A way-too-early-look at the Panthers’ many options at pick No. 7, and analysis of the ‘what-ifs’ of draft season (2024)

With new Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule hitting his first Senior Bowl as an NFL head coach in Mobile, Ala., this week, it’s time to turn our attention toward the draft.

Carolina has a ton of needs, after a 5-11 season that will certainly bring about an offseason of roster change just as it has change in the coaching staff and front office.


Those needs include linebacker, defensive tackle, (maybe) tight end, (maybe) quarterback, and edge-rusher/defensive end.

This week in Mobile, Rhule, general manager Marty Hurney, their respective assistants and a team of scouts will be mulling possible personnel to draft with their No. 7 overall pick and beyond.

Really, what they’re doing is putting puzzle pieces together based on talent evaluations, setting up a fluid draft board and both answering and asking important questions about their current roster, within which there is uncertainty to be found at nearly every position.

Their answers to those questions will determine who they select in the first round. The Athletic takes a look at many of the “what ifs” facing Carolina this spring, and some possible solutions to be found at pick No. 7:

What if they can’t find a Luke Kuechly replacement in free agency?

The news of star linebacker Luke Kuechly’s retirement shocked the NFL last week. Kuechly, who is leaving the game at just 28, also leaves the Panthers with a massive hole in the middle of their defense.

It will be interesting to see how the Panthers handle pairing a new linebacker with Shaq Thompson, who signed a four-year, $54 million extension with the team before the end of the season (perhaps in conjunction with Hurney’s suspicion that Kuechly was leaning toward retirement).

If Carolina can’t find a suitable partner for Thompson in free agency, that will become one of the most crucial positions at which to draft in April. Kuechly was the ninth overall pick; replacing him will probably take a first- or second-round pick and some luck, to boot.

I can see the Panthers targeting Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons at No. 7. The Athletic’s draft analyst Dane Brugler ranks the 6-foot-3, 228-pound Simmons as his seventh overall player in this year’s draft, remarking that he can be “an immediate difference-maker if utilized correctly. An every-down player, he is an explosive blitzer with the range to cover every inch of the field.”

With Simmons and Thompson, the middle of the defense can continue to be versatile and fluid. If Carolina’s new coaching staff stays with a 3-4 base, Simmons and Thompson could work well together in manning the interior, with Thompson handling checks in the immediate.

Something else that perhaps points toward Carolina’s inclination to draft a young linebacker? Former longtime position coach Al Holcomb, who helped develop Kuechly, is returning to the Panthers’ staff in a run defense coordinator role.

What if they don’t pick up Dontari Poe’s option?

There are only two sure things about the Panthers’ defensive interior in 2020.

The first is that All-Pro defensive tackle Kawann Short will be back and at full health, after getting season-ending shoulder surgery in 2019. And the second is that they’re in need of some serious reinforcements if the Panthers are going to flip their run defense from the worst in the league to … not that.

All throughout the 2019 season, and especially after the team lost Short and his counterpart Dontari Poe to injury, analysts remarked over and over again on the game broadcasts that the Panthers were simply losing the point of attack against the run. They need to get bigger and more physical up front, and if Kuechly had not announced his retirement last week, I’d say that defensive tackle is the absolute biggest draft need for the Panthers (and it still might be).

Carolina could very well pick up Poe’s contract option for a third season. He told The Athletic last month that he’s recovering well from surgery to repair a torn quad. But regardless of whether Poe returns, the Panthers must draft a stout defensive tackle who can stop the run and rush the passer. It’s unclear yet whether they will re-sign veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (and would he want to come back?), former first-round pick Vernon Butler is still on the roster only by the grace of comp-pick math after an infamous ejection and middle finger in Indianapolis, and veteran Kyle Love will be a free agent this spring.


Auburn’s Derrick Brown would be a good pick here, whether Poe returns for another season or not. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound defensive tackle could start immediately alongside Short if needed, or he could be a key part of the Panthers’ rotation along the interior during his rookie season.

