Local prospects hope to improve draft stock at NFL Combine

The Panthers are looking to fill needs with a week of evaluations

NC State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu will have a chance this week to make his case to be the No. 1 pick in the draft when he participates in the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo)

The NFL Combine began this week, which, in and of itself, was a relief for the league.

Last month, close to half of the 324 players expected to attend the annual meeting and evaluation of NFL Draft prospects were planning to boycott the event.

The issue was the league’s COVID-19 protocols surrounding the Combine. The plan was to create a “bubble,” severely limiting access to the participants. That meant that players would not be able to interact with their personal doctors, trainers or agents, all while undergoing a series of drills, meetings and tests that would be the most important job interviews of their lives.

The boycott worked, and the league dropped its bubble plan, meaning there should be a full contingent of draft hopefuls in Indianapolis.

That list includes 11 players from schools in North Carolina.

NC State is one of two teams from the state that will be sending multiple players to the Combine. The Wolfpack have three players represented and will likely have the highest draftee in the state this year. That would be offensive tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu, who has a chance to be the first overall selection.

Running back Zonovan “Bam” Knight will also be going through the Combine process. He’s projected to be a sixth-rounder. Knight rushed for 2,200 yards in three seasons and left early to enter the draft.

Former Wolfpack punter AJ Cole was selected for the Pro Bowl this season, and Trenton Gill will look to continue NC State’s punter pipeline. Like most special teamers, he’s not expected to be drafted, which will mean the impression he makes on teams at the Combine is even more critical.

UNC will send the largest contingent to Indy. Five former Tar Heels are expected to participate in the Combine.

The list is headed by Sam Howell, considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft. Several teams, including the Steelers, Bucs, Saints and possibly the Browns, will be looking for a quarterback, giving Howell the potential of landing on a team with a solid nucleus. Howell is a three-year starter who left after his junior year. He’s mocked as a possible first-rounder.

Howell will be joined by Ty Chandler, who had a strong year running the ball for UNC after transferring from Tennessee. Chandler rushed for 1,092 yards this season and is expected to be selected in the sixth round.

Two offensive linemen from UNC will also be at the Combine. Joshua Ezeudu left after his junior season after starting 28 games in three years.

Marcus McKethan started 38 games at guard over the last three years and leaves after his senior season. Both Ezeudu and McKethan will be looking to improve their chances of getting selected with a strong Combine performance. Neither is a lock to be drafted at this point.

Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel is the lone Tar Heel defensive player headed to the Combine. He was the leader on the D and one of the rare bright spots on a unit that struggled this season. He’ll be looking to improve his current seventh-round mock.

Despite winning the ACC Atlantic, Wake Forest only has one player headed to the Combine. Offensive tackle Zach Tom will be looking to improve on his expected sixth-round mock.

App State will be represented by linebacker D’Marco Jackson, who is expected to be selected in the sixth round. He had a strong Senior Bowl week last month, and he’ll be looking to continue building momentum.

Fayetteville State hasn’t had a player drafted since 1973, but defensive back Joshua Williams could break that streak. He’s mocked for the sixth round, so it’s not a sure thing by any means. Williams also had a strong performance at Senior Bowl.

While the local players will be one storyline surrounding the Combine, the state’s NFL team will also be worth watching this week.

The Carolina Panthers have plenty of needs. The quarterback situation is far from settled. Sam Darnold is expected back after a first season in Charlotte that was inconclusive, at best. Cam Newton also may return, but he didn’t seem to be the answer when he was brought in at midseason. The Panthers could bring in a veteran during free agency, but if they look to the draft to solve their problem, Liberty’s Malik Williams and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett are options. Both will be at the Combine.

The Panthers have plenty of other holes, and perhaps the best way to upgrade their quarterback play is by improving the offensive line. Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross have both been mentioned as first round options for Carolina in mock drafts. Both will be participating at the Combine.

The Panthers could also look at tight end, defensive tackle and receiver in this year’s draft, with plenty of talent to evaluate in Indianapolis this week.