Awkward NFL Draft process to conclude for NC hopefuls

The Carolina Panthers hold eight selections, including the seventh overall pick

UNC offensive lineman Charlie Heck is a projected mid-round pick in this week’s NFL Draft, which will be held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

Charlie Heck, like most college football stars with NFL aspirations, is approaching this week’s draft with equal parts excitement and anticipation. But because of his bloodlines, the former North Carolina offensive tackle has a better understanding of the process than most.

Heck’s father, Andy, is a former first-round draft pick who is currently the offensive line coach of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

“I really have gotten a much greater appreciation as I’ve continued to play football and gotten older,” said Heck, a second-team All-ACC selection for the Tar Heels last season. “When I was really young, I was like, ‘Yeah, my dad played in the NFL.’

“But then as I got older to realize he was a first-round pick, played for 12 years in the NFL. That’s almost unheard of for an offensive lineman to land 12 years in the NFL. So it’s really cool to kind of see that and hear that from him and hoping that I can follow in his footsteps. Big shoes to fill, but it’s been a dream of mine to hopefully one day be able to do that.”

Heck is projected as a mid-round pick in this year’s draft, which begins with the opening round Thursday night and continues through Saturday. He is one of several players with ties to state colleges that are expecting to hear their names called — online rather than in person because of the coronavirus pandemic — by an NFL team.

Lenoir-Rhyne defensive back Kyle Dugger beat the odds by being invited to the NFL Scouting Combine despite coming from a Division II school. (Michael Conroy / AP Photo)

Among the others are Heck’s UNC teammate, defensive end Jason Strowbridge; NC State defensive linemen Larrell Murchison and James Smith-Williams; Wake Forest offensive tackle Justin Herron, linebacker Justin Strnad and cornerback Essang Bassey; Charlotte defensive end Alex Highsmith and running back Benny LeMay; Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans; and Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger.

While there are no marquee names or first-rounders among the group, as there have been in the past with the likes of State’s Bradley Chubb or UNC’s Mitch Trubisky, draft position is only the first step in what each of the players hopes will be a long pro football journey.

As the Wolfpack’s Smith-Williams points out, you still have to prove yourself once you’re on a team — regardless of what round you went in.

“I’m excited just to go whenever,” the former Wolfpack captain said. “It’s a childhood dream regardless of what round it is.”

As much as Smith-Williams and the others have been looking forward to realizing those dreams, physically preparing for it during the current coronavirus pandemic has been problematic.

Not only have players been limited in their ability to work out and stay in shape because of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, but because schools have been forced to cancel their Pro Days and teams are unable to hold individual workouts, many have been unable to showcase their skills the way they’d like.

It’s a particularly difficult situation for those on the borderline of being drafted or having to take the much more difficult free agent route to the NFL.

 “I’m a student of the game and know what I’m doing on the field. I’m not some physical freak. I never have been nor ever will be,” Strnad told Demon Deacon Digest. “I’m just focused on getting into football shape.

“There’s no testing or anything to prepare for. It’s just getting ready for camp for whatever team I end up with. I want to show up in shape and ready to perform at my highest level.”

The good news for most of the state’s top draft hopefuls is that they did at least get some opportunity to perform before the NFL’s coaches and general managers at either a postseason all-star game such as the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Bowl, or the league’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February.

Some — Smith-Williams, Strowbridge and Highsmith, in particular — took full advantage of those chances with strong showings. It was especially helpful for Division II standout Dugger, a defensive back who has flown under the radar until this point in his career.

“It hasn’t been the easiest switch going from not having any of that (attention) to having a lot of it,” Dugger said during his combine interview session. “But (Lenoir-Rhyne) definitely got behind me and they’re really excited.”

But not everyone has been as fortunate.

“Life throws curveballs,” Strowbridge said. “I’m thankful I got the opportunity to go to the combine and do what I did there. But it’s just crazy. I feel so bad for the dudes that weren’t able to participate in their pro day and show coaches their athleticism or whatever. But you’ve just got to take it and run with whatever opportunity you got.”

Now that the players have done everything they can do in preparation for the draft, all that’s left is the waiting and worrying.

Most of the state hopefuls said they plan on watching the draft in its entirety, even though they might have to wait another day or two to hear their name called. At least one said he’ll find a distraction to keep himself busy until his phone rings.

In doing so, Smith-Williams will keep up something of a Wolfpack draft day tradition started by fellow defensive lineman Willie Young.

“I’m going to go fishing,” Smith-Williams said, taking a page from Young, who also decided to cast a line rather than stare at the television on his draft day in 2010. “I’m not planning to be around anybody. I’ll have my phone turned up full volume and any phone call I get, I’ll go crazy. But I’m not going to sit there and watch the whole draft.”

Heck, on the other hand, said he plans on keeping a close eye on the proceedings — not only to find out where he lands but also to see who ends up going to his father’s team.

And if those two interests intersect and dear old dad ends up becoming his position coach with the Chiefs, it would only make a special day even better.

To at least some members of the family, that is.

“I think my dad and I would handle it totally well,” Heck said. “I think that it would cause a lot of stress for my mom. But it would be exciting to eventually one day hopefully play for him. That would be cool, but I’m going to be happy wherever I end up going.”

Panthers pick 7th overall

The Carolina Panthers hold eight picks in this week’s draft, including seventh overall, and they have plenty of needs to fill.

While GM Marty Hurney will still be making the final call on the Panthers’ selections, new coach Matt Rhule will surely have a big say in how the revamped Carolina roster will look going forward. That starts with the team’s first pick, and the Panthers could go several different directions in Round 1.

Auburn defensive lineman Derrick Brown has been named in several mock drafts as the possible choice at No. 7, and Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons could immediately help a fill the hole left by the retirement of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers also need help at cornerback, so that could be a priority in the first few rounds. And then there’s quarterback, where Teddy Bridgewater replaces Cam Newton as starter. Carolina invested a third-round pick in Will Grier last year, but Hurney and Rhule — and new offensive coordinator Joe Brady — could target a signal-caller to groom for the future if there’s a fit in the draft.

The Panthers hold all seven of their own picks and have a second selection in the fifth round thanks to the trade that sent quarterback Kyle Allen to the Redskins. Carolina received the second pick in the fifth round (148th overall) to go along with its own pick at No. 152.