While the Panthers probably still have a move or two left to make in terms of signing free agency, the roster is largely where it is going to be come draft night. Additionally, while there are likely going to be further trades on draft night, the 49ers moving up to the 3rd pick with the Dolphins with a month still to go before the draft puts a significant dent in the Panthers’ chances of being able to get one of the top quarterback prospects with the eighth pick.
Of course, a lot can still chance between now and the draft, but it seems quite likely that the Panthers’ focus will now be shifting somewhat towards other needs on the roster rather than just taking a quarterback with the eighth pick no matter what. With that in mind, and given the moves the Panthers have and haven’t made in free agency, what could the Panthers do in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Trade: The Panthers send the 8th overall pick to the Eagles in return for picks 12, 84 and 150
If there isn’t a quarterback they love on the board by the time they come to pick, it seems highly likely that the Panthers will explore trading back. Both Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer have talked about how accumulating picks is going to be part of their approach when it comes to the draft, and while this shouldn’t be the automatic plan with every pick, if they can slide back a few spots and still get one of the top tier of players then that will only help them in their ongoing rebuild.
For the Eagles, they are clearly undergoing something of a rebuild themselves, but having accumulated picks from the Carson Wentz trade and the move back with the Dolphins they now have the ammunition to move back into the top ten to get one of the top three offensive skill position players.
12th Overall Pick: Patrick Surtain, CB (Alabama)
It’s no secret that the Panthers really want to add a starting corner to play opposite Donte Jackson and, while they added Rashaan Melvin in free agency, he is ultimately nothing more than insurance in case they can’t find such a player in the draft. Surtain is not only the best cornerback prospect in the class but also a great fit with what the Panthers look for in the position and should be expected to be a major piece of the Panthers’ defense moving forwards.
While he isn’t the twitchiest athlete, Surtain has great length, speed and ball skills and should be able to match up well with the bigger receivers around the NFC South. He also shows the instincts to go with those ball skills in zone, and in a Panthers’ defense that asks the corners to play quite a lot of deep zone he could be a highly impactful player on the back end.
He might not be a quarterback, but Surtain would fill a major need and is one of the top prospects in the class.
39th Overall Pick: Levi Onwuzurike, DT (Washington)
The other glaring hole on the Panthers’ roster right now is defensive tackle, as while Morgan Fox has been signed to take over Efe Obada’s role, the Panthers haven’t signed anybody to replace either Zach Kerr or Kawann Short to this point and, given their lack of interior pass rush last season, this is definitely an areas they need to improve on. Even if the Panthers do resign Short before the draft, they need to find a long-term answer at the position.
Onwuzurike isn’t a finished product and needs to continue to improve his pad level as well as turning the flashes of high-level technique into more consistent features of his game, but he is a good athlete who uses his hands well to work off and around blocks and should provide a consistent interior rush as a 3-tech either in both the 4-3 and 3-4 looks the Panthers are expected to run in 2021 and beyond.
73rd Overall Pick: Trey Smith, OL (Tennessee)
The third of the Panthers’ big needs is the offensive line, and while they have signed enough players in free agency that there is likely be something of an open competition at all the spots except center and right tackle, there are relatively few long-term pieces in that mix, and adding a player who can play multiple spots across the line and who has a potential to be more than a short-term fix is going to be one of the priorities entering the draft.
Trey Smith’s move from tackle to guard in college has been undone somewhat by his struggle to play with consistent leverage, but that aside there are a lot of things to like with his game. He shows good foot speed for a guard, with the potential to move out to tackle, and his hand placement is good as well. If he can improve his lower body bend, then he has a chance to be a good starter at either guard spot with some tackle flexibility as well.
There are probably safer offensive line picks in this draft, but the Panthers don’t need somebody to start right away, and with a little further technique work Smith could be a long-term piece up front.
84th Overall Pick: Kyle Trask, QB (Florida)
Having all but promised the addition of a new quarterback this offseason, it is going to be very hard for the Panthers to get through the entire draft without selecting somebody at the position. Scott Fitterer has said he believes in adding a quarterback at some point every offseason and that would certainly match the approach that Seattle took before eventually landing on Russell Wilson. Trask might not be in the very top tier of QB prospects, but he is worth a roll of the dice at this point.
Trask was certainly helped by his surrounding talent and offensive scheme at Florida, but he does still have a lot about his game for teams to like. He has a pretty good arm with the ability to work the whole field and shows good accuracy. He might not be the most mobile quarterback, but he moves well within the pocket and makes generally good decisions with the ball.
He would be a gamble, all quarterback selections are, but having added an extra pick via trading down the Panthers could afford to place a bet.
113th Overall Pick: Andre Cisco, S (Syracuse)
The Panthers have some options to replace Tre Boston on the roster already, but the fact that Matt Rhule went to TCU’s pro day (presumably to watch Trevon Moehrig) is an indication that they would ideally like to add to their safety group. It might not be the most pressing need they have this offseason but if somebody of Cisco’s ability is on the board on day three then they probably wouldn’t have too much hesitation in turning in their card.
