While fans will have to wait for free agency and the draft for some firm evidence as to how Scott Fitterer plans to work with Matt Rhule to continue to build the roster, we have already got a glimpse of what approach Fitterer will take after he spoke to the media last month. There is, of course, a lot of time between now and the draft, but with the Panthers’ coaching staff returning from getting an up-close-and-personal look at the American team in the Senior Bowl last week, it seems time to make our first throw of the dart in regards to predicting what the Panthers might do in the draft.
So, without further delay…
TRADE: Panthers send the 8th overall pick to Miami in return for picks 18, 50, their 2021 4th round pick, their 2021 6th round pick from Pittsburgh and their 2022 6th Round Pick
While it’s hard to know how much of a role Fitterer played in these decision, he comes to Carolina from a Seattle organization that really loves to trade down, especially in the first round, and he made it clear that this is certainly going to play a part in his approach in Carolina. While David Tepper is clearly very keen on the Panthers continuing to add at quarterback, Fitterer also said a major part of his job is being the guy to say no – if there isn’t a quarterback the Panthers feel comfortable with at 8, then trading back and adding picks should be in the cards.
It is also worth noting that Rhule made it clear that adding picks was something the Panthers hoped to do in the 2020 draft before they ended up selecting Derrick Brown, so this is certainly something that is on the minds of those in the building outside of just Fitterer.
For the Dolphins, they have done much of the hard work in terms of adding core talent and now need a couple of star players to help elevate them, especially at receiver. While they have the third overall pick to take whoever they view as the top receiver on the board, with six picks in the top 115 selections and four in the top 50, they could well look to group some of these together in order to get a second shot at one of the draft’s elite offensive weapons, and being able to keep a top 40 pick while doing so would make that all the more palatable.
18th Overall Selection: Rashawn Slater, OL (Northwestern)
While quarterback is clearly the main focus of Fitterer going into the offseason, number two seems to be the offensive line, and with everybody except for Matt Paradis, Greg Little and Dennis Daley hitting free agency, the need up front is certainly a pressing one.
“I think the way I want to build the team is one, obviously quarterback, and two, both sides of the line. Really, settling the offensive line,” commented the new GM at his opening press conference.
Opinion is still somewhat divided about whether Slater will be better suited to tackle or guard at the NFL level, but the Panthers have a pretty significant need at both, especially if Taylor Moton isn’t re-signed. If Slater does eventually move inside to guard then the value of an elite guard is much more palatable at pick 18 than at pick 8.
This wouldn’t be the sexiest pick, but a technically proficient and athletic offensive lineman (especially on the interior) is a useful block to build around.
39th Overall Selection: Creed Humphrey, iOL (Oklahoma)
Having taken arguably the best guard in the draft class with their first pick, the Panthers get a chance to double down here by selecting probably the best center in the draft class.
In the long term, this gives the Panthers a replacement for Paradis who will be a 33 year-old free agent next offseason and in combination with Slater, gives them two elite building blocks on the interior that will not only help Christian McCaffrey continue to be one of the most dominant rushers in the NFL, but also help keep whoever ends up at quarterback going forward clean. In the short term, Humphrey may well end up playing at guard alongside Paradis.
Another pick that likely won’t sell a ton of jerseys, but the effect of a great OL really cannot be overstated.
50th Overall Selection: Chazz Surratt, LB (North Carolina)
The Panthers need at linebacker has been helped by the emergence of Jermaine Carter as a solid short-term option, but with Carter being somewhat limited in coverage against better athletes and entering the final year of his contract, the Panthers could do with a player to develop behind Carter who can then step into a starting role down the road. While Surratt has got a lot of attention for his ability as a blitzer (12.5 sacks over the past two season), arguably more impressive is his coverage upside with the converted quarterback flashing range, movement skills and a good reading of the game.
While he might take a little while to adjust to the speed of the NFL game and to continue to refine his game, he has great upside and would be good value on day two.
73rd Overall Selection: Levi Onwuzurike, DT (Washington)
Speaking to the media following the conclusion of the season, Rhule made it clear that one of the priorities was improving their pass rush, which with KK Short out really struggled outside of Brian Burns. With Yetur Gross-Matos likely starting opposite Burns in 2021 after showing promising flashes as a rookie, the focus of this is likely to fall on finding a long-term interior partner for Derrick Brown.
While Onwuzurike could do with continued improvement to his pad level, he is a twitchy athlete with surprising power for his size and flashes of high-level hand usage and could become one of the better interior pass rushers around with a little technical polish.
4th Round Selection: Kary Vincent Jr, DB (LSU)
The conversation around the Panthers need in the secondary seems to largely focus around cornerback, but with Juston Burris a free agent after this season and having played decently but not much more in 2021, the Panthers could certainly look to have a player who they develop behind him with a view to stepping into a starting role down the line.
