Patience a virtue for Panthers in successful 2021 draft

Carolina filled needs, just not in the predicted order

The Carolina Panthers selected South Carolina defensive back Jaycee Horn, left, with the eighth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. (Sean Rayford / AP Photo)

The theme for the Carolina Panthers’ 2021 draft might have been “wait for it.”

The team had plenty of needs and addressed a large number of them in the three days of selections. The Panthers just didn’t shop in the order most fans and media observers expected them to.

It appeared that the first round couldn’t have gone better for the Panthers. Regardless of which way the team wanted to go first, their man appeared to have fallen to them. If Carolina wanted to draft its quarterback of the future, both Justin Fields and Mac Jones were still available when the team went on the clock with pick No. 8.

Panthers GM Scott Fitterer had also made no secret that the team would consider trading down. And with two of the five franchise quarterbacks still on the board, it appeared that the Panthers’ real estate was very valuable to some of the quarterback-hungry teams below them. A short time later, the Bears would trade two first-round picks, a fourth and a fifth to move up nine spots for Fields, so the Panthers could have easily gotten a similar haul.

Or the Panthers could have stayed put and gotten Rashawn Slater, widely considered the second-best offensive lineman in the draft. The Northwestern tackle would have filled a big hole on the Carolina line and had been mocked to the team in many pre-draft predictions.

Instead, Fitterer uncorked a curveball that froze the rest of the league. The Panthers remained at No. 8 and chose a cornerback, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn.

Corner was a position of need for the Panthers, but, a year after Carolina used every draft pick on defense, it was thought that the offense would get some much-needed attention early in the draft.

Fitterer said it was a case of taking the best available talent.

“He was just the top-rated player on our board,” the general manager said. “We saw someone that could come in and make an immediate impact for us as a starter, as a corner, playing the opposite of Donte [Jackson]. He’ll do a great job for us. We see him as his potential is unlimited and the immediate impact is why we did it.”

The team received plenty of offers for the eighth spot, but they “didn’t match walking away from Jaycee, that’s why we didn’t do it,” Fitterer said.

In other words, yes, the team needs offensive help … wait for it.

Fitterer hinted that the Panthers considered trading up to get lineman Penei Sewell when he was still available after the fifth pick. When Sewell went to the Lions the pick before Carolina’s, it was just a case of Horn being higher on the board than Slater.

Fields was a tempting talent, but the Panthers had more pressing needs.

“We brought Sam [Darnold] here for a reason,” coach Matt Rhule said. “We’re excited to see what he can do. We’re excited to give him an opportunity. We traded for him because we believe in his potential. At the same time, to us corner is a position, if you go back to last year, there were times we just couldn’t get off the field.”

With tempting linemen available in the next round, the Panthers traded down, eventually collecting and using a team-record 11 picks in the draft. Carolina took receiver Terrance Marshall Jr. out of LSU in the second round, then got their lineman in the third, selecting BYU tackle Brady Christensen.

“I was at the BYU pro day, and he was really impressive in person,” Fitterer said. “Then you hear about the character, the work ethic, the intelligence, the toughness, that’s what really sold us on him.”

Rhule also praised Christensen’s versatility and said the team could plug him in at guard or tackle, depending on need.

Carolina continued to add to the offense, taking Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble later in the round. The Panthers also added a running back (Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard) in the fourth, and in the sixth round took a guard (Deonte Brown of Alabama) and receiver (South Carolina’s Shi Smith).

Carolina also added another cornerback — Washington’s Keith Taylor in the fifth — and defensive line depth in Iowa tackle Daviyon Nixon in the fifth and Kentucky tackle Phil Hoskins in the seventh.

The team used its third sixth-round pick on long snapper Thomas Fletcher of Alabama.

The team put a premium on power conferences, taking six SEC players, including three with national championship rings. The Panthers also selected from the Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten and Notre Dame.

All told, the Panthers entered the draft with seven picks and came out with 11 players and an extra pick for next season. Not a bad first draft for Fitterer despite some early agita in the fanbase. Everyone just needed to … wait for it.

“I love my wife dearly, but I take Scott’s opinion,” coach Rhule said.