Both Scott Fitterer and Matt Rhule have made it clear at various points this offseason that they would likely to add another cornerback to play opposite Donte Jackson, as well as offering some insurance should Jackson depart in free agency in 2022. While they have signed veteran Rashaan Melvin to a one-year deal in free agency, he is clearly neither the long-term option at the position or the ideal week one starter. It therefore seems highly likely that cornerback will be near the top of the list of targets for the Panthers in the draft.
However, having drafted two cornerbacks on day three last year and with rookie UDFA Myles Hartsfield emerging as the starting nickel late in the season, the Panthers need is largely limited to those who are going to be able to come in and compete to start right away, and so if the Panthers do draft a cornerback in 2021, it is likely going to happen fairly early in the draft. So, with that in mind, who are some names to know as we get ever closer to the draft itself?
Patrick Surtain II, Alabama (6’2 208lbs)
If the Panthers are going to take a cornerback with the 8th pick, it really has to be Patrick Surtain. Not only is he the best cornerback in the class but he is the perfect fit for what the Panthers look for in cornerbacks. At 6’2 and with 32 1/2″ arms he certainly has the length that the Panthers like, while his pro day 40 time of 4.46 seconds gives him the speed they look for as well. While his four career interceptions might not shout elite ball skills, this is largely a reflection of how unwilling teams were to throw the ball anywhere near him.
Surtain might not be the twitchiest athlete, but he has the movement skills to play a high quality of man coverage, especially against bigger receivers and in a Panthers’ defense that likes to use it’s corners as deep zone defenders a lot then his range, length and ball skills should make him a really impactful and useful piece.
Given Scott Fitterer’s background in Seattle it is easy to make lazy comparisons between prospects and players he was part of drafting, but if the Panthers are looking for their Richard Sherman then Surtain would be a very good starting point.
Jaycee Horn, South Carolina (6’1 205lbs)
Another long, rangy corner with great speed and the potential to play a high quality of man coverage, Horn is another player the Panthers could consider taking in the first round. As good as he is, Horn is probably not a serious option with the 8th overall pick, but if the Panthers do trade back into the teens and the likes of Surtain are off the board then Horn would certainly be a player they should consider.
He has as much upside as Surtain, with great athletic traits and the ability to follow receivers through routes in man coverage and contest effectively at the catch point. In zone, he flashes some really encouraging instincts and ball skills, but there are a little more inconsistent than they are for Surtain, and part of Horn’s challenge in the NFL will be making his plus plays in zone more consistent.
However, the biggest area for growth, and the reason why he maybe isn’t quite in the same tier as Surtain, is that his footwork is still quite sloppy in places and while he is able to compensate for that with elite athletic traits, that will be harder to do against NFL athletes every week.
If he can continue to refine his footwork and be more consistent in his impact in zone, however, then he has a chance to be an excellent #1 corner who would give the Panthers some real man/zone versatility.
Tyson Campbell, Georgia (6’2 185lbs)
Given the Panthers’ other needs it is hard to say that they will definitely take a cornerback with their first pick, and they could well end up looking to address the position on the second day of the draft. If they do then Campbell should probably be a name towards the top of the list. Like Horn and Surtain he has the length and speed they look for and is another player with the movement skills to play a high level of man coverage as well as zone.
In coverage, Campbell moves very fluidly and plays with really good balance allowing him to drive on underneath routes and follow receivers through routes down the field. He is also one of the better run defending corners in the class, and while this shouldn’t be the primary reason for drafting a cornerback it is certainly something that Matt Rhule and Phil Snow want to see from all their defensive players.
The big question with Campbell is really about how impactful he can be with the ball in the air. He has only one career interception and just nine pass deflections, and in the Florida game in particular he surrendered a couple of big plays at the catch point despite his tight coverage down the field.
If he can improve in this regard and show teams that he can make plays on the ball when it’s thrown near him then he could move into serious #1 cornerback range but even without it, he looks to be a very good #2 cornerback who would be good value anywhere on day two.
Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky (6’1 195lbs)
This is something of a dark-horse option for the Panthers, as while Joseph’s talent is undeniable, he has issues staying motivated and disciplined on the field, and teams will have to be sure that they are getting somebody who is going to come in and do the work on a weekly basis. If they are happy with that aspect, however, the Panthers could get a real steal in Joseph on the second day of the draft.
Joseph is a fluid athlete with the movement skills and length to match up with the NFC’s bigger receivers in man coverage while also flashing high level instincts and ball skills to be an impactful player in zone coverage. His good plays are really as good as anybody in this class, and though his maturity concerns will make it hard for him to get drafted as high as his talent suggests he should be, the Panthers would be getting a first-round talent should they select him on day two.
Outside of the maturity concerns, Joseph does need to get better as a run defender and his footwork in press could stand to be a bit tighter, but these are ultimately addressable issues should he be willing to put in the effort to address them.
He would be a risk, but the upside is definitely there.
Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse (6’2 205lbs)
While the Panthers would undoubtedly want to find a legitimate #1 CB to pair with Jackson as a 1a/1b, if the board just doesn’t fall that way then they could look instead to find a solid #2 corner later on day two, who can be a long-term option on one side of the field. If they do then Melifonwu is probably their best bet, and again fits their length/speed/ball skills profile.
On tape, he shows good athletic traits and uses his length well to redirect receivers with the movement skills to be effective both in zone and in man coverage against bigger receivers. He is also one of the better run defenders in the class, working off blocks well and doing a good job as a tackler even if he could stand to set a slightly more consistent base.
While he could stand to continue to develop over a range of areas, he should be able to start early on, especially in a zone-heavy scheme, and while he might not have the absolute ceiling of some of the others listed here, he has enough room for growth for there to be optimism about his chances to be a quality starter for a long time.
The Panthers would ideally like to find a top-tier corner who is able to play both man and zone to a high level, but they would also ideally like to find a new franchise quarterback as well, not to mention needing to add pieces across the offensive line as well as finding a long-term partner for Derrick Brown in the middle of their defense.
With that said, cornerback absolutely should be on the cards in the first round, both with the 8th pick and if they trade back, but if they go in another direction then it will likely continue to be an option throughout day two with enough quality options for it not to be a reach to expect the Panthers to potentially be able to find a starter in the third round.
(Top photo via Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)