With Panther football still a week away and college football back in earnest, now is a great time to take a look at some players in college football, who have a chance to be meaningful NFL contributors, to look out for this season. Having already highlighted five offensive prospects who are worth watching this season, we thought it was also worth taking a look at some players on the other side of the ball who are fits for potential needs for the Panthers come the 2022 offseason.
While it is far too early to try and project where each player might end up being drafted or what the Panthers’ roster might look like heading into the draft, here are five players who could not only make an impact on college football in 2021 but also be logical fits to fill some holes that might emerge on the Panthers’ defense.
Kurt Hinish, NT (Notre Dame)
The Panthers certainly aren’t lacking for youth on the defensive line, with four of their five defensive tackles being either rookies or second-year players, but with starter DaQuan Jones a 30-year-old free agent after the season they could be in the market for a defensive lineman once again in 2022. If Jones isn’t resigned, then the Panthers will be faced with an interesting dilemma; do they continue to use Derrick Brown as a 3-tech alongside an established run-stuffer or would they prefer to use him more as a nose tackle? If they opt for the former, then they could certainly do worse than Kurt Hinish.
While Hinish is on the smaller side for an NFL nose tackle at around 6’1 and 300lbs, he uses his natural leverage well to anchor more effectively than is normal for a man of his size and, while he might not be the kind of player who consistently flashes on tape, he excels as executing his role as part of the defense and creating space for others to make plays. Importantly, he has also improved each season at Notre Dame, highlighted by a 2020 season where he notched two sacks and 7.5 TFLs in 12 games.
Hinish isn’t a hyper-explosive athlete and, while he does have very good upper body strength, he will need to be a consistent master of technique in order to be an impact player at the NFL level. Fortunately, he plays with consistently pretty good pad level (though this could improve yet further) and locates his hands well which allows him to make the most of his natural talent. In the run game, he uses his hands well to keep blockers off his frame, thereby allowing him to work into gaps and anchor against double teams, with the ability to use his strong arms and good arm extension to shed to make tackles.
As a pass rusher, he has shown improvement in terms of turning power, hand placement and arm extension into more consistent penetration, with a pretty good rip move to create lateral leverage against blockers. If he can continue to develop his repertoire of pass rushing moves, then he has a chance to make himself somebody who can cause offenses problems if they look to consistent solo block him to help elsewhere.
Hinish is unlikely to ever be somebody who makes his money on passing downs, but as a likely mid- or late-round draft pick he has a chance to be a day-one contributor as an effective run stuffer who offers enough as a pass rusher to be seen as more than just a big body inside.
Haskell Garrett, DL (Ohio State)
The other potential outcome from DaQuan Jones’s free agency is that the Panthers might look to add another recognized interior pass rusher. While the Panthers drafted Daviyon Nixon to contribute in that regard, with Morgan Fox and Yetur Gross-Matos also likely to play inside in obvious pass situations, the Panthers are notably lacking in genuine 3-techs. This showed up last season in their struggles generating inside pressure outside of obvious passing situations and, should that continue in 2021, they will find it hard not to look to add somebody in this role.
Garrett isn’t among the top defensive tackle prospects for the 2022 NFL draft, and he certainly doesn’t look to be somebody who is going to come in and be a starter right away but, should the Panthers look to move Daviyon Nixon into a starting role then Garrett is somebody who could offer rotational impact while he continues to round-out his game. Though he is an older prospect, Garrett has continued to improve over time, highlighted by a 2020 season where the r6’2 300lbs tackle recorded two sacks and four tackles for loss in eight games.
Garrett’s main appeal likes in his ability to use his quickness, agility and hand usage to create lateral leverage in one-on-one pass rushing scenarios. While he does play a little upright, something that is both more pronounced and more problematic in the run game, he shows reasonable bend to turn the corner when he does get leverage, which is most often accomplished through a handful of developed pass rushing moves. If he can continue to improve his pad level this should only aid his hand usage, but he is arguably the most technically developed interior pass rusher in college football right now.
Where Garrett will have to improve is as a run defender as, while he has the size to hold his own inside, he needs to play with much more consistent leverage in order to be seen as a plus player in this regard at the NFL level. Far too often blockers are able to get under his pads, limit his arm extension and therefore negate his hand-usage superiority. If he can improve his knee bend, then he has a chance to be an every-down player but that would be more of a bonus than an expectation.
At the NFL level, Garrett is going to be a pass-rushing specialist with some developmental upside as a run blocker but, for a team like the Panthers without much proven interior pass rush, he could be both a good fit and good value should he make it to the middle rounds of the draft.
Myjai Sanders, EDGE (Cincinnati)
In Brian Burns and Haason Reddick, the Panthers have one of the very best young edge rushing duos in the NFL, but with Reddick only signing a one-year deal last offseason there is a chance that they could be without him for the 2022 season. If that is the case, while they do have a number of useful young rotation pieces, there is no clear heir apparent on the roster, certainly not one with the LB/DE versatility that both Burns and Reddick offer. While this is a situation that Panthers will want to avoid, they could be in the market for a partner for Brian Burns once again next offseason.
Myjai Sanders isn’t the finished product as a pass rusher, like Burns coming out of FSU he is very much on the slight side of what is feasible as an NFL edge rusher, but what he does have is the same freakish athletic upside that Burns offered back in 2018. Listed at a potentially-generous 6’5 and 255lbs, Sanders has improved each year at Cincinnati and, if he can build upon a 2020 season where he posted seven sacks and 10.5 TFLs in ten games, then he has a chance to be in the conversation as a first round pick.
