The Carolina Panthers are in a tough spot where many of the questions surrounding the team don’t come with an easy answer. Doubt is creeping in on whether or not Matt Rhule can be the same program builder he was in college at the NFL level, but there are still five years remaining on his massive contract. The team has a number of prominent expiring contracts but only a modest $30 million in projected cap space to not only extend players but add to the roster. And while the Panthers are still rebuilding, they only hold one draft selection in the first three rounds of the coming NFL draft.
Then there is the quarterback situation, where the team is handcuffed due to massive miscalculations with Teddy Bridgewater, trading for Sam Darnold and picking up his fifth-year option, and bringing in Cam Newton all while not choosing to draft a quarterback early in either of the past two drafts where a number of worthwhile options were glossed over, including Justin Fields and Mac Jones.
General manager Scott Fitterer has his work cut out for him next offseason and here is a road map for how he could attack the draft.
Round 1, No. 8 Overall: Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh
Whether Panthers’ fans like it or not, this is a pick they should get used to seeing in mock drafts—and for good reason. Carolina has a clear need at quarterback and you don’t have to look far to realize the ties Pickett has to the organization. Rhule once received a commitment from Pickett to play for him at Temple and owner Dave Tepper is a Pittsburgh native and University of Pittsburgh graduate. Tepper just saw Pickett assemble the best season a quarterback has ever delivered in ACC history while finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting at his alma mater.
Perhaps you are lukewarm about Pickett as an NFL quarterback and so was I until I really dug into his 2021 tape and studied his ascension. I recently wrote about why I’m in on Pickett as the top quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Round 4, No. 105 Overall: Alec Lindstrom, IOL, Boston College
Matt Paradis has disappointed as a free agent signing and his contract is set to expire while Pat Elflein has proven throughout his career that he isn’t reliable, creating a glaring need for the Panthers at center. While relying on a day-three pick to be the answer in year one is asking a whole lot, Lindstrom has the makeup to be a long-term solution. A two-time First-Team All-ACC selection, Lindstrom is an experienced blocker that has anchored an outstanding Boston College offensive line since 2019.
Round 5, No. 146 Overall: Braxton Jones, OT, Southern Utah
Rhule is all about traits and player development. With that in mind, Braxton Jones is an ideal fit because he brings exciting size and athleticism to the table with a need to grow with his technique and get stronger. The Panthers have needed an answer at left tackle since 2013 and there isn’t a player with developmental appeal like Jones currently on the roster that can be groomed to man the position.
Round 5, No. 150 Overall: Chamarri Conner, DB, Virginia Tech
The Panthers play several different defensive backs every week and several of the players they rely on are expiring contracts. Conner is a versatile defender that can serve as a deep safety or in the slot and is a smart, physical, and aggressive player. He should provide immediate value on special teams, and covering kicks has been a challenge for the Panthers this season.
Round 6, No. 198 Overall: Cory Durden, IDL, NC State
Durden has been a versatile defensive lineman throughout his career, which started at Florida State before transferring to NC State for the 2021 season. He can play up and down the line of scrimmage, offering appeal as both a pass rusher and run defender. He’s a good athlete with good size and has a bright future as a rotational player at the next level.
Round 6, No. 199 Overall: James Mitchell, TE, Virginia Tech
Mitchell deserves to get drafted much higher than this, but a season-ending injury in 2021 could push him down the board. He’s a smooth route-runner with outstanding hands and body control. I love his projection as a route-runner to the NFL and his ball skills give him a chance to stress the seam. A pairing of Mitchell and Tommy Tremble is exciting to forecast long-term given their complementary skill sets and upside.
Round 7, No. 245 Overall: Jeremiah Gemmel, LB, North Carolina
Gemmel has the makings of an overachiever in the NFL that could well outperform where he gets drafted. He is a smart, instinctive, and urgent player, but he lacks size and functional strength. At a minimum, he should be a strong locker room presence that is a special teams ace. Given that Carolina is among the worst teams in the NFL at covering kicks and that they need to build the depth at linebacker, Gemmel would be a fantastic day-three addition.