Cisco isn’t perfect, he needs to be more consistent as a run defender and will need to show that he can continue to work on his footwork to allow him to play man coverage at times, but he has really good range in zone, good ball skills and a nice reading of the game. He might not be a week one starter, but he would be a logical player to partner with Chinn and could be yet another long-term piece of what the Panthers are building defensively.
150th Overall Pick: Kenny Yeboah, TE (Ole Miss)
While the Panthers added Dan Arnold to help them stretch the field from the slot, he is not going to be able to replace Chris Manhertz’s blocking contribution and the Panthers could well turn to the draft to find a player who can play that role while also offering more upside in the passing game. Yeboah also has connections with the coaching staff, having played for Rhule at Temple and was due to transfer to Baylor before Rhule took the job in Carolina.
He does need to work on improving his knee bend as a blocker, but he uses his upper body really well to secure and control blocks and even shows some fairly developed ability in pass protection. As a receiver he is more of a pass catching athlete than a developed route runner, but he has the core traits to be a useful part of a passing game and would certainly offer an upgrade over what Manhertz was able to offer catching the ball.
151st Overall Pick: Anthony Schwartz, WR (Auburn)
The Panthers go back-to-back skill position players with these picks, as while the Panthers have signed David Moore to a two-year deal, he is more of a replacement for Pharoh Cooper than for Curtis Samuel. Schwartz has elite deep speed to stretch the field and is able to play both in the slot and outside, which would allow the Panthers to move Robby Anderson to the slot at times where he proved very successful in 2020.
As well as the speed to stretch the field, Schwartz also shows good hands and flashes of high-level route running. He is probably never going to be the #1 option for an offense, but he gives the Panthers yet another player who can offer a vertical threat and therefore the potential to generate further mis-matches underneath.
Also, with Robby Anderson entering the final year of his contract, he gives the Panthers some level of insurance should Anderson test the open market next offseason.
193rd Overall Pick: Chris Rumph, EDGE (Duke)
You can never have too many pass rushers. With Morgan Fox likely spending much of his time in passing situations rushing from the interior, the Panthers are a little light on conventional 4-3 defensive ends after both Stephen Weatherly and Efe Obada departed this offseason. While Rumph is currently only listed at 235bs he looks to have plenty of room to add weight to his frame and has the flexibility to play multiple spots which is clearly something the Panthers’ value defensively.
Rumph’s value is tied to what he can become with NFL coaching, access to an NFL weight room and a more conventional role. He flashed exciting athleticism and some promising pass rushing traits while being moved all over the defense at Duke and while developmental players come with a risk, the Panthers’ coaching staff clearly back their ability to develop players. Rumph would be a bit of a luxury but would be good value this late in the draft.
222nd Overall Pick: Tre Norwood, DB (Oklahoma)
Even after adding Cisco and Surtain the Panthers could look to bring in more competition for the spots towards the bottom of the roster at defensive back. While Troy Pride Jr and Stanley Thomas-Oliver didn’t do anything horrifically poor as rookies, they certainly haven’t staked a position on the roster long-term, and Matt Rhule has made it very clear that he believes in always having competition. While he has limitations, Norwood would certainly add another element to the Panthers’ DB room.
Another hybrid defensive back, Norwood can play the nickel or safety role and while he isn’t the flashiest athlete around, he is able to play a reasonable standard of man coverage from the slot. Where his real value lies, however, is in his instincts and ball skills, and if the Panthers are going to continue to run a zone-heavy defense then he could offer real competition for Myles Hartsfield for the starting nickel role.
A pick this late in the draft is always going to be a long-short to become anything more than depth, but Norwood shows the upside to more than justify this selection.
226nd Overall Pick: Alaric Jackson, OL (Iowa)
Another position the Panthers could look to add further competition at late in the draft is the offensive line. The Panther have signed enough players that they are unlikely to spend multiple draft picks early on the position in the way it looked like they might a few months ago, but similar to with Norwood and the DB room, the Panthers could select a player like Jackson to compete with the likes of Trenton Scott for the final couple of spots on the roster.
Jackson spent time with the Panthers’ coaching staff at the Senior Bowl, and while he likely isn’t going to be viewed as a long-term starting option by teams, he shows good enough athletic traits and technique to be a back-up option at both tackle and guard. This might not be a pick that gets fans rushing to buy jerseys but players like Dennis Daley show that late-round developmental offensive lineman are worth taking a shot at from time to time.
The Panthers might not be able to get their QB of the future in the 2021 NFL Draft, but they should be able to address multiple issues across the roster early in the draft while also being able to throw some darts at the board in the middle rounds, especially if they look to shuffle back a few spaces in the first round.
Surtain, Onwuzurike and Cisco have the potential to be three core building blocks on defense and, while Russell Wilson might be the face of the Seattle dynasty, it is worth noting that their road to a title was paved by their defense. Scott Fitterer will likely have his own vision of how to build a contender in Carolina, but it is clear from the Panthers’ continued investment on defense during free agency, that stopping other teams is going to be a major part of that.
A draft class like this would certainly help in that regard.
(Top photo via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)