Having already looked at what the Panthers might be able to achieve through trading down and accumulating picks, it’s worth considering what the Panthers might achieve through an alternative approach – trading up to find their quarterback of the future.
While trading up into the top three is going to be expensive, given how interested in Matt Stafford they reportedly were, it seems like the Panthers are more than willing to shoot their shot when they have at getting a quarterback that they rate.. So what would such a trade look like, and how much would it allow the Panthers to achieve in the draft besides adding a top three quarterback?
Panthers trade picks 8, 39 and their 2022 2nd round pick to Miami in return for the third overall pick
The Panthers will probably be looking at the fourth or maybe even fifth quarterback should they stay at the eighth overall pick, and with owner David Tepper clearly keen to make a move at the position and a new GM who made a point of wanting to be aggressive, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them pull the trigger if they think they’ve found their man. It seems unlikely that the Jaguars will be willing to move from the one spot – even if they are it’s hard to imagine the Panthers would win that race – and while there is a chance that the Jets could continue to roll with Sam Darnold, Miami seem the most likely option for the Panthers to trade up with.
For the Dolphins, if they are set to rolling with Tua Tagovailoa, they’ll need to add weapons and help around him, as well as continue to stock up on defense. With so many quarterbacks potentially going in the top 10, the Dolphins could potentially be interested in moving back five spaces and still being able to take one of the top offensive weapons while being able to add a couple of picks for the pleasure.
In reality, this is probably the least the Panthers can expect to have to give up to move up to the third spot, and while the Dolphins likely wouldn’t ask for much more in terms of 2021 draft capital, one would imagine that they would push for a 2022 first round pick to be included in the deal, though for the sake of the rest of this mock draft that isn’t that relevant.
3rd Overall: Justin Fields, QB (Ohio State)
Who the Panthers would be selecting at three in this scenario will likely come down to which of Zach Wilson and Justin Fields the Jets select at two, and Wilson seems to just have the edge in this regard right now. Justin Fields isn’t a perfect QB prospect, but he has a huge amount of natural talent with the arm strength to push the ball down the field, flashes of the touch and accuracy to work the ball into tight windows and the mobility that the Panthers seem to ideally want in a quarterback.
He certainly has the upside to be a very good quarterback.
On the down side, he is coming from an Ohio State offense that doesn’t share a huge amount of schematic similarity with what he would be asked to run in Carolina – or likely elsewhere in the NFL, to be honest – and while his decision making was rarely bad, he often had a lot of time to make decisions behind a good offensive line and did appear to struggle with processing speed at times when faced with quick pressure. This not only means that it will be key for him to impress teams about his potential to learn in interviews, but that he would almost certainly benefit from being able to learn behind a veteran starter at least initially, something that would mesh well with the structure of Teddy Bridgewater’s remaining contract.
Taking a quarterback early is always a risk, but the Panthers seem set on taking a chance at the position at some point, and with the eighth overall pick and the ammunition and willingness to move up, this looks to be their best chance of securing a top-tier QB prospect.
73rd Overall: Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB (Syracuse)
Rasul Douglas was actually fairly good at times during the 2020 season, especially when playing zone or in man coverage against bigger receivers, but he does have athletic limitations that might make it hard for the Panthers to commit to him long term as he tests free agency. While the Panthers certainly aren’t short of needs this offseason, it should therefore be fairly unsurprising that Scott Fitterer mentioned cornerback when talking about his focuses for this offseason. While draft cornerbacks is always something of a risk, Melifonwu certainly fits the mould of what the Panthers coaching staff looks for in cornerbacks.
At 6’3 and 212lbs, he certainly has the size to match up physically with the NFC’s bigger receivers, and while he isn’t a pure burner, he shows the level of deep speed needed to run vertically with receivers. The Panthers didn’t play a ton of man coverage in 2020, and while that might change somewhat going forward, it seems clear that their focus is on playing a zone-heavy scheme with long, fast corners with ball skills who can make plays on the back end.
Melifonwu can certainly do that, showing a good reading of the game in zone with three interceptions and 21 pass deflections over the past three seasons. He might take a while to adjust like a lot of young DBs, but at this stage in the draft, he would certainly make sense given what the Panthers are looking to do defensively.
4th Round Selection: Kenny Yeboah, TE (Ole Miss)
It’s no secret that the Panthers want to get more out of their tight end group than they did in 2020, and while Matt Rhule seems optimistic that Ian Thomas can make more of a contribution as he becomes more familiar in the offense, he is going to be a free agent after the season and the Panthers would be wise to add other options into the mix.
