Despite limited draft assets, the Panthers managed to address left tackle, quarterback, and depth.
Well done, Scott Fitterer.
The Panthers second-year general manager should be commended for his draft day strategy this year. I’m not talking about individual picks. I’m talking about the broader team-building strategy that drove the decisions behind why certain players were selected. Based on the players the Panthers selected and when, a pretty safe summary of Fitterer’s draft strategy went something like this:
- Land a franchise left tackle
- Take a low-risk, calculated gamble on a quarterback
- On Day 3 take uber-athletic players who can be developed
Let’s see how he did.
Land a franchise left tackle
The first five picks of the draft couldn’t have broken better for the Panthers. The general consensus was three players could potentially become Pro Bowl-level left tackles in Ikem Ekwonu, Evan Neal, and Charles Cross. The website NFL Mock Draft Database rolls up most of the available mock drafts and gives a consensus view of how pundits and experts see the draft unfolding. The consensus was for Ekwonu to go No. 3 to the Texans and Neal to go No. 5 to the Giants. This left the Panthers being forced into taking the consolation prize in Charles Cross at No. 6, and frankly the team would have likely still been thrilled to add him.
But in a delightfully unforeseen chain of events, the first five picks were all defensive players, meaning Fitterer & Co. had the luxury of drafting who they viewed as the best left tackle in the draft. They went with Ekwonu. While we never know with certainty how good or bad a player will be at the pro level, most indications are that Ikem has Pro Bowl potential.
Fixing this gaping hole on the offensive line for the next decade with Ekwonu could be a franchise-changer for the Panthers. Hallelujah!
Low-risk, calculated gamble on a quarterback
The Panthers front office tied their own hands coming into this year’s draft by not having second- or third-round picks as a result of the Sam Darnold and C.J. Henderson trades. After landing Ekwonu at No. 6 the Panthers next selection wasn’t until No. 137 in the fourth round.
Oh, and the Panthers still didn’t have the long-term answer at quarterback.
Carolina had to do something at quarterback in this draft but after investing the No. 6 pick in Ekwonu it didn’t seem possible to land a potential starting quarterback at No. 137. But as the draft progressed past No. 90, two quarterbacks had slipped well below where most mock drafts had them targeted in Matt Corral and Sam Howell. The consensus mock draft had both players going in the second round with Corral at No. 40 and Howell at No. 42. NFL.com projects Corral as a player who “will become a good starter within two years” and predicts Howell will “eventually become an average starter”.
Fitterer pulled the trigger to trade up and land Corral at No. 94, only surrendering this year’s No. 137 and next year’s third rounder. Let’s assume NFL.com’s assessment of Corral is accurate and he becomes a good starter within the next two years. If that’s the case, trading a third round pick is nothing. Even if Corral only maxes out as a capable backup, he’s still worth the third round price tag.
Per Spotrac, Matt Corral’s contract is four years, $5.1 million, or about $1.3 million per year. If he can in fact develop into an above average starter within the next two years then this selection has the potential to do for the Panthers what Russell Wilson did for the Seahawks. Even getting average play from Corral sometime in the near future at that cap hit can transform the Panthers by freeing up tens of millions of salary cap dollars to bolster the team around him.
Trading away next year’s third round pick for Matt Corral is the epitome of a low-risk, high-reward proposition.
Now, let’s press pause for a moment so I can ask a question:
Raise your hand if you came into the draft thinking the Panthers could potentially find their long-term solution at both left tackle and quarterback without sacrificing major future draft capital?
If your hand is up, you’re a lot smarter than I am. Let me know which stocks I should invest in, please.
Coming into the draft it seemed like it was an “either/or” proposition for the Panthers – they could either address left tackle at No. 6 or they could take a massive gamble on Kenny Pickett or Malik Willis at quarterback with that pick. It didn’t seem like they could address both of these critical positions without sacrificing a ton of future draft capital.
And yet, Scott Fitterer landed both Ekwonu and Corral, and the rest of the draft was just gravy after that. Any of the Day 3 picks that followed will probably max out as depth pieces or special teams players, and that’s true for all NFL teams, not just the Panthers. Kudos to Scott Fitterer for somehow addressing both left tackle and quarterback without breaking the bank.
Day 3 uber-athletic players who can develop
It’s rare for players drafted in Rounds 4-7 to become impact players, so the goal in these rounds is to find guys who can at least make the roster, contribute on special teams, and within a year or two provide somewhat capable rotational depth.
In a post-draft press conference Scott Fitterer basically admitted he was targeting exceptional athletes on Day 3. He said Carolina’s front office was looking for “really athletic, almost freakish athletic guys” who can develop over time and contribute on special teams in the interim.
Fourth round linebacker Brandon Smith has an eye-popping Relative Athletic Score of 9.97. Sixth round pick Amare Barno has a RAS of 9.18 and somehow ran a 4.36 40-yard dash as a 246-pound defensive end. At minimum, with those profiles Smith and Barno should be able to make solid contributions on special teams, and that’s often good enough for Day 3 picks. But there’s always the potential they can develop into more than just that, and Carolina’s coaching staff is building the reputation of being able to develop young defensive players.
Sixth round guard Cade Mays projects out to be an “average backup or special teamer” which is solid for the No. 199 overall pick. Seventh round cornerback Kalon Barnes ran a 4.23-second 40-yard-dash at the NFL combine, which NFL.com said is the second fastest 40 time since 2003 and was just one one-hundreds of a second away from tying the all-time record of 4.22. Barnes obviously has his flaws or he wouldn’t have lasted this long in the draft, but at least he enters the league with truly elite speed.
As previously outlined, my view is Scott Fitterer’s 2022 draft day strategy is that it was spot on. The difficulty with the educated guesswork that is the draft though is moving from high-level strategy to individual execution, or ultimately drafting the right players.
Only time will tell if the Panthers front office made the right call with Ekwonu over Neal and Cross. The same holds true with the selection of Matt Corral over Sam Howell, or if Carolina should have been even more aggressive in trading up for Malik Willis who was drafted just eight spots ahead of Corral at No. 86.
We’ll learn the answers to these questions in time. But for now, I’m pleased with Carolina’s overall draft day strategy. If Ekwonu and Corral turn out to be good at their respective positions — which is definitely within the realm of possibility — then the 2022 draft just potentially transformed the Panthers franchise for the next decade to come.
That, my friends, is a more than successful draft.