It is still a long, long time until the 2021 NFL draft, and team needs around the NFL will likely be completely scrambled by free agency and any pre-draft trades – not to mention it’s hard to think of any player by a certain 25-year old disgruntled quarterback in Houston right now.
However, while any kind of mock draft written at this point is liable to get things very, very wrong, and dream-trade scenarios are being thrown around constantly, it might be worth taking a moment to consider the paths the Panthers and newly anointed GM Scott Fitterer are most likely to be in the market for with the eighth overall selection, as while the names might change, the arguments for the different pathways are unlikely to be that different come the last weekend in April.
Trey Lance, QB (North Dakota State)
Unless the Panthers are going to move up from eight in an aggressive manor, they are likely not going to get one of the top three quarterbacks in the class, and as of right now, Lance seems the most likely fourth QB on the board. The Panthers need at quarterback is not an immediate one – Teddy Bridgewater is unlikely to be the roster’s weakest link in 2021, but he’s also probably not the long-term option either.
Taking a quarterback this year therefore gives the Panthers a chance to develop a player behind Bridgewater for a year while the rest of the roster continues to develop and take shape and then allow Lance (or another QB) to take the reigns from 2022 on as the team look to more seriously pursue a Lombardi Trophy.
For a player like Lance this makes particular sense – for all the talent he shows on tape, he is extremely raw and would likely benefit from time to sit and learn behind a veteran starter who he can then either compete with or take the job from a year down the line. In fact, if you look at the most successful QBs around the NFL, most of them started their careers on the sidelines and then worked into playing time as their careers went on.
The downside to such a selection would be that with the number of other holes the Panthers have around the roster, there is a chance that any QB will struggle to develop effectively even beyond their rookie year without the basis for a competitive roster around them.
Ultimately, if you think you’ve got the guy, you take him – but if not there are other options the Panthers are likely to have that might be worth considering.
Micah Parsons, LB (Penn State)
Matt Rhule made a point of mentioning Jermaine Carter as somebody who has really impressed him this season in his press conference wrapping the season, but with Carter entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2021 and Shaq Thompson playing well, but maybe not at the All-Pro level he is being paid to be, it isn’t unthinkable that the Panthers might look to find the new centerpiece of their defense in the first round.
After all, no franchise around the NFL should be quite as aware of the impact an elite middle linebacker can make than the Panthers, who had arguably the best to ever play the game in Luke Kuechly for the best part of the a decade. Who wouldn’t want a Luke replacement?
There is a caveat – which is also the reason why Luke was so extraordinary – namely, there aren’t many players who have his combination of athleticism, intelligence and physicality. Micah Parsons is largely viewed as the best off-ball linebacker in this class, at least at the time of writing, and his ability to hit outside gaps and make tackles in the backfield certainly does inspire some flashbacks to prime Kuechly. Where there is maybe a little more uncertainty is around his ability to impact the game in coverage, and this is where a lot of the more analytic arguments about not taking linebackers early come in. If the Panthers are convinced then Parsons can produce INTs as well as TFLs, there would be a lot of merit to this pick – and that is certainly something to look out for in the discussions around the Panthers this offseason.
Kyle Pitts, TE (Florida)
It’s no secret that the Panthers have really struggled to get the most out of their tight end group this year – while some of that was likely due to the talent they had on the outside, a pass catching threat over the middle who can also help them in the red zone would be of great value to helping elevate an offense which showed flashes early but struggled to live up to its potential in 2020. Pitts is in turn the unquestioned top tight end in the class as a smooth and hyper athletic receiver with a great catch radius and hands. While the record of first round tight ends in recent history is extremely poor, Pitts offers a skillset more akin to a true receiver than a more conventional tight end.
The downside to this argument has already somewhat been covered – tight ends do not have a great record when it comes to first round success, especially early in the draft.
As good as TJ Hockenson has been this year for the Lions, it’s hard to say that a little over 700 yards receiving and 6 TDs is great return on a top-ten pick. This argument is compounded somewhat by the fact that a lot of the top tight ends in the NFL are ones who have been taken later in the draft, with so few colleges using conventional tight ends that it’s inevitable that talented players slip through the cracks. The other argument around taking an offensive skill position player more generally is the same one that has been present for all of 2020 – there are only so many targets to go around, and with CMC returning from injury it will be hard for the #4 offensive option to justify a top ten pick.
If they are going to look to add more weapons around whoever is playing quarterback in 2021, however, Pitts is almost certainly going to be towards the top of the list.
Patrick Surtain Jr, CB (Alabama)
While Donte Jackson really impressed with his play after his return from injury, the Panthers are likely to be reassessing the cornerback position opposite him both for 2021 and beyond.
