The Carolina Panthers have had themselves a busy 2021 offseason, welcoming a new general manager in Scott Fitterer, buying low on some high-ceiling free agents like Haason Reddick, then packaging three draft picks to acquire Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. Still, if the Panthers intend to take a major step forward in 2021 and beyond, they've got key questions to answer across the roster. Is Darnold really the guy under center? And if not, then who is? What about his pass catchers beyond D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson? And how about the defense, which remains young and thin at some important spots?
With seven picks in the 2021 draft, including No. 8 overall, the Panthers will at least have a shot to plug some of those gaps. Here are three steps that would headline a perfect draft plan for them.
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Add starting OL help by the end of Day Two
Whether it's Sam Darnold or Teddy Bridgewater or someone else taking snaps for the majority of 2021, the Panthers can't afford to rest easy up front. Yes, they just got done shelling out $23.5 million to Pat Elflein and Cameron Erving, but between the two of us, that overpay (er, investment) only accentuates their need for options in the trenches. A starting-caliber guard or tackle to pair with the ascending Taylor Moton would be arguably the best short- and long-term investment the Panthers could make this offseason.
Just listen to their projected line for Opening Day: Erving or Greg Little (left tackle), Dennis Daley (left guard), Matt Paradis (center), Elflein (right guard), Moton (right tackle). They want Darnold to feel more comfortable than he did in New York, don't they? Whether it's an instant bookend like Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater at No. 8, a future OT like Samuel Cosmi or Liam Eichenberg in the second or more of a project like D'Ante Smith in the third, they simply need more developmental talent.
Prioritize pass catchers and CBs early
Beefing up the line should be the first mission, but bolstering the pass-catching corps and defensive backfield should be next. The Panthers have an underrated starting receiver duo in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, and ex-Seahawks deep threat David Moore could quietly make a great No. 3. And even though the departed Curtis Samuel was best used as a quasi-scat back more than pure wideout, his loss still rings loud and clear. Couple that with a tight end spot now headlined by Dan Arnold (career high: 438 yards), and Carolina could really use at least one addition at both spots, preferably by the third or fourth rounds.
Corner, meanwhile, deserves at least one more potential starter with Donte Jackson, Troy Pride Jr. and the aging Rashaan Melvin currently set to serve as the top three cover men. It doesn't particularly matter which spot -- WR/TE or CB -- the Panthers address first after the first round or two. Wideouts like Tutu Atwell, Nico Collins and Cade Johnson could all be intriguing in the third or fourth, while corners like Ambry Thomas, Shakur Brown and Zech McPhearson could be logical targets in the same area.
Consider adding a QB, even with a top-75 pick
The QB spot is such a tough one to evaluate now that Darnold is in tow, and not only that, but reportedly secured through 2022 on a guaranteed fifth-year option. That, coupled with the fact that the Panthers gave up three picks for the former first-rounder, suggests Fitterer, coach Matt Rhule and everyone else on staff genuinely believes Darnold can be the guy both now and later. And common sense says he can't be much worse than he was with the Jets. It'd be smart, then, to build around him more than try to replace him.
Then there's the flip side. Darnold, despite all the potential, has missed at least three games in each of his three seasons. The Panthers obviously wanted several others before "settling" for his upside. And drafting a QB wouldn't be cost-prohibitive considering a new one would come in on a rookie deal, with Darnold's $18.8 million in 2022 number big, but not outrageous. All that's to say, if an intriguing passer is on the board in the second or third round, they should definitely consider it. Imagine Joe Brady working with Kellen Mond's play-making ability or Kyle Trask's accuracy and touch. The risk is probably worth the potential reward.
Here's the prospects CBS NFL Draft writer Josh Edwards has the Panthers taking in his mock draft:
|Round (overall pick)||Prospect (position)||College|
Penei Sewell (OL)
Pat Freiermuth (TE)
Amon-Ra St. Brown (WR)
Rhamondre Stevenson (RB)
Brady Breeze (S)
|6 (193)||Shi Smith (WR)||South Carolina|
Charles Snowden (LB)