A look back at the Carolina Panthers’ best draft picks in franchise history

By Zach Goins

April 24, 2024 (updated)

Photo: Jason DeCrow / AP

Since the franchise’s first season in 1995, the Panthers have selected 12 players that have received NFL First-Team All-Pro honors, and one player (Julius Peppers) that has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (so far). Here is a look at the Carolina Panthers’ best draft picks in franchise history.

Steve Smith Sr. (2001) 

Third Round (No. 74 overall) 

Ice up, son. There may be no Panthers player more universally beloved in the Carolinas than Steve Smith Sr., thanks to his crisp route running, signature stiff arm, iconic touchdown celebrations, and trash talk. The fiery wide receiver was selected in the third round out of Utah as a return specialist, but quickly proved to be far more capable. Whether it was due to his third-round status or his undersized stature, Smith always played with a chip that never left his shoulder, which led to some of the most exciting plays in franchise history. On his first play ever, Smith set the tone for his 16-year career, returning the opening kickoff in the season opener 94 yards for a touchdown. Smith’s double-overtime walk-off touchdown against the Rams in the 2003 Divisional Round of the playoffs went down as one of the most memorable plays in team history, but it was one of hundreds of highlights for the future Hall of Famer. 

Jordan Gross (2003) 

First Round (No. 8 overall)  

You can’t talk about the Panthers offensive line history without talking about Jordan Gross. After starting at right tackle as a rookie, Gross moved across the line to left tackle and provided a sense of security for Jake Delhomme and Cam Newton throughout his 11-year career. The definition of consistency, Gross started all 167 games he played in (Panthers franchise record) and missed just nine career games on the way to three Pro Bowl appearances and All-Pro honors in 2008. Gross’s reliability over the years in Carolina earned him a spot in the Panthers’ inaugural Hall of Honor induction ceremony in 2019. 

Muhsin Muhammad (1996)

Second Round (No. 43 overall) 

Before there was “Luuuuuke,” there was “Moooooose.” Drafted in the Panthers second year of existence, Muhsin Muhammad was one of the first breakout stars in franchise history. During his prime, Moose played opposite Steve Smith to create a formidable receiving tandem, as Muhammad’s bigger frame and physical style of play complimented Smith’s speed and quickness. Muhammad’s most iconic play came in Super Bowl XXXVIII when he hauled in a record-setting 85-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Delhomme to give the Panthers a short-lived lead. A year later in 2004, Moose led the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns, stepping up while Smith was sidelined with a broken leg. Over 11 seasons in Carolina, Muhammad racked up the stats, cementing himself in second place in nearly all receiving categories in the franchise record books.

Cam Newton (2011) 

First Round (No. 1 overall) 

When the Panthers needed a hero most, it arrived in the form of a 6’5”, 248-pound quarterback with a cannon for a right arm. On the heels of a 2-14 record, a fired coaching staff, and incompetence under center, Cam Newton brought new life to the franchise, and the Carolinas. Despite a loss in his first career game, Newton broke Peyton Manning’s rookie record for most passing yards in a debut, which served as a sign of what was to come. From the Superman celebrations to the touchdown ball giveaways and the dab, Newton turned the Panthers into a national brand on his way to winning NFL MVP during the franchise’s record-breaking 2015 season and Super Bowl appearance. Newton still holds the team record for career passing yards, passing touchdowns, and rushing touchdowns. 

Julius Peppers (2002)

First Round (No. 2 overall)

Prior to Newton, the highest draft pick in franchise history had come in 2002 when the Panthers selected a homegrown talent in Julius Peppers. Hailing from Southern Nash High School in Bailey, North Carolina, Peppers turned heads as an All-American defensive end at North Carolina, as well as a forward on the Tar Heels basketball team. His unique athleticism as a hooper and 6-foot-7 frame made Peppers a freak of nature rushing off the edge, often leaping into the air to snag an interception or deflect a pass on his way to the quarterback. Peppers took home the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2002, and his accolades just kept rolling in throughout his career, including three First-Team All-Pro selections, nine Pro Bowls, and inductions into the Panthers Hall of Honor, North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, and as of this year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ryan Kalil (2007) 

