The Carolina Panthers’ opening game may have taken place in Georgia, but there were North Carolina connections everywhere one looked.
From the two NC State Wolfpack linemen starting for the Panthers — 2022 first-round draft pick Ikem Ekwonu at tackle and 2023 selection Chandler Zavala at guard — and former Tar Heel Mack Hollins catching passes for Atlanta to the guy booming punts for the Falcons — Bradley Pinion, of Northwest Cabarrus High — both teams had plenty of talent form North Carolina colleges and high schools on their respective rosters. That’s not to mention former UNC guard Arthur Smith, who coached the Falcons to a win, thanks in large part to two interceptions by safety Jessie Bates — a former Wake Forest Demon Deacon.
The Panthers-Falcons game was far from an anomaly. The state’s pipeline to the NFL has continued to supply teams across the league with players.
As we put Week 1 in the books and have a better idea of who’s starting where, here’s a position-by-position look at the North Carolina NFL All-Stars:
There’s no shortage of options at the highest-profile spot on the field. Three starting quarterbacks this week got their starts at colleges in the state. Our pick for the starter on our All-NC team is the veteran, Denver’s Russell Wilson by way of NC State (with a few other stops in between). He showed he might be ready to bounce back from a disappointing 2022 with a two-touchdown day. He gets the nod over Daniel Jones (Giants, Duke) and Sam Howell (Commanders, UNC). Gardner Minshew (Colts, ECU) didn’t start but threw two passes in relief on Sunday.
Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest, Seattle) had 64 yards and Javonte Williams (UNC, Denver), returning from injury, had 52 yards. They edge out Deon Jackson (Duke, Indianapolis) and Michael Carter (UNC, Jets).
In a relatively crowded spot, we’ll go with Jakobi Meyers (NC State), who had 81 yards in his first game with the Raiders, and North Guilford’s Keenan Allen, who had 76 yards for the Chargers. Zay Jones (ECU, Jacksonville), Hollins, Marquez Valdes-Scantling (NC State, Kansas City) and Josh Downs (UNC, Indianapolis) are also all worth watching.
Compared to the talent at receiver, tight end is barren. Noah Gray (Duke) got a start for Kansas City thanks to Travis Kelce’s injury, and he had three catches for 31 yards. He’s the choice over Charis Prep’s Jimmy Graham, back with New Orleans after a one-year absence from the league.
Perhaps the most loaded position group on the team — clearly the Old North State can produce blockers. We’ll go with the Panthers’ Ekwonu and James Hurst (UNC, New Orleans) at tackle, Charlotte’s Nate Davis (Chicago) and Wake’s Phil Haynes (Seattle) at guard, and State’s Garrett Bradbury (Minnesota) at center. Another seven players from the state started on the line during Week 1: tackles Zach Tom (Wake Forest, Green Bay), DJ Humphries (Mallard Creek, Arizona), Kendall Lamm (App State, Miami) and Landon Dickerson (South Caldwell, Philadelphia); guards Joe Thuney (NC State, Kansas City) and Zavala; and center Lucas Patrick (Duke, Chicago).
Another packed spot. Our choices for edge rushers are Alex Highsmith (Charlotte, Pittsburgh) and Bradley Chubb (NC State, Miami), but there is plenty of depth here, including James Smith-Williams (NC State, Washington), Boogie Basham (Wake Forest, Giants), Victor Dimukeje (Duke, Arizona), Harold Landry (Pine Forest, Tennessee), Dexter Lawrence (Wake Forest, Giants), Jonathan Bullard (Crest, Minnesota) and Denico Autry (Albemarle, Tennessee).
At tackle, State’s BJ Hill (Cincinnati) and Carlos Watkins (Chase, Arizona) are the starters, with plenty of backup depth in Javon Hargrave (North Rowan, San Francisco), DJ Reader (Grimsley, Cincinnati), Alim McNeill (NC State, Detroit), Kobie Turner (Wake Forest, Raiders) and Jordan Davis (Mallard Creek, Philadelphia).
While the line is loaded, linebacker is a much less populated unit. The Wolfpack get two starters in Germaine Pratt (Cincinnati) and rookie Drake Thomas (Seattle). Cole Holcomb (UNC, Pittsburgh) takes the other spot, ahead of another Tar Heel, Chazz Surratt (Jets).
MJ Stewart had a big opener for Houston. The former Tar Heel had five tackles and a fumble recovery. He joins Jaire Alexander (Rocky River, Green Bay) in the starting lineup on the state’s team. Josh Blackwell (Duke, Chicago), Nick McCloud (NC State, Giants) and Essang Bassey (Wake Forest, Denver) are the other candidates.
The pickings get slimmer the farther back in the defense we go. Bates took one spot after his big debut game with the Falcons. He’s joined by Divine Deablo, who the Raiders listed as a linebacker but is more of a safety in our book. The Mount Tabor product had nine tackles and a TFL for Vegas in the opener. The Jets’ Michael Carter (Duke) is the only other option likely to get significant playing time at safety this season.
As shallow as the secondary is, the All-NC team’s specialists — save one position — are even harder to fill.
The one exception is punter. Our team is lousy with punters. They’re everywhere you look. In addition to the Falcons’ Pinion (who took the starting spot on our squad), there are a pair of former Wolfpack punters — Trenton Gill (Chicago) and AJ Cole (Las Vegas). There’s also App State’s Sam Martin (Buffalo) and former North Surry punter Ethan Evans, now doing his thing for the Rams.
There’s only one long snapper: Duke’s Thomas Hennessy, now with the Jets.
For punt returner, we’ll go with veteran Jamison Crowder (Duke, Washington) over Greg Dortch (Wake Forest, Arizona). No one with connections to the state has returned a kick yet, so we’ll try to break up the logjam at wide receiver by putting Leesville Road’s Braxton Berrios in that spot. He did it for the Jets in previous seasons although his new team, Miami, didn’t put him there in the opener.
Then there’s kicker. A few of the punters handled kickoffs, but no one from North Carolina has attempted a field goal or PAT yet this year. We’ll look in the free agent pool and pick Ryan Succop (Hickory) over former Deac Nick Sciba.