Rasul Douglas had some ups and downs and while a pending free agent could be a short term solution, or at least part of it, the Panthers really need to be thinking long term as well. Complicating this somewhat are Troy Pride and Stanley Thomas-Oliver, who both saw limited playing time as rookies but could be given larger roles next year. However, as much as the Panthers might not need to draft a corner this year, it seems likely that adding a potential lockdown corner would not be something they’d pass on.
Surtain is also a great fit for what Matt Rhule and the coaching staff have said they are looking for in a corner – he has length, vertical speed and ball skills with the ability to match up man-to-man or add value as a ball-hawk in zone.
It is still unclear exactly how the Panthers plan to shape this defense and whether they will have a role for a conventional #1 corner, but Seattle has also shown with Richard Sherman in the past what a high caliber corner can add even in a zone-heavy defense – and Sherman was drafted in the fifth-round by the Seahawks with Fitterer as their Director of College Scouting.
It’s still too early to know exactly how reasonable it might be to expect Surtain to be on the board at eight, but if he is, expect the Panthers to have done their due diligence with an eye to bring him on board.
Rashawn Slater, OL (Northwestern)
If you didn’t know already, four of the Panthers’ five offensive line starters are hitting free agency – while it seems likely that Dennis Daley, Greg Little and Trent Scott will all have a chance to compete for roles, this is an offensive line that is likely to see a fairly significant overhaul this offseason. While the Panthers would probably ideally love to add a tackle early on, it is really unclear at this point if any tackle other than Sewell is likely to attract top-15 attention in a serious way.
While Rashawn Slater probably could play tackle at the NFL level, and might have to play there in the short term if he does come to Carolina, his best future is probably at guard, where his strength and technical prowess will still be able to shine without his lack of top-end foot speed being exposed.
For the Panthers, the biggest question mark with a pick like this – or with any of the other top prospects in what is a very strong iOL class – is whether the value is there to take a guard that early. If the Panthers think Slater can stay at tackle long-term, this might be a stronger possibility than it seems now, but if not, this might be a player the Panthers, and other teams, would feel more comfortable later in the first round and is maybe more somebody to keep an eye on should they trade back.
As mentioned earlier, the Panthers would probably love for a top-tier tackle to fall to them at eight, but that just doesn’t seem that likely given the lack of top-tier tackle talent in this class.
Gregory Rousseau, DL (Miami)
Yes, the Panthers went DL/EDGE with their first two picks a year ago, but Matt Rhule made a point of mentioning the pass rush as one of the priorities for the offseason and while how urgent that need might be will depend on what happens with KK Short and his contract, the Panthers really struggled for interior rush this season. If they continue to do so going forward, it isn’t really going to matter what is going on on the back end.
While this isn’t a super strong defensive line class, the Panthers have made it clear that they back their ability to develop young players and one thing Rousseau certainly doesn’t lack is potential.
He has the length and quickness to rush around the edge while also flashing the hand usage and power to be effective inside – combined with the likes of Yetur Gross-Matos and Efe Obada, Rousseau has the potential to give the Panthers a lot of flexibility up front. That’s something that is clearly a priority both for Matt Rhule and Phil Snow.
Rousseau probably isn’t a player that is going to get mocked to the Panthers a ton this year, and depending on what the Panthers plan to do schematically his value could vary significantly, but do not be surprised at all if the Panthers go back to the defensive line and early in the 2021 draft.
Trade, Either Up or Down
The possibility of the Panthers moving in the draft, and especially of trading backwards, has likely increased with the hiring of Fitterer as GM, given that he arrives from a Seahawk team that has picked with their original first round selection only once in the last nine drafts and has made a speciality of trading back in the first round and sometimes out of it entirely.
However, while he might come from an organization that clearly puts a priority on trading down where possible, that is not to say that he might a very different view – Panthers fans shouldn’t be surprised by movement in either direction come April.
If they do move up, it would almost certainly be in pursuit of a quarterback, and that would likely mean moving into the top three and maybe as high as two if the Jets opt to stick with Sam Darnold. That would almost certainly mean giving up future picks, probably at least one first, and would likely be the defining move of the Rhule (and likely Fitterer) Era regardless of how it works out.
Should they look to trade down, that would likely mean either punting the decision on a quarterback to 2022 or at least looking to take a more developmental prospect later in the draft. Given how many potential needs the Panthers have going into the offseason, the Panthers could certainly find space for more draft picks on the roster but how the board falls and what offers the Panthers might have moving up or down is still far too early to make a judgement on.
The Panthers certainly aren’t without options with the eight overall pick – much of the next few months will work towards deciding which of these options gives the Panthers the best chance of success, not just in 2021 but also moving forward. Only time will tell…
(Top Photo Via University Of Alabama Athletics)