While Vincent has played a reasonable amount of corner at LSU before opting out of the 2020 season, his best fit seems to be at exactly the hybrid S/CB role that Burris currently occupies. He has excellent ball skills and shows a great reading of the game as well as good speed and quickness and a willingness to come up and make a tackle at the line of scrimmage. He might not have the top-tier movement skills to play man-to-man against elite receivers, but he would be a very useful chess piece in the hybrid defense that Phil Snow is assembling.
4th Round Selection From Miami: Jaelon Darden, WR (North Texas)
The Panthers’ lack of receiver depth got exposed at times last season, with the combined production of their receiver corps outside the top three guys being 14 catches for 152 yards, and with Curtis Samuel a likely departure in free agency, the Panthers really need to add more weapons around whoever ends up playing quarterback.
While Darden is unlikely to thrive working on the outside against NFL press coverage due to his size, he has really good quickness and agility and has the potential to be a nightmare for defenses in the slot where he is able to generate consistent separation as a route runner, has really good hands and is an absolute nightmare after the catch. Would also be a good stylistic complement to 2020 camp break-out star Omar Bayless, who will look to earn a significant rotational role after a rookie year spent on IR.
5th Round Selection: Shane Buechele, QB (SMU)
There’s little doubt that many Panthers fans want the team to address this position earlier in the draft than the fifth round, but even if they do go other directions early in the draft, Fitterer made it clear in his introductory press conference that he plans to try and add a quarterback every season, even if it is only with a day three pick or UDFA signing:
“The quarterback position, that’s something I believe in drafting every year, or acquiring at some point, just philosophically,” said Fitterer.
While Shane Buechele doesn’t fit the physical mold of the prototypical NFL quarterback, it is worth remembering that Fitterer comes from an organization that has benefitted massively from taking a quarterback in the middle rounds of the draft that other teams passed on because of his size. While Buechele isn’t quite as short as Russell Wilson, he is similar in having a stronger arm than many and compliments this with great velocity on short and intermediate routes and good touch on his deep ball.
He will need some time to adjust to an NFL offense coming from SMU, and so would be a perfect candidate to sit and learn as a rookie before being a more serious part of the quarterback conversation in 2022.
5th Round Compensatory Selection: Noah Gray, TE (Duke)
The Panthers really struggled to get production out of the tight end position last year, and while some of that was due to the production they got from their top three receivers, it is clear this is a group the Panthers want to add to going forward. While Ian Thomas is a good athlete and has value as a downfield target, he isn’t hugely adept as a route runner against man coverage and can struggle to create quick separation underneath.
Gray isn’t the most explosive athlete, but he is really shifty route runner for a player of his size and has great hands and an ability to make a play at the catch point which should help the Panthers in the red zone.
6th Round Selection: Robert Rochell, CB (Central Arkansas)
The Panthers need at cornerback is fairly well established, with Fitterer making it clear this is an area he would like to upgrade this offseason. However, with a trio of corners/nickels going into their second season in 2021 along with established starter Donte Jackson, the Panthers could also look to continue to developmental depth while they evaluate what they already have.
Rochell is likely going to take a little while to adjust to the NFL game due to his FCS background, but he has the length, ball skills and deep speed that the Panthers clearly covet in their corners. While he isn’t the twitchiest athlete in the world, if he can develop technically he would be a good fit to cover the bigger receivers in the NFC.
6th Round Selection From Miami: Stone Forsythe, OT (Florida)
Even in this scenario where the Panthers have spent their first two picks on offensive linemen, they would still be in drastic need of youth and quality depth up front. While Forsythe lacks the foot speed to be an elite pass protector at the NFL level, he is certainly athletic enough to remain at tackle at the NFL level and shows good hand usage and understand of how to use his feet to maintain or generate leverage as a run blocker. If he can make meaningful improvements to his knee bend, he has a chance to become a solid starter on the right side – but even without it, he would be a useful depth piece.
6th Round Compensatory Pick: Chauncey Golston, EDGE (Iowa)
While it shouldn’t be taken for granted, it seems likely that the Panthers will move on from Stephen Weatherly this season due to the emergence of Gross-Matos as a starter and Weatherly’s mediocre performance/significant cap number. Even if they bring back Efe Obada (who ranked second on the team in pressures behind Burns), they could still stand to add some competition. Golston isn’t a top tier athlete, but he has good power and enough quickness to threaten the edge, with flashes of really quite developed hand usage and would be great value at this stage in the draft.
Even having traded down to accumulate picks the Panthers will almost certainly enter 2021 with a handful of holes – the ambition for this offseason should be about taking another step while getting younger on offense especially rather than competing for titles. With this ambition in mind, a draft class such as this would give the Panthers a chance to overhaul their offensive line, add a few mid-round players with developmental upside and add depth on both sides of the ball.