I also like South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw as the Panthers’ pick at No. 7. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound defensive tackle is a little raw, but plenty explosive and extremely physical — just what the Panthers need to throw some bodies around up front. Kinlaw’s best college highlights include moments when he is in pursuit of a play after shedding one or multiple blocks — he is remarkably fast for his size.

What if they don’t re-sign Mario Addison or Bruce Irvin?

Rhule has talked in the past about preferring to run an explosive and multiple defense, but he also wants to use rostered personnel efficiently and won’t try to fit square pegs in round holes schematically.

What does that mean for the Panthers’ pass-rush? Veteran Mario Addison, a free agent this spring, could fit as either a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end. Veteran Bruce Irvin would likely prefer to play outside linebacker in a 3-4. What if the Panthers don’t re-sign either of them?

I can see Addison following former longtime defensive line coach Eric Washington up to Buffalo, as a veteran presence among some dynamic young personnel. And I can also see Irvin moving on, with the Panthers interested in increasing first-round pick Brian Burns’ snaps (again, this is more likely in 3-4 sets). Both players are running out of time to win a championship, and Carolina, in somewhat of a rebuilding situation, is not a sexy destination for veteran free agents right now.

We don’t yet know what plans Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have for the Panthers’ base defense yet, but the coaches have worked in both schemes in which strong traits have been explosiveness, speed and a ferocious pass-rush.

If neither Addison nor Irvin is on the roster this spring, edge-rusher becomes more of a need. But top EDGE Chase Young will be far out of reach, while a fair spot for other highly ranked pass-rushers is somewhere in the middle of the first round.


I could see Carolina drafting a player such as Yetur Gross-Matos out of Penn State if the Panthers trade back in the first. At 6-foot-5 and 264 pounds, Gross-Matos is long and explosive. I like how he fares against the run — especially how he moves laterally, which lends versatility against outside zone runners, and against running backs used in the flat, alongside pass-rush skills.

What if they draft a quarterback — again?

Before you freak out on me … know this: Even if the Panthers — meaning owner David Tepper, Hurney and Rhule — have not made a decision about the future of franchise quarterback Cam Newton, who enters the final year of his contract in 2020, they are still certainly going to evaluate their options during draft season, and do their due diligence on intriguing prospects. They would simply not be doing their jobs if they weren’t.

Additionally, we don’t know whether Newton himself, seeing a hint of a “rebuild” situation in Carolina and coming off a third major surgery in as many years, will want to stay another season without a long-term guarantee.

But for the sake of argument, consider the scenarios below:

  • Newton signs a long-term deal. If this is the case, the Panthers don’t need to consider drafting a quarterback within the top 10. Instead, they’ll likely continue to develop last year’s third-round pick, Will Grier, as a backup. The organization likes Grier and some feel he was put in an impossible situation last season — and would like to see how he grows into the long-term backup quarterback role.
  • Newton is traded. If this is the case, the Panthers could sign a “bridge year” veteran quarterback, use their No. 7 pick on a quarterback and give him (and, importantly, their young left tackle Greg Little) time to develop behind a veteran.
  • Newton is traded/holds out without a guaranteed deal and the Panthers draft a rookie to play right away. This would be a hard sell for me, after watching Grier and backup Kyle Allen regress the more they were on the field last season.
  • Newton plays in “prove-it” mode, in the last year of his deal and without a guarantee in an effort to secure a big contract in 2021. If this is the case, I’d bet the Panthers still plan for the future with a draft pick — though maybe not in the first round. In this scenario, Newton would be the player acting as a potential “bridge” quarterback as his heir gets developed. If he returns to full form, that seems like a win-win — the Panthers have a healthy Newton back, and a guy to stash and develop when the inevitable finally does come to pass.

A way-too-early-look at the Panthers’ many options at pick No. 7, and analysis of the ‘what-ifs’ of draft season (1)

Tua Tagovailoa (Butch Dill / USA Today)

I think if the Panthers become serious about a quarterback in the first round, the two logical options are Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Each would come with a bit of risk: Is Herbert really a top-10 prospect? Can Tagovailoa get past injury concerns?

