This weekend is the last one for a long time that won’t feature Panthers’ football in some form or fashion and, while a few college football teams kicked off their seasons last weekend, this is the weekend where the college football season begins in earnest. With that comes not just a lot of big games, both nationally and for individual fan bases, but also a lot of games which are just, well, on.
While not every game that you flick on to will go down in college football history, there is always a chance to spot that one player who you end up rooting for the Panthers to draft come the offseason. While there is a long, long way between now and then, we’ve tried to highlight ten players who are not only logical options for the Panthers (at least in one scenario for how the Panthers’ season goes) but who are also going to make for fun watching on Saturdays.
So, with that in mind, who are five players on offense that Panthers fans should know heading into the 2021 college football season?
Spencer Rattler, QB (Oklahoma)
Rattler is going to enter the season as the presumptive #1 overall pick and, while there are lots of things that can change between now and the draft itself, any team with a potential need at quarterback is going to have half an eye on Rattler as the season goes on. For the Panthers, the Sam Darnold experiment could play-out a number of ways, a lot of them positive, but in any scenario where the Panthers are in the hunt for a new quarterback come spring, they are likely to have an early draft pick to play with.
Like every QB prospect, there are things that Rattler either needs to work on or demonstrate more forcibly in what is expected to be his final season in college football, but when you complete over two thirds of your passes at nearly ten yards a clip with 28 touchdowns to just seven interceptions there is generally a lot to like.
Though he’s not the biggest quarterback prospect to come along in recent years, Rattler has a strong arm with good velocity on short and intermediate routes with the arm strength to both push the ball down the field and maintain his velocity on the run. He is accurate at all levels of the field and flashes the touch to drop the ball into vertical windows at all levels though he can struggle at times when unable to step into throws, which isn’t unusual for a smaller quarterback. Athletically, he has very good mobility with the ability to work outside the pocket and add yardage on scrambles but is unlikely to be a regular ball carrier in an NFL offense.
In terms of the mental side of the game, as with Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield before him a lot of the work was done for him by the offensive scheme. With this said, he made consistently good decisions with where to go with the ball and avoided blatant mistakes. To maximize his effectiveness at the NFL level, he will need to speed up his mental clock and show he can consistently work past early reads to maximize his impact in the quick passing game. This is true for most college quarterbacks, and is definitely not beyond him, but is just something he will have to convince teams of during interviews.
The Panthers probably, and hopefully, won’t get a shot to draft Rattler, but if they are in the quarterback game come the draft then Rattler is the name to know.
Jalen Tolbert, WR (South Alabama)
With Robby Anderson signing a two-year extension recently, Terrace Marshall Jr 3rd being one of the most productive receivers in the preseason and Shi Smith making a series of highlight plays in camp, the Panthers future at receiver is looking pretty bright even before you get to one of the best young receivers in the NFL in DJ Moore. However, if Joe Brady really is set on playing more four and even five receiver sets then the Panthers would do well to continue to add depth to their receiver group, especially if they can do it at value.
Tolbert isn’t one of the bigger names in college football and a lot will need to change for him to be taken in the first couple of rounds of the draft. However, if he can replicate his 2020 season where he put up over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns then he has a chance to start to rise up boards. Whatever happens, if he is on the board as the draft moves towards the end of the second day then he would offer excellent value for the Panthers.
Tolbert isn’t an out-and-out burner, but he has the vertical speed to stretch the field effectively as well as surprising quickness for his 6’3 190-pound frame. These quick feet allow him to work off the line consistently against press as well as making him an effective route runner at the head of routes where he is able to make use of subtle changes of speed and direction to create separation. Though he isn’t going to be confused for DJ Moore after the catch, he is able to add yardage on a consistent basis with an ability to add value on screens and the like.
At the catch point, he is able to use his length well against smaller DBs, and times his jumps well to consistently high point the ball. While the additions of Marshall and Dan Arnold at TE are expected to help the Panthers in the redzone, not the mention the return of Christian McCaffrey, adding another long receiver with ability in the air would only help the Panthers further in terms of their redzone struggles.
Ultimately, taking another receiver before the late rounds would be a luxury, but with DJ Moore entering a contract year and the Panthers potentially moving towards more multiple receiver sets, if Tolbert does fall past the first few rounds, then he would give the Panthers yet another exciting receiving option to work with.
Jeremiah Hall, FB (Oklahoma)
From everything Matt Rhule has said during Training Camp it seems fairly clear that he would ideally like to have a dedicated fullback on the roster but that he isn’t going to carry one for the sake of it. He wants to find a fullback that makes a real difference and, while Giovanni Ricci will get the first shot at being that guy, if he doesn’t excel then expect the Panthers to come back to this in the offseason. If the Panthers do go into the draft looking for a fullback in college football who can make a difference to an NFL offense then there’s no need to look any further than Jeremiah Hall.
Hall, a Charlotte NC native, often gets lost in all the shiny pieces that Oklahoma have had on offense in recent years but has been one of the most impactful players in college football in recent seasons. Though he hasn’t been used extensively as a ball carrier (he has just seven carries in three seasons) he has made a substantial impact in the passing game with over 400 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in that same timeframe. With the NFL moving more and more towards the passing game, a fullback who can catch is a prized commodity.
