Matt Rhule’s first season as head coach of the Carolina Panthers resulted in the team’s second straight 5-11 finish and third place in the NFC South. Despite the losing record and failing to make the playoffs, there were many positives for the Panthers. Eight of their 11 losses were one-score games. They also went from 31st in points allowed (29.4) in 2019 to 18th in 2020 (25.1). With optimism surrounding the Panthers this offseason, what they do in the draft will play a large role in how much this team improves in 2021.
Some quick history. The following are the Panthers’ last five years’ worth of first-round draft picks:
- 2020: Derrick Brown (DT)
- 2019: Brian Burns (EDGE)
- 2018: DJ Moore (WR)
- 2017: Christian McCaffrey (RB)
- 2016: Vernon Butler (DT)
In the 2020 draft, Carolina did not select any offensive players. All seven of Carolina’s draft picks were defensive players. Five of those draft picks played 35% or more of the team’s defensive snaps this season. Second-round safety Jeremy Chinn led the team in tackles with 117. Carolina found instant starters and impact players in their draft last year and similar success in this year’s draft could push them into becoming a playoff team.
The following players could possibly be on the move, either through trade or being cut, due to their 2021 cap hit. Their age is in parentheses.
- Kawann Short (32)
- Stephen Weatherly (26)
- Robby Anderson (27)
The Panthers currently have $15.88 million in cap space without making any of the suggested cuts above.
The Panthers hold the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft — their second consecutive year holding a pick inside the top 10. Since 2010, the Panthers have had four picks inside the top 10 and of those four picks, two have been offensive players and two have been defensive players. With a glaring need for a playmaker at quarterback the Panthers may have the opportunity to improve the most important position in football with their pick.
Possibility #1: Ohio State QB Justin Fields
2020 stat line: 8 games, 2,100 yards, 70.2 completion rate, 9.3 ypa, 22 TDs, 6 INTs, 383 rush yards, 5 TDs
Why: Carolina is arguably a quarterback away from being a competitor for the division title in the NFC South. Teddy Bridgewater has never been a playmaker throughout his career. He’s never had a season in which he has thrown over 20 touchdowns; in 2020, he set a career high in passing touchdowns with 15.
Justin Fields not only has a more talented arm than Bridgewater but he’s a more talented runner. Fields is a dual-threat quarterback who has the speed to create chunk plays with his legs alone. Fields struggled at times this season when pressured and when his first option was covered, but overall he’s had success in back-to-back seasons for Ohio State. He’s got the arm talent, accuracy, athleticism and toughness to succeed in the NFL. He would give Carolina a true playmaker at the quarterback position and add another weapon to an offense loaded with talents like D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson. Fields has the ability to elevate the offense and players around him while Bridgewater didn’t show that ability this past season.
Possibility #2: Penn State LB Micah Parsons
2019 stat line: 13 games, 109 tackles (59 solo), 14 TFLs, 5 sacks, 5 PDs, 4 FFs
Why: Carolina hasn’t found a replacement for All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly. In their first season without Kuechly, they had no true sideline-to-sideline linebacker to play MLB in their defense.
Parsons is the most talented linebacker in this draft. He possesses sideline-to-sideline speed, plus blitzing ability and playmaking ability. He would slide into Carolina’s defense as arguably one of their top playmakers, if not their top playmaker on that side of the football. He fills an immediate need. Questions surrounding how he’ll look after opting out of the 2020 season are valid, but as long as he looks similar to his 2019 self, he should be the top linebacker taken in this draft.
Possibility #3: Alabama QB Mac Jones
2020 stat line: 4,500 yards, 77.4 completion rate, 11.2 ypa, 41 TDs, 4 INTs
Why: As mentioned with Justin Fields earlier, quarterback is a position Carolina should look to upgrade, specifically through the draft. Bridgewater was unable to elevate the players around him and threw just 15 touchdown passes with weapons like Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore around him.
Mac Jones was one of the most surprising players in college football this past season. He exploded onto the scene, throwing for 41 touchdowns and 4,500 yards, all while leading Alabama to a national championship. Jones doesn’t have the athletic ability of some of the other quarterback prospects in this draft, but he showed exceptional accuracy, processing ability and multiple other skills while at Alabama.
It’s worth noting that Jones was also coached by Rhule and the Panthers’ staff at the Senior Bowl. With the NFL combine being cancelled and in-person interaction being limited, this extra time between Jones and the Panthers’ staff could be very influential.
Possibility #4: Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater
37 career games started; 2020 Opt Out
Why: Both of Carolina’s starting offensive tackles are impending free agents heading into the 2021 offseason. If one or both decide to test the market or Carolina lets them go, offensive tackle would become an immediate need for this team.
Rashawn Slater started 37 games for Northwestern, with a majority of them coming at right tackle. He played both right tackle and left tackle in college, making 10-plus starts at each position. Slater is a raw prospect who possesses multiple traits that could translate to the NFL. At 6-3, 305 pounds, he is mobile for his size, shows good awareness when picking up blitzes, and can be a mauler in the run game. He has arms that are on the shorter side, but can make up for it with his toughness to compete and his hand fighting ability. His ability to play both tackle positions only increases his value at the next level.
Player to Watch: Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley
2019 stat line: 10 games, 4 INTs, 12 PDs
Why: Carolina lost cornerback James Bradberry to free agency in 2020 and was unable to find a replacement for him. They went from having 14 team interceptions in 2019 to just 7 in 2020. Finding a playmaker at the position would pay dividends for Carolina’s secondary.
Farley was another player who opted out of the 2020 college football season. Farley has unique size (6-2, 207) and outstanding ball skills to pair with above-the-line hip fluidity. In 2019, he had 4 interceptions and 12 pass breakups in just 10 games for Virginia Tech. He has some injury concerns and concerns with change of direction and ability in run support. Overall his outstanding size and ball skills are rare for NFL cornerbacks and would add both to a secondary that lacked them in 2020.
SEE ALSO: On the Clock archive
Sources: Football Reference, Spotrac