Yet Tagovailoa’s sheer extraordinary ability might make him a must-draft. And Herbert, though rated all over the map by various analysts, “checks every box on paper with his size, athleticism, arm talent and intelligence,” according to Brugler.

Additionally, it’s highly unlikely that Carolina mortgages its long-term future at multiple positions to trade up for Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, who is expected to be selected No. 1 overall — even if that would mean pairing Burrow with new offensive coordinator (and his former passing game coordinator at LSU), Joe Brady.


What if they make a trade?

I can’t see the Panthers trading up in this year’s draft, especially with so many needs. Plus, there’s little value to be had in doing so, and under this new regime, risks will not be taken unless they are, as Tepper says, “smart risks”.

But I could see the Panthers trading down, to stockpile more picks in value rounds.

The tough call here: What if a true difference-maker at a position of immediate need (linebacker, defensive tackle) is available at No. 7, but Hurney knows he can fill multiple spots with late first- and second-round guys? Does he pick at No. 7 or trade down?

That will also depend on whether Hurney believes he has the staff to develop talent, and while this staff has a great history of that at the collegiate level, whether it will translate in the NFL is unproven.

What if they go offensive skill player?

If the Panthers draft a receiver or tight end at No. 7, it means that they don’t believe Curtis Samuel, the second-round pick from 2017, or veteran Greg Olsen factor into their future plans. It also means they forgot they couldn’t stop the run worth a dam — get it? — in 2019.

While Olsen’s next steps are a little murkier, I would find it seriously hard to believe the Panthers are giving up on Samuel. After all, he ranked among the highest percentage in the league in uncatchable balls thrown his way in 2019, and he didn’t have consistent quarterback play in his first truly healthy season.

Meanwhile, receiver DJ Moore had a 1,000-yard season in just his second year in the NFL, and running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey was voted a double All-Pro after posting a historic 1,000-yard rushing and receiving season.

There are some truly special receivers in this year’s draft class, but the primary concern for the Panthers last season was an inability to stop the run/create negative plays, and so I believe that will be among the first items addressed this spring.


However, if the Panthers trade down I can see picking up a receiver in the second or third round as a more feasible option, perhaps even reuniting Brady with a receiver such as LSU’s Justin Jefferson.

Anyway, repeat after me: “FREE CURTIS.”

Notable items

  • They might be OK in the secondary, despite a rocky finish to the 2019 season. I think that locking up cornerback James Bradberry and getting incoming third-year corner Donte Jackson some good coaching will be beneficial to both players, and the overall health of the unit. Safety Tre Boston proved his value on a one-year deal but might ask for more financial security this spring. Carolina can, and should, extend depth corner Ross co*ckrell, who also played safety, nickel and “Bolt” in their extra DB package. Overall, this is a position group that could first and foremost benefit from some consistency.
  • Carolina should find a return specialist, and stick with him. The shuffling-around at that position in 2019 became a point of embarrassment as the season progressed.
  • If second-year tackles Little and Dennis Daley can stay healthy long enough to get some good development in, I think the offensive line will actually be in decent shape. The Panthers can re-sign left guard Greg Van Roten to a manageable deal and develop Daley, while keeping an eye on an upcoming large contract for right tackle Taylor Moton. Center Matt Paradis will have a full, healthy offseason for the first time since breaking his leg in 2018, so he should be more consistent next fall. Upgrades could be found in the draft, but if Hurney drafts a tackle high, it means he is giving up on Little — and that’s just unlikely, because Little, who played in just four games last season due to multiple concussions and an ankle injury, simply hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do. It would also mean missing out on a premier defensive tackle or linebacker.

(Top photo of Isaiah Simmons: Gregory Fisher / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A way-too-early-look at the Panthers’ many options at pick No. 7, and analysis of the ‘what-ifs’ of draft season (2024)


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