Sanders’s get-off isn’t quick as freakishly fast as that of Burns but he is certainly no slouch and this allows him to pressure offensive tackles around the edge, which is is then able to capitalize on with a nice inside arm an excellent bend to turn the corner. He could stand to improve both his pad level and his functional strength (elements that were also to-dos for Burns entering the NFL) in order to take his pass rush to another level, but it is encouraging to see that he is already able to counter his speed rush with some reasonably developed inside moves, though there is room for further growth here as well.
Additionally, like Burns, he is going to need to be determined to develop as a run defender as, given his frame, offenses are always going to be tempted to try and run the ball at him. Similar to with his pass rush, this would be helped by improving both his pad level and his functional strength to allow him to get under blockers and drive them upwards. While he hasn’t been asked to play in coverage to the extent that Reddick has as an NFL player, he certainly has similar movement skills to Burns and his five passes defended in 2020 are an indication that there is something to work with in this regard as well.
Sanders would unquestionably be an absolute luxury for the Panthers, even if Reddick does leave in free agency, but he has a chance to be an elite NFL pass rusher and pairing him with Burns could make the Panthers a defensive force for a while.
Christian Harris, LB (Alabama)
In each of the past two offseason, the Panthers have signed a veteran linebacker to start alongside Shaq Thompson only for them to fail to secure the job long-term. In 2020, Tahir Whitehead lost the job mid-season to Jermaine Carter while this year Denzel Perryman managed to get himself traded away for a sixth-round pick before the end of the preseason. Jermaine Carter has deservedly been given a chance to make the job his own this season but, as another pending free agent, this is an area the Panthers could be interested in once again in 2022.
As of right now, Christian Harris is widely viewed as the most coveted linebacker in college football, and the 6’2 232lbs Alabama player certainly has an impressive stat sheet, posting 79 tackles with 4.5 sacks, seven TFLs, one interception and two passes defended in thirteen games last season. If he can replicate, let alone build upon, those kind of numbers in 2021, then he is highly likely to be not just the first linebacker taken but also a top ten pick. It’s more than reasonable to expect that he won’t be on the board when the Panthers pick, but he’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Harris might not be the super-fluid coverage linebacker that some teams are looking for, but he would be an excellent fit in what Phil Snow appears to be doing defensively. He is a physical run defender who not only has the strength and hand usage to take on blockers at the point of attack but also the speed, agility and intelligence to work laterally into gaps to counter more zone-heavy rushing attacks. As a tackler, he certainly packs a punch, but could do with playing slightly lower and engaging his legs more in tackles in order to both limit the risk of targeting calls and to eliminate a potential vulnerability to late movement by ball carriers.
In the passing game, he is a highly effective blitzer who can both shoot gaps and work around blockers in isolation, while also having enough movement skills to drop into man coverage against most tight ends and running backs. He is still developing in terms of his instincts and reading of the game in zone, but he flashes the ball skills to create interceptions when the opportunities arise.
Jermaine Carter has a real chance to end the discussion around the Panthers’ inside linebacker spot with a strong 2021 season that the Panthers should absolutely reward with a long-term deal but, should either of those things not materialize, then it’s going to be hard to ignore the fact that Harris is pretty much the perfect fit for what the Panthers seem to want from the inside linebacker position under Phil Snow.
Bralen Trahan, S (Louisiana)
The fact that the Panthers are moving Jeremy Chinn back to safety this season is hardly news at this point but, even if Chinn excels in that new role, there is still the question of who will be his long-term partner as Juston Burris is a free agent after the season needing to take a step to be viewed as a long-term piece following a mixed 2020 season. While the Panthers do have some potential options both on the roster and on the practice squad, they could also look to the draft to find a solution.
Bralen Trahan is far from a household name at this point, but after a really impressive 2020 season in which the 6’0 194lbs safety made a lead to record four interception, thirteen passes defended and 48 tackles, including 2.5 TFLs, he has a chance to move into serious day two consideration with another strong season in 2021.
An out-and-out ballhawk, Trahan has pretty good core athletic traits which allow him to cover a reasonable amount of ground as a deep zone defender, with good instincts and pretty good ball skills to allow him to generate plays on the back end. In underneath coverage, he hasn’t played a huge amount of man coverage but has pretty good movement skills and shows encouraging anticipation to step in front of throws and impact the game beyond simply taking receivers away.
As a run defender, he shows good tackling technique in space, but wasn’t asked to play around the box a huge amount and so will likely need to continue to work on his block shedding and reading of pulling blockers if he is asked to play in the box on a regular basis, though that is unlikely to be the case in Carolina. Trahan might not have the freakish athleticism of Jeremy Chinn, but he is a highly intelligent coverage player with range and ball skills, traits that should all him to be an impact player on the back end of most NFL defenses.
The Panthers’ defense has a chance to take a real step in 2021 and, while their young core is certainly exciting, there are also a number of players who will be free agents in the offseason. Though the Panthers would like to retain most of them, it is unlikely that DaQuan Jones, Marquis Haynes, Haason Reddick, Jermaine Carter, Donte Jackon and Juston Burris will all be back in Carolina for 2022. It is still far too early to look at any one draft prospect as a solution to a need for any NFL team, but all five of the players highlighted here have a chance to be quality contributors for an NFL team.
It might be a little too early for mock drafts, but there’s certainly scope for some wishful thinking as you sit down to watch some college football this season and these five guys are a good place to start.
(Top photo via Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)