Chandler Zavala helps beef up Panthers’ draft class

The fourth-rounder’s father is a chef and “Chopped” champion

Panthers fourth round pick Chandler Zavala, left, will be reunited with former NC State teammate Ikem Ekwonu on Carolina’s offensive line. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Everyone knows that a successful NFL offense starts with the line. A team needs plenty of beef up front.

That won’t be a problem for the Panthers next season after Carolina used its fourth-round pick on a guard who has plenty of beef to spare.

“Coming out of high school, I wasn’t a big dude,” said Chandler Zavala, who was selected by the Panthers out of NC State. “I had to put on a lot of weight. So my mom and dad cooked for me.”

Almost as an afterthought, he added, “There was the time my dad sent me 25 pounds of beef just to help me put on weight.”

It was during Zavala’s first year of college at Fairmont State, before he transferred to NC State. The package of beef arrived on dry ice.

“He got it from his produce (company),” Zavala explained.

If it seems unusual that a college player’s family would have a produce company, that’s because Zavala’s father isn’t your standard football dad. He’s Demetrio Zavala, the first chef to win “Chopped” five times. He’s beaten Bobby Flay and opened more than a half-dozen restaurants in South Florida. It’s rare that an NFL Draft pick isn’t the most famous member of his family, but the Panthers’ new guard has just under 3,000 Instagram followers. His “Chopped” champ dad has 18,900.

There are benefits for a growing offensive line prospect having a chef for a dad, of course.

“I had to eat a lot of food because I came out of high school light,” Zavala explained. “I was at 260, and I had to put on 40 pounds.”

Hence the most interesting care package a college freshman has ever received.

“It was a prime rib cut,” he said. “You can break a prime rib and get ribeyes out of it, so I just cut all the fat down, trimmed it down, made my own cuts and put it in the freezer for days and weeks.”

The Panthers selected NC State guard Chandler Zavala, right, in the fourth round with the 114th overall pick in last week’s NFL Draft. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

He ate it four times a day, put on the pounds, and the rest was history. And for Chandler’s big day, the future NFL player decided to give his dad the day off.

“We took a break and just brought in some tacos for today,” he said after being drafted. “He cooked yesterday, so we decided to give the old man a break.”

The Panthers hope they’ve got the right mix of ingredients for their offensive line after drafting Zavala. They reunited him with his Wolfpack teammate Ickey Ekwonu, who Carolina used its first pick on in last year’s draft. The Panthers liked the look of the two playing next to each other at State.

“Two years ago, watching tape, he lines up next to Ickey, and they’re just road grading people,” said Panthers GM Scott Fitterer. “He’s physical, smart, tough, everything we went in an O-lineman.”

Offensive line was an area of need for the Panthers, who focused on their roster holes with their early draft picks. Obviously, quarterback Bryce Young was taken with the first overall pick. The team then gave Young a new target by taking Ole Miss receiver Jonathan Mingo in the second round, No. 39 overall.

Edge rusher was another area of need, and the Panthers took Oregon’s D.J. Johnson in the third round, 93rd overall.

Zavala was the next to be added to the team, and all four of the Panthers’ first picks stand a good chance to see playing time as rookies. Young will compete with veteran Andy Dalton for the starting quarterback job. Mingo will join a cast of veteran pickups in the Panthers’ receiving corps, and Johnson is expected to line up opposite Brian Burns on the Panthers’ defensive front.

Zavala also lands in an excellent situation. Right guard Austin Corbett suffered an ACL tear in the team’s final regular season game, and he’ll miss the start of the season. That gives Zavala a shot at the starting job. Worst case, he’ll be a valuable source of depth on the Carolina line.

“It’s no secret you need depth at O-line,” said Panthers coach Frank Reich. “You need competition. Corbett’s injury, and him missing time at the beginning of the year, we needed to find somebody to come in there and find the right mix in the interior.”

The Panthers’ final pick was fifth-rounder Jammie Robinson, a safety and nickel corner from Florida State. He’ll likely begin his NFL career on special teams.

As the new draft class joins the Panthers, the players will want to remember one rule of thumb: If the fourth-rounder gets a cooler delivered from home, you might want to stay close to him.

“I’m a red meat guy,” Zavala said. “Give me a steak. Keep it simple.”