The Panthers have also made it clear that they want tight ends who can offer more of a vertical threat down the seam at times, and that they are more than willing to take a chance on a more developmental option, making Yeboah a great fit.
Yeboah played one season under Rhule at Temple, and was actually meant to play for Rhule again as a transfer at Baylor before Rhule was hired by the Panthers. He is a long fluid athlete who might not explode off the snap vertically but who is deceptive in his speed and who shows the core athletic traits to offer potential as a route runner.
He is still something of a work in progress as a blocker, but shows the power and willing needed to succeed at the role. He would also boost a red zone offense that really struggled at times in 2020 – his length and ball skills allow him to be a real factor at the catch point.
5th Round Selection: Cameron Sample, DL (Tulane)
The Panthers are still looking to improve their pass rush, and while the future of KK Short is still somewhat uncertain, and the Panthers have a chance to bring back their second-most productive pass rusher from 2020 in Efe Obada, they need to continue to find players who can create pressure inside, if only to allow Brian Burns to flourish yet still further. While Cam Sample might not have entered Senior Bowl week as a name on everybody’s lips, he had a really impressive week of practice, consistently winning his one-on-one reps and likely attracting the attention of the Panthers’ coaches.
At 6’3 280 Sample might be a little smaller than what teams have historically looked for in defensive tackles, but he plays with excellent leverage and uses his hands really well to keep his frame free, work off blocks in the run game and to generate leverage as a pass rusher. While he probably isn’t going to be playing much nose tackle any time soon, he would be a very good stylistic compliment to Derrick Brown on the interior of the offensive line and while there is still room for him to develop technically, to get a player with a real starter potential on day three is something the Panthers can’t ignore.
5th Round Compensatory Selection: Alaric Jackson, OL (Iowa)
The Panthers need to add depth and competition on the offensive line, and while they likely will resign some of the six players hitting free agency this offseason, they can’t afford to continue fielding makeshift offensive lines year after year. Jackson might not be the prospect that his Iowa teammate Tristan Wirfs was a year ago, but he still has a lot for NFL teams to work with and is another who had a solid Senior Bowl week under the noses of the Panthers coaching staff.
While he played tackle in college, Jackson likely projects better as a guard at the NFL level, and while Dennis Daley seems likely to take one guard spot, Jackson would be a player who could come in and compete to start on the interior right away with the potential to maybe move to tackle eventually if the Panthers do move on from Moton either in 2020 or following a franchise tag. For an interior offensive lineman, he shows good foot speed and his pad level looked much-improved inside compared to at tackle, and while his hand usage could stand to improve further, he certainly has enough for teams to think he can be a long-term feature on an offensive line.
6th Round Selection: Michal Menet, C (Penn State)
Matt Paradis is the only Panthers’ starting offensive lineman from 2020 under contract for 2021 at the time of writing, and while he has likely played himself out of being a potential cap casualty, he will be a 33 year old free agent in 2021 and so the Panthers would do well to start lining up his replacement, not to mention the desperate need for offensive line depth in the short term.
Menet might not flash elite athletic measurable, but it is hard not to come away impressed when watching him on tape. He moves extremely well both laterally and when working to the second level, plays with consistently good leverage and uses his wands well to locate defenders and secure blocks. He probably wouldn’t be hugely well suited to a team set on running power down opponents throats every week, but in a more directional blocking scheme similar to what Pat Meyer seems keen on, he could be a more than effective run blocker with the ability to hold his own in pass protection, and would be fantastic value at this stage in the draft.
6th Round Compensatory Selection: David Moore, OG (Grambling State)
Three straight interior offensive linemen might seem like a bit much, but the Panthers really struggled on the interior last year – especially in pass protection – and they need not only players who can potentially replace the likes of John Miller and Chris Reed as starters, but also offer depth and developmental potential behind them. David Moore doesn’t look at all ready to see the field right away, but he showed at the Senior Bowl that he has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL level.
Moore has good foot speed for an interior lineman, and certainly has the power to make his mark, but there is a lot that needs working on from a technical perspective, from his stance to his hand usage to how he sets his feet as a run blocker, but given his small-school background there fact that he doesn’t enter the NFL as a fully polished specimen is understandable, and while he likely isn’t somebody who would see the field much in 2021, as they did in 2020 with Stanley Thomas-Oliver, the Panthers could simply draft him and then allow him to develop for a year before asking him to see the field.
Obviously, having traded up, the Panthers would struggle to fill all their needs in this scenario, but if they think they can get their QB of the future by doing so, and still adding a number of promising developmental options in the middle rounds as well as some offensive line depth late on, this could be a roadmap to a bright future in Carolina.
(Top photo via Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)