Barely six months ago, the Panthers were finishing their post-draft media duties after a blockbuster three days of trades and draft selections that concluded with eleven new Panthers and an additional 2022 4th round pick. While a lot has changed since then, we’ve decided to take a look back over the first half of the 2021 NFL season to try and gauge just how each of the Panthers’ selections have panned out to this point.
Of course, not all eleven players have played in every game; two haven’t been active for a single game to this point (one through injury and another through selection), while the likes of Jaycee Horn and Terrace Marshall Jr. have both missed extended time with injury. However, doing our best to take all that into account, how is the Panthers’ 2021 Draft class looking six months on?
Jaycee Horn, CB: A-
This one obviously comes with the asterisk of Horn having been injured less than three games into the season, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that before he got hurt, he looked every bit like a top-ten pick. In 142 defensive snaps, he managed five total tackles, a pass deflection and an interception. Crucially, he allowed just two catches for eighteen yards on seven targets, good for a passer rating of 39.6, despite surrendering one touchdown on an excellent contested catch by Corey Davis.
Beyond the numbers, Horn also made a real impression on film, showing a remarkable physicality and willingness as a run defender, while consistently making life hard for receivers through routes and at the catch point. Getting back to full fitness is going to be the key focus for Horn over the next few months, but if he is able to play at anything close to the level he was at through the first two-and-a-bit games for an extended period of time then he is going to be a key part of the Panthers’ defense moving forwards.
Terrace Marshall Jr, WR: C-
This is one of the hardest to grade as not only has Marshall missed some games with a concussion, but his production and performance has to be judged in the context of a Panthers’ offense that has been various shades of bad so far this season, especially when looking to throw the ball. That being said, it’s hard to view Marshall as having had a particularly good first half of the season. On a per-game basis, he ranks 8th on the roster in receptions, 9th in receiving yards, 11th in yards-per-reception and 9th in catch percentage. That’s not really want you want to see from a second-round pick.
In Marshall’s defense, he is likely more affected by the Panthers’ passing game struggles than those numbers would indicate, as the Panthers’ have been especially bad when looking to throw the ball down the field, and those ranking jump to 3rd, 4th, 5th and 3rd when looking at just the receivers. It is far too soon to be making overly strong judgements about Marshall, especially given the context, but this hasn’t been the start to the season that fans would have hoped for.
Brady Christensen, OL: D
It might seem overly harsh to grade Christensen down like this after less than 140 offensive snaps, but part of the reason why he is graded so low is because of that lack of playing time. Against the Patriots, the Panthers were without four of their Week One starters for the most part, with both Matt Paradis and Cam Erving departing the game early, and the fact that Christen still found himself watching from the sideline isn’t encouraging, especially given that the third-round pick has already turned 25.
Matt Rhule has said in the past that Christensen’s best position is probably at guard, and his notable struggles in his one game at left tackle indicates that this is likely the case. With that in mind, there should be some hope that Christensen is able to settle into a role on the interior over the second half of the season, but a PFF grade in the low 50s is a reflection of the fact that, despite not playing very much, when he has played, he has not made a great case for a bigger role.
Tommy Tremble, TE: B-
Given that Tremble entered the NFL as a blocking specialist with significant questions about his potential as a receiver, the first half of the season has gone about as well as anybody could have hoped for Tremble. Though he isn’t yet the same dominant blocker he was in college, he shown himself to be a solid contributor in that regard through the first nine game and, while he isn’t going to breaking any rookie receiving records, he has shown that he can be a useful contributor to an NFL offense beyond his blocking
Though he is also subject to the same offensive issues as the Panthers’ other skill position players, Tremble has managed to rack-up nine catches for 78 yards and a score on sixteen targets, plus a pair of carries for seven yards and an extra score. There is still a lot of work to be done before Tremble can be viewed as a clear TE1, let alone an elite player at the position, but this is a solid start for a very young player who was always going to be a project.
Chuba Hubbard, RB: B
Panthers’ fans would likely have hoped to not have seen quite as much of Hubbard as they have so far this season, but the fourth-round pick from Oklahoma State has been a solid contributor in place of the injured McCaffrey. Though his 3.5 yards-per-carry might not be especially flashy, that is only 0.3 yards-per-carry behind what McCaffrey has been able to manage behind a poor offensive line, and his two scores have certainly been a welcome addition to an offense that has struggled to score points through the air.
The main thing that is holding Hubbard back from having a higher grade is his contribution to the passing game, where he has been guilty of a few drops that lead to a catch percentage that is more frustrating than his contribution when he has actually caught the ball. With McCaffrey back, Hubbard is likely to see his role decrease somewhat, but he has done enough to justify a more expanded role than the Panthers’ #2 RB has enjoyed over recent seasons.
Daviyon Nixon, DT: B
Nixon is another player whose rookie season has been cut short by injury, but the fifth-round pick had showed some encouraging signs in the rotation role he occupied before going down for the season. 0.5 sacks, 2 QB hits, 3 pressures and 9 total tackles isn’t hugely special production from 82 defensive snaps, but it’s a solid start for a player who has certainly got talent to develop and given his draft position his play is certainly above average.
Keith Taylor, CB: A
In a cornerback room that contains top-ten picks from consecutive drafts, a fourth-year corner looking at a big pay-day, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and another former All-Pro, fifth-round pick Keith Taylor has managed to rack-up over 240 defensive snaps, and has gone toe-to-toe with some of the NFL’s elite receivers. He hasn’t been perfect, but the Panthers appear to have got a quality starting corner in Taylor, something that is outstanding value for the fifth round.
Deonte Brown, OG: C
Brown hasn’t played a snap of NFL football so far, after being inactive for a fair number of games to start the season before heading to IR for what is expected to be a few weeks. On the plus side, he has reportedly cut down his weight significantly, which was the major question about him as an NFL prospect, and it sounds like his play is trending in the right direction, but it’s hard to be anything other than neutral to this point.
Shi Smith, WR: C+
The fact that Shi Smith has played 52 offensive snaps is both encouraging given his draft position, and a result of multiple injuries to the Panthers’ receiver room so far this season. Similarly, his four touches for 15 yards are both encouraging and indicative of the Panthers’ struggles so far this season on offense. Another player who has done about what you’d expect them to to this point, but who has a chance to warm into a larger role as the season goes on.
Thomas Fletcher, LS: Incomplete
Fletcher went on IR before the season even started after losing the long snapping battle in camp to veteran JJ Jansen, and though that obviously isn’t ideal it’s hardly a damning indictment on him as a player as he will likely get a do-over next offseason.
Phil Hoskins, DT: C+
When multiple long snappers get drafted ahead of you, it’s generally an indication that you were selected in the portion of the draft where a roster spot is far from guaranteed. However, with a strong performance during the preseason, Hoskins has made the roster and, though he hasn’t been active for a game, the fact that the Panthers think he has shown enough to merit a roster spot is certainly a positive sign. Hard to get too excited, but this is an above-average outcome given his draft position.
The Panthers approach of trying to maximize the number of picks they had has certainly helped, as while there is no one rookie standout this year in the way that there has been in years past (albeit not helped by injury), the fact that the Panthers have been able to add multiple rotational pieces certainly helps the impact of the class overall. However, with that being said, they will need to develop one or two of those players into more significant contributors for this class to be seen as anything other than ok a couple of years down the road.
Overall Grade: B-
(Top photo via Carolina Panthers)