for Barnes who ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine with a clocking of 4.23 seconds.

With 68 tackles, three interceptions, and 14 pass breakups, Barnes is more than just a track star playing football. After what he did at the combine, it figured somebody would take a chance on him during the final day of the NFL Draft and Carolina was that team.

Kalon Barnes | Justin Casterline/Getty Images/AFP

Grading the Draft

Carolina finished second only behind Buffalo with an average of 305.9 yards per game allowed during the 2021 season so it was a little surprising that the Panthers didn’t continue to address its offense after using its top two picks on Ekwonu and Corral. The Panthers did add five receivers as undrafted rookie free agents.

Their draft selections received mostly positive grades, however, the draft can’t be looked at without factoring in Carolina trading away what would have been picks No. 38, 70, and 111 in the trades for quarterback Sam Darnold and cornerback C.J. Henderson. A rebuilding team can’t afford to squander such draft capital without getting more in return than what the Panthers received. Let’s check the Super Bowl odds.

Grade: B+

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