Panthers, NC State front and center at NFL Draft

Wolfpack offensive tackle Ickey Ekwonu holds out hope of being the top pick; the Panthers weigh their options at No. 6 overall

NC State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu is expected to be a top-five pick in the NFL Draft and could still garner consideration to be the first overall selection. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP Photo)

After weeks of evaluations, drama and subterfuge, the NFL Draft has finally arrived. The annual player selection event will hold its first round on Thursday and wrap up the seven-round affair on Friday and Saturday.

It appears North Carolina teams at the professional and college levels will be among the major storylines to watch in Thursday night’s opening round.

The Carolina Panthers enter the draft with more needs than picks. Carolina has glaring holes at quarterback and offensive line, but the Panthers have just one pick in the first 136 thanks to last offseason’s trade for Sam Darnold, who hasn’t proven to be the team’s long-term answer at quarterback.

The Panthers were reportedly in the mix for a trade for former Heisman Trophy winner and top overall pick Baker Mayfield. The Cleveland Browns were shopping him after acquiring Deshaun Watson — outbidding the Panthers for the offseason’s top quarterback prize.

Reports surfaced earlier this week that the Panthers will not trade for Mayfield before the first round opens on Thursday and may be out of the Mayfield bidding altogether.

That means Carolina, which is scheduled to make the sixth pick of the first round, could go in a couple of different directions with their only marquee pick.

The consensus among mock drafts heading into the final hours was that the Panthers would use the pick to add a much-needed offensive tackle. The Panthers have started 16 different left tackles over the last eight seasons and need to plug in someone who can provide stability and protection for whoever is playing quarterback.

CBSSports’ mock draft had the Panthers taking Mississippi State’s Charles Cross, who has been compared to Russell Okung, a two-time Pro Bowl player long before ending his career with the Panthers in 2020. ESPN’s Todd McShay reported that Carolina was “connected” to Cross, as were the Giants, who select one spot ahead of the Panthers.

Most other mocks — including USA Today, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Talk, had the Panthers taking Alabama’s Evan Neal. The question is whether Neal will be available when the Panthers pick. Some drafts have him going first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If the Panthers had pulled the trigger on Mayfield, the left tackle appeared to be a no-brainer, but the latest news casts doubt on that plan. Could the Panthers have identified their quarterback of the future in the draft class?

The team has given signs that it is enamored with Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, and mocks the Panthers taking him with the sixth pick. Most other drafts have Pickett going closer to pick 20, raising the possibility the Panthers could trade down, take Pickett in a more cost-effective slot, and garner some of the picks they traded away to fill other needs later.

That strategy could pay off if Pickett turns out to be a franchise guy later in the first round. If he doesn’t pan out, then Carolina essentially would be trading away a chance to draft a franchise player at sixth.

Walter Football and ESPN’s Mel Kiper have the Panthers taking Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, who is considered by many to be the top passer in the draft.

UNC quarterback Sam Howell (7) and offensive lineman Joshua Ezeudu (75) are both expected to be selected in this week’s NFL Draft, with Howell graded as a second-round pick and Ezeudu predicted to be chosen around the fourth round. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

North Carolina colleges are also entwined with the early-round drama. If the Jaguars take Neal first overall, that would be bad news for NC State tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu, although the latest round of mock drafts appears to have the Wolfpack big man destined for the five-through-seven range. Fifth to the Giants seems to be the most popular slot for him in the last-minute mock draft updates, although it’s also possible he could fall to the Panthers.

UNC’s Sam Howell was expected to be a candidate to go early in the first round, but a disappointing season for the Tar Heels, along with the emergence of Pickett and Willis, has dropped him on most boards. Only still has him mocked as a first-rounder — going to the Lions with the last pick in the round. He seems to be a consensus second-rounder, with Walter Football being most pessimistic on his prospects, dropping him all the way to 52nd overall to the Steelers.

Only two area prospects are currently mocked in the third round — Wake Forest center Zach Tom, who Walter Football has going with pick No. 85 to New England, and Fayetteville State cornerback Joshua Williams, who is mocked 102nd to Miami. UNC guard Joshua Ezeudu is expected to go in the fourth round.

App State linebacker D’Marco Jackson (fifth), NC State receiver Emeka Emezie (sixth), Duke corner Leonard Johnson (sixth), Lenoir-Rhyne receiver Dareke Young (seventh), ECU corner Ja’Quan McMillan (seventh), Wake receiver Jaquarii Roberson (seventh) and App receiver Jalen Virgil all had their names called in some of the last-minute seven-round mock drafts.