Panthers stay the course in NFL Draft

Carolina added a franchise tackle and addressed the quarterback position while building for the future

NC offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu poses for photos after being selected by the Carolina Panthers with the sixth pick in last week's NFL Draft in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP Photo)

The NFL Draft is filled with smoke screens as teams try to mask their true intentions with false narratives and leaked rumors. It’s easy for a team to lose its way, but the Carolina Panthers were able to stay on their path during the 2022 draft and find a way to meet their most pressing needs.

The Panthers selected sixth overall and were in dire need of a franchise tackle to help solidify an offensive line that has been one of the biggest problems on the team since the days a young Cam Newton was running for his life.

As the team moved closer to going on the clock, however, the Panthers appeared to be looking at taking alternative routes through their draft picks. Perhaps Carolina GM Scott Fitterer was putting up some smoke screens of his own as the Panthers were rumored to be considering Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis, maybe as high as the sixth pick, or perhaps with a trade down to help replenish some of the picks the Panthers lost in last offseason’s trade for current quarterback Sam Darnold.

Darnold struggled with injury and inconsistency as Carolina’s starting quarterback, and the team needed to emerge from the draft weekend with a better picture at its most important position. The question was whether it was a need glaring enough to be worth passing up a shot at one of the top tackles in the draft.

It’s not clear whether the team was ever close to going in the direction of a quarterback early, but the first five picks of the draft should have helped make the team’s direction clear.

There were three elite tackles at the top of the draft in NC State’s Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu, Alabama’s Evan Neal and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross. Two of them — Ekwonu and Neal — had been mocked at first overall in some draft projections.

Even the most optimistic mocks would have left the Panthers selecting the best of whoever was left from that trio with pick six, but, as the Panthers went on the clock, they had their choice of all three thanks to an early-draft run on the defensive side of the ball.

Fitterer stayed the course and took his potential franchise left tackle, tabbing Ekwonu and leaving the former Wolfpack blocker to play pro in the same state as he did college.

“All of them had great traits, and we would have been happy with any of them,” Fitterer said. “What we really like about Ickey is he is a tone-setter. He has the intelligence and the physical style of play. He brings all of the intangibles that we want as well as the physical attributes.”

Ekwonu played high school ball in Charlotte and attended the 2015 NFC Championship Game when the Panthers advanced to play in Super Bowl 50.

“The fact that every step of my football journey I’ve been in North Carolina, I think that says something,” Ekwonu said.

It’s the first time the Panthers have used a first-round pick on an offensive tackle since 2008, and Ekwonu should provide protection for a line that the Panthers have rebuilt this offseason, signing free agent guard Austin Corbett and center Bradley Bozeman prior to the draft.

The Panthers added to their mix at quarterback by trading up into the third round to select Ole Miss signal-caller Matt Corral. (Matthew Hinton / AP Photo)

“When he came in our building it was like a bolt of energy,” coach Matt Rhule said of Ekwonu. “He’s a special person to go along with his physical style of play. There is no doubt that he can pass set and run block. He has all of those tools.”

The team wasn’t scheduled to pick again until the fourth round, No. 137 overall, but Fitterer moved up to address the quarterback spot. After Pickett and Wilis were off the board, the Panthers traded pick 137 and a third-round pick in next year’s draft to move into this year’s third round and take Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral.

Rhule said that Darnold would still be the team’s starter and Corral would develop behind him as the team’s quarterback of the future.

“It’s going to take some time,” Rhule said. “Sometimes when you take those guys at six, the pressure is so great to put them on the field, they can get ruined. I think this is the most amazing opportunity for a guy that we think has first‐round talent, who has played at a high level, to come in here, grow his body, develop his body, learn under Sam, learn under P.J. (Walker, Carolina’s backup quarterback) … and learn the system from the ground up with (offensive coordinator) Ben (McAdoo). Whenever that time is that he is ready to play, he will get his opportunity.”

Fitterer didn’t rule out the Panthers adding another veteran quarterback during the offseason to help push Darnold in camp.

The Panthers selected Virginia Tech pass-rushing linebacker Amare Barno in the sixth round of last weekend’s draft. (Matt Gentry / AP Photo)

With the two most pressing needs addressed in the draft’s first two days, the Panthers turned to the NFL cliché of taking the best available player for their final four selections. Fitterer traded up in the fourth round to take Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith. In the sixth round, the Panthers went linebacker again, adding Virginia Tech’s Amare Barno, who will likely contribute as an edge rusher.

The Panthers added to their offensive line depth with Tennessee’s Cade Mays later in the sixth. He’s a versatile lineman who played all five spots for the Vols. The Panthers finished their work with Baylor cornerback Kalon Barnes, adding yet another player who dealt with Rhule in college to the team’s roster.

The connecting factor between the three defensive players taken on the draft’s third day was speed.

“What was standing there was a bunch of almost freakish athletic guys,” Fitterer said. “We are a draft-and-develop organization, and that is where we trust our coaches to develop them. … Until they become impact position players, we know that they can contribute on special teams with their speed and athleticism.”

Draft and develop: Sounds like a good way to avoid being led astray by a few well-placed smoke screens.