It is Week 17, but the Carolina Panthers season felt like it ended quite some time ago. What went from a promising off-season to a quietly good start to the season, then turned into a seven-game losing streak and question marks up and done the organization. While this year’s roster had a fair amount of talent, it did have some glaring holes that will need to be addressed in this upcoming off-season.
What the Panthers do in Week 17 will ultimately determine where they pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Panthers currently hold the number 10 pick but could draft as high as sixth overall depending on what the teams in front of them do. As of right now, Mike Adams, Eric Reid, Devin Funchess, Chris Clark, Julius Peppers, and Thomas Davis are all set to be free agents. The Panthers biggest needs going into the off-season are an edge rusher, safety, center, and offensive tackle. Let’s take a look at some potential draft prospects that the Panthers could be drafting in the first two rounds to address those needs.
Way Too Early Carolina Panthers 2019 NFL Draft Preview
The Panthers have 33 sacks going into week 17 which ranks seventh worst in the NFL. Peppers has hinted at retirement and at the age of 38, it is looking more than likely that this may be his last season. Mario Addison has been the Panthers best pass rusher this season recording eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss but has declined from previous years. Wes Horton has been invisible in the pass rush as well as Bryan Cox Jr. Efe Obada shined against the Cincinnati Bengals early on but has failed to create much of a rush outside of that game.
To put it bluntly, edge rusher may be the worst position on this Panthers roster but luckily for them, this upcoming draft is extremely deep at the position. If the Panthers pick as high as six or seven, Rashan Gary out of Michigan would be an ideal fit. Gary has recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2018 and recorded 12 tackles for loss and six sacks the previous season. The knock on him is that he does not have the sack numbers other pass rushers have in this class but plenty of scouts say that’s more of a scheme issue at Michigan. Gary may not have the elite speed but he’s very strong at the point of attack and can help in the run and pass game.
If the Panthers pick ninth overall or later, they may consider a different kind of defensive end. Clelin Ferrell out of Clemson is a talented edge rusher that has the ideal size and quickness to be a factor in the pass rush. He is very athletic and has recorded 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in 2018. If the Panthers were to trade back a few spots, they could go in the direction of Zach Allen out of Boston College. Allen may not get the hype his teammate Harold Landry received last year, but many believe he is as special of a prospect. The strongest aspect of his game is his play versus the run but he has a quick first step and bends particularly well when rushing quarterbacks. Allen has recorded 15 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks in 2018.
If the Panthers wait until or are thinking of grabbing another edge rusher in the second round, Brian Burns out of Florida State makes a lot of sense. At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, there are questions about Burns weight and his ability to play in early run downs, but he can flat out rush the passer. He has recorded 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2018 and had 14 sacks in his first two seasons as a Seminole. Burns is far more athletic and quicker than the other prospects mentioned above and is very similar to Addison when he first came into the league.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, this draft class is not extremely deep at the safety position. Both Adams and Reid could not return next season leaving a huge hole at the back end of the secondary once again for the Panthers. Rashaan Gaulden will return but he has seen limited playing time and is best suited as a strong safety who plays up in the box.
Deionte Thompson out of Alabama is a late bloomer and is the lone prospect at the position projected to go first round. Thompson has very good athleticism and instincts that are best suited to play single-high safety in the NFL. The Panthers like to run Cover 3 or Cover 1 a lot meaning Thompson would be a perfect fit for their scheme. In 2018, he has recorded 71 tackles, five pass break-ups, and two interceptions.
If the Panthers wait until day two of the draft to snag a safety, Johnathan Abram may be their guy. Abram is the leader of Mississippi State’s defense and has recorded 93 tackles, five pass break-ups, two interceptions, and 2.5 sacks. He’s faster than most of the prospects in this position group and is versatile enough to play as the single-high safety or play down in the box, similar to Reid. Abram would be a nice complement alongside the bigger and more physical Gaulden if Carolina chooses to go that route.
Long-time starter Ryan Kalil announced 2018 will be his last season which will leave a big void in the middle of the offensive line. Kalil is one of the smarter centers in the league but uses his quickness to create running lanes. While backup Tyler Larsen has proven to be reliable when Kalil has been injured, the Panthers may look to go a different direction.
Another Mississippi State product, Elgton Jenkins, would be a great fit in the center of the Panthers offensive line. Like Kalil, Jenkins is quicker than he is strong. He’s athletic enough to block at the second level with ease and is agile when in open space. Jenkins is reliable in pass coverage and could be a nice pickup for the Panthers day two of the draft.
Offensive tackle has been a problem for the Panthers the last few seasons. While Taylor Moton was a pleasant surprise in 2018, the position could use some much-needed talent. Clark filled in nicely and had some decent games in place of the injured Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams but will most likely not return. Williams is set to be a free agent and the Panthers may want to get rid of Kalil’s expensive contract so looking for younger offensive tackles is a realistic option for Carolina.
Florida’s Jawaan Taylor would be an excellent top 10 pick for the Panthers. Taylor is 6’5″ and 340 pounds and has excellent technique. He is well-balanced and has been very effective in the run game as well as protecting the quarterback. Taylor can play both left and right tackle and many scouts believe he is the best lineman in the draft.
On day two of the draft, Andre Dillard out of Washington State should be somebody the Panthers consider. While his run blocking skills may not be up to par, scouts say he is one of the better pass blockers in the draft. In a pass-driven league, Dillard will be very valuable to an offensive line. He does very well against speed rushers and displays nice footwork when recovering. Dillard and Moton could be the Panthers steady outside pass protectors for a very long time.