Carolina Panthers need to restock defense, but QB remains priority in 2022 NFL Draft

2022 NFL Draft 2022 QB Class Carolina Panthers

When Matt Rhule took over nearly two years ago, fixing the Carolina Panthers defense was one of his top priorities.

And while it’s hard to say “mission accomplished” when the team sports a disappointing 5-8 record, Carolina’s defense has ranked among the league’s best this season.

  • The Panthers are giving up 293 yards per game, second-best in the league
  • The Panthers are allowing 177.7 passing yards, per game, best in the league
  • The 282 points Carolina has allowed is the eighth-best in the league
  • The team’s 32 sacks is tied for 10th-best in the league

But just when you thought the Panthers could turn their focus in the offseason to the offense comes this reality: Carolina could lose as many as eight starters to free agency, including six on – you guessed it – defense.

Headlining those potential losses is former Defensive Player of the Year and 2-time First-team All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who will be an unrestricted free agent. So, too, will be up-and-coming CB Donte Jackson, a 2018 second-rounder. And with this year’s first-round CB Jaycee Horn missing most of the year with a broken foot, it’s doubtful the team will wind up keeping both Gilmore and Jackson.

The biggest loss, though, could be do-everything linebacker Haason Reddick, who leads the team with 10.5 sacks. Reddick has been a boon for the Panthers after signing a one-year deal to reunite with Rhule, his former coach at Temple.

Also set to hit free agency: starting defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, startling linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. and starting safety Juston Burris.

So while it’s easy to demand for a quarterback – remember, recently re-signed Cam Newton is also on a one-year deal, while Sam Darnold has shown he’s likely not the long-term answer – the team will have plenty of holes on defense with only six draft picks, including none in the second- and third-rounds.

That means, the team has to “hit” on all its draft picks this season and hope to resign some of their free agents.

Round 1: QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s not a great quarterback year.

That may be true, but at least one QB will come out of this draft as a solid, if not great, signal-caller.

Of note:

  • 2021: Five QBs were drafted in the first round, including the top three picks, but only one hasn’t struggled, New England’s Mac Jones, who was the last of the five to be taken on Day 1. It’s been surmised that at least four of those QBs would have been the top QB in the 2022 draft.
  • 2020: Remember the Tua vs. Burrow argument? Since then, Joe Burrow has clearly outplayed Tagovailoa. Jordan Love, the last of the four QBs taken in the first round, has barely seen the field (and hasn’t looked good when he has). Meanwhile, the best of the four QBs thus far has been the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, who was the third QB taken that year.
  • 2019: Similar to the 2022 draft, 2019 was also considered a “down year” for QBs, with only three going in the first round. And of those three, No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray has turned into an MVP candidate, while No. 6 pick Daniel Jones has disappointed in New York and No. 15 pick Dwayne Haskins is already on his second team after getting cut by Washington. He’s now third-string for Pittsburgh.

Great QB class or not, there’s always going to be some players who unexpectedly underperform and some players who should have gone higher in the draft. This is especially true at quarterback.

So if it’s going to be at least one QB in this draft class who rises to become a top-flight QB at the next level, Pickett is as good of a candidate as anyone. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior finally put it all together this season, rising from a priority free agent to the potential first QB taken. He threw for 4,319 yards, 42 TDs and just 7 INTs this season. Pickett’s rise has often been compared to Burrow’s, another QB who rose from relative obscurity to No. 1 overall pick status.

The team also might consider an offensive tackle with its first pick, something Carolina hasn’t done since 2008, to pair with RT Taylor Morton. And a home-grown player like OL Ikem Ekwonu of N.C. State should also be in consideration here.

But if the team passes on quarterback in the first, then it’s not going to have another shot at drafting a franchise signal-caller until early in the fourth round. Plus, Carolina drafted former BYU OT Brady Christensen in the third round this season, and although Rhule has said he thinks Christensen is probably better suited for guard, he’s taken most of his snaps this season at LT while also playing some at RT and LG. It’s also possible that the team signs a starting LT in free agency, especially if Carolina lets Gilmore and Reddick walk in the offseason.

Round 4: S Jalen Pitre, Baylor

The 6-foot, 198-pound senior was the lone recruit who stuck around for new coach Matt Rhule after the 2016 scandal at Baylor with then-coach Art Briles. Since then? Pitre was recently named as a consensus first-team All-American player, becoming the school’s 18th all-time consensus player and first since 2019. Pitre finished the season 70 tackles, and his 17.5 TFLs led the Big 12. He also had 3 forced fumbles (tied for third-most in the nation), 3 fumble recoveries, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and seven pass breakups.

Expect Chinn to slide in for Burris at strong safety, where he would pair with last year’s second-round pick, Jeremy Chinn, who moved from linebacker to free safety this season. Pitre has excelled in Baylor’s STAR position, which is a hybrid safety/linebacker, picking up a TFL in all but one game this season and 22 of his last 25 games. Expect the Panthers to use Pitre the same way. The only question is whether Pitre would still be available in the early part of the fourth round. Dane Brugler of The Athletic, for example, ranks Pitre as the seventh-best in the draft. Pro Football Focus named him to its All-America third-team, first-team All-Big 12 and the No. 96 overall prospect. PFF also ranks Pitre as the top run defender among defensive backs, and he led the country in defensive stops – what PFF considers a tackle that constitutes a “failure on offense” – with 47.

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