3 ‘what if’ situations the Carolina Panthers must ponder ahead of NFL draft

2022 NFL draft

Bad news for Carolina fans pining for a new quarterback: Current starter Sam Darnold likely isn’t going anywhere until he hits free agency in 2023.

That’s because the Panthers committed more than just draft picks when they acquired Darnold from the New York Jets last year. They also committed $23.632 million to Darnold over the next two seasons when they traded for him.

Now? Things look bleak in Carolina, as they have needs everywhere. Some of those challenges include:

  • The Panthers don’t have a ton of cap space and are projected to be a bit more than $17 million under the salary cap, according to Under the Cap;
  • Carolina has 19 unrestricted free agents, including 10 starters;
  • The team doesn’t have a pick in the second and third rounds, giving them six total.

All this begs the question: Why wouldn’t Carolina draft a quarterback in the first round, especially given coach Matt Rhule’s connection to presumed top-QB Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh?

Again, it all goes back to Darnold and his lofty contract. Adam Beasley of Pro Football Network said it best: “… Why would the Panthers start the clock on a new QB in a year in which they cannot build around him?”

That thinking, though, is contrary to what was reported by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, who recently reported that scouts think Pickett is going to the Panthers.

Here’s what a draft evaluator told La Canfora: “I don’t think he makes it past the Panthers. … Their owner (David Tepper) is a huge Pitt booster. He hasn’t invested draft capital in a quarterback yet. He has to know the Steelers like him (Tepper is a former minority investor in the Steelers). I think that’s a fit.”

Thus far, drafting Pickett – regardless of the Darnold situation – appears to be Option A. Option B? Trading down. There are calls for Carolina to trade down to pick up extra picks, either in this year’s or next year’s draft.

But trading down isn’t as always as easy as it sounds – especially when teams know you’re desperate to pick up extra draft capital.

So that takes Carolina to Option C: Staying put and taking the best players available.

Among the players who could still be available include North Carolina offensive tackle/guard Ikem Ekwonu, Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, maybe OT Evan Neal of Alabama and maybe the top cornerback, whether that’s LSU’s Derek Stingley or another CB.

Since Carolina needs to hit a homerun with virtually every pick – hard to do with just one pick on Day 2 – then cross off the names of Hamilton and Stingley. Both come with injury concerns, Stingley more than Hamilton, but it might be too risky for Carolina with so little draft capital left to spend. (Remember, last year’s top pick Jaycee Horn played received just 142 snaps due to injuries.)

Next, cross off Ekwonu and Neal. Of the two, Neal is the least likely to still be available with the sixth-overall pick. Plus, Carolina is fairly set at offensive tackle with right tackle Tyler Moton, who signed a four-year, $71.25 million contract last July, and Utah LT Brady Christensen, who was drafted in the third-round last season.

That leaves one obvious answer, and it’s not the most exciting one: Linderbaum.

In a QB-starved draft that lacks a consensus, sure-fire “star,” Linderbaum is not only the safest choice, he would improve the Panthers in a variety of ways. For starters, Linderbaum – if as good as advertised – would immediately improve Carolina’s run game (along with the return of a healthy Christian McCaffrey). A good run game also takes pressure off Darnold, who would also presumably have more time in the pocket. That, in turn, should help the defense, too, as it would keep them off the field for longer stretches.

Would Linderbaum be a reach at No. 6? Maybe. At 6-foot-3, 290-pounds, Linderbaum is the No. 5 overall prospect in the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board, but others aren’t quite as high on the former defensive lineman. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay recently ranked him as his No. 13 overall prospect, citing his effectiveness as a zone blocker, his anchor and his blocking at the second level as plusses. But there are concerns about Linderbaum’s size. From McShay: “… (T)here is some room for improvement when it comes to staying square and in front of defenders. Linderbaum allowed pressure on just 0.9% of his 432 pass-block snaps and took zero penalties last season.”

 

Click here to see the rest of the Fanspeak mock draft for the Carolina Panthers


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