At 6’2 and 253lbs, Hall certainly cuts an imposing figure and, while he isn’t the downhill thumping blocker of fullback past, he is a technically sound blocker who uses his hands well to secure blocks with the foot speed to generate lateral leverage as part of a directional blocking scheme. He does need to continue to work on his pad level when working out of a two-point stance, which in turn should help improve his arm extension and ability to control blocks. That being said, he is still able to work effectively to keep his pad level down from a three-point stance with good hand placement and arm extension.
As a receiver, he is about as agile as a 253lbs man can be expected to be with good hands and enough savvy as a route runner to create space against zone coverages and enough speed to work open against man coverage in the flat or down the field. After the catch, he does an excellent job of weaving through traffic and adding yards on screens and the like. He lacks the upper level receiving traits of a more conventional tight end, but he is exactly the kind of match-up piece that teams are looking for in their fullbacks.
He won’t be an early-round draft pick but could give the Panthers the quality fullback they are looking for in the later rounds.
Rasheed Walker, OT (Penn State)
If you hadn’t heard, the Panthers are looking to continue to upgrade their offensive line as they move forwards under Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer and, while Taylor Moton has signed a long-term deal, the Panthers would prefer to keep him at right tackle and Brady Christensen inside if at all possible. However, to do that, they would either need Cam Erving to finally put it all together in Carolina or to add a starting left tackle. If they are going to do this in the 2022 Draft without a top-5 pick, then their best option could well be Rasheed Walker.
Penn State didn’t have a good year in 2020, posting their first losing record since 2004, but Walker was one of a few bright lights that managed to shine through the mediocrity. At 6’6 and 320lbs, he has both the length the Panthers look for in pass protectors on the edge and the bulk to make an impact in the run game at the point of attack. With Cameron Erving, the presumptive 2021 starting left tackle, signed through the end of the 2022 season, the Panthers would be in a logical position to develop the high-upside Walker without having to force him into a starting role prematurely.
From an athletic perspective, Walker has the power to move people off the ball and the foot speed to cover speed rushers around the edge. However, he would benefit from continuing to improve his knee bend as this can create issues with control and balance as it allows his weight to get out from over his base. In terms of his hand usage, he has long arms and shows an ability to locate his hands inside to allow him to secure blocks in both the run game and the passing game, with pretty good arm extension to keep defenders away from his frame, though this could also be improved further by addressing some knee bend inconsistencies.
The biggest thing he needs to work on is improving his control as a blocker, as he can be guilty of playing with a rather pronounced forwards lean, and this tendency to be a little frenetic and off-balance can also lead to him widening his arms which then creates issue with the consistency of his punch. He is not somebody who is a polished article, but for a team like the Panthers that could allow him to develop behind a veteran and bring him along as a rookie, the upside is huge.
Tyler Linderbaum, iOL (Iowa)
As much attention as the Panthers’ offensive tackles have got this offseason, the future on the interior is also decidedly unclear. Both Matt Paradis and John Miller, two of the Panthers’ expected week one starters on the interior, are going to be free agents and, while both Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown have shown encouraging signs during the preseason, Christensen could well end up playing tackle and Brown will need to show he can play as well against starters as he did against back-ups. This might not be a must-draft for the Panthers but if neither Miller nor Paradis are retained then it could well be an area the Panthers do focus on come draft day.
If they do, then their best option in the 2022 draft class could well be Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum who, if he hadn’t returned to college, would have been in with a chance of being a top-50 pick in 2021. A converted defensive lineman, Linderbaum is still developing from a technical perspective but has done so at a remarkable pace to this point and has the kind of athletic tools that not only give him a chance of being an elite pass protector but would also be a great fit in a team like the Panthers that wants to make use of pulling blockers on a regular basis in the run game.
Linderbaum isn’t an out-and-out mauler, but he has enough power to hold his own against bull rushers in the pass game and to generate forwards movement on solo blocks in the run game. While it isn’t a massive issue, if he is able to improve his pad level further that should only help to increase his effective power while also lowering his center of mass and increasing his control as a blocker. Even if he doesn’t however, he shows consistently good hand location with strong arms to secure blocks and not let go which, combined with his understanding of blocking angles and quick feet, allows him to generate lateral leverage in a directional blocking scheme.
As a pass protector, he has the foot speed to mirror laterally with enough knee bend to go with his balance to allow him to do so while keeping his weight over his feet. As in the run game, he locates his hands well to control blocks and, while it could improve further, his arm extension is good enough to allow him to play with a firm grip while preventing rushers from being able to rip free. If he is able to continue to work on that knee bend, which in turn should help him open up his hips more when working laterally, then he has a chance to be really, really good.
Interior offensive line might not be the need that fans are clamoring for on draft day, though Panther fans would likely take any kind of offensive line help at this point, but a player like Linderbaum has a chance to be a high-level starter for a long time and should be a real option for the Panthers at any point outside the top 20 picks.
There is obviously a very, very long way to go from now until draft day and, with the whole season ahead of us, it is hard to know what situation the Panthers might be in entering the draft. But, as much as the draft might be a long way from people’s minds right now, teams will already be looking out for who they might select come the spring, and with so much college football this weekend, there is never going to be a better time to take a look at who could be a major name come the draft.
Not every player who shines on Saturdays is going to make it to the NFL, let alone make it in the NFL, but maybe keep these names in mind as you watch your favorite college teams this weekend.
(Top photo via Tim Heitman-USA/TODAY Sports)