Second Round (No. 59 overall) 

The big guys up front are hardly ever considered glamorous draft picks, but they sure can change the trajectory of a franchise. Center Ryan Kalil did just that when the Panthers selected him in 2007, marking the beginning of a 12-year stint anchoring the offensive line. Kalil’s impact in Carolina can be measured by his five Pro Bowls, three All-Pro selections, and his 2011 contract that made him the highest-paid center in NFL history. But beyond personal accolades and dollar signs, Kalil was a key contributor to Cam Newton’s success. When Kalil was at his best holding down the Panthers offensive line, Newton was too, creating one of the most potent offenses in the league during the mid-2010s. 

Luke Kuechly (2012) 

First Round (No. 9 overall)

The year after drafting a franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, the Panthers hit the jackpot again with Luke Kuechly. Fans quickly learned not to be fooled by his Clark Kent demeanor once they realized he was Superman at middle linebacker. Kuechly earned Defensive Rookie of the Year and followed it up with Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Kuechly was known as one of the smartest and hardest working players in the league, and hours of film study allowed him to identify and disrupt plays before they even started. Unfortunately for Kuechly– and Panthers fans– the 2015 season marked the first of three concussions in as many years, which contributed to the seven-time Pro Bowler’s early retirement at just 28 years old in 2020. The “Luuuuuke” chants will forever echo in Bank of America Stadium.  

Christian McCaffrey (2017) 

First Round (No. 8 overall) 

It’s no exaggeration to consider Christian McCaffrey the most exciting player in the NFL right now, and Panthers fans got the first dose of CMC mania. After lighting up the college football world at Stanford, McCaffrey came to Carolina as a human Swiss Army Knife, sharing the backfield with veteran running back Jonathan Stewart. McCaffrey earned the majority of his stripes in the passing game as a rookie, but it was the next two years that would change everything. CMC’s sophomore campaign saw him break the Panthers’ record for all-purpose yards in a season, while he became just the third player in NFL history to join the elusive 1,000-1,000 club in 2019. McCaffrey’s time in Carolina was oh so sweet, but short, as injuries plagued him in 2020 and 2021, before the Panthers brass opted to trade the All-Pro to the 49ers. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and the No. 22 jerseys that still show up on Sundays in Charlotte are a strong reminder of that. 

Thomas Davis Sr. (2005) 

First Round (No. 14 overall) 

Besides Sam Mills himself, no player in Panthers history better embodies the team’s “Keep Pounding” mantra than linebacker Thomas Davis. As a hybrid safety-linebacker in college, Davis’s versatility quickly made him a valuable weapon on the Panthers defense. Three ACL tears in a span of 23 months from 2009 to 2011 seemed to send his career to a premature end, but Davis just kept pounding. In 2012, he became the first professional athlete in any sport to come back from three ACL tears in the same knee, but Davis didn’t just come back, he dominated. As the heart and soul of the Panthers defense, Davis and Kuechly were one of the most feared linebacker duos in the NFL, making three consecutive Pro Bowls (2015-2017). Beyond his on-field legacy, Davis became a beloved part of the Charlotte community, founding the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation, and winning the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2014.

Other notable Carolina Panthers draft picks: 

Kris Jenkins (2001) 
Second Round (No. 44 overall)
Mike Rucker (1999) 
Second Round (No. 38 overall) 
Jon Beason (2007)
First Round (No. 25 overall) 
Jonathan Stewart (2008)
First Round (No. 13 overall) 
Charles Johnson (2007)
Third Round (No. 83 overall) 

Josh Norman (2012)
Fifth Round (No. 143 overall) 
Derrick Brown (2020) 
First Round (No. 7 overall) 
DeAngelo Williams (2006)
First Round (No. 27 overall)
Tre Boston (2014)
Fourth Round (No. 128 overall) 
Chris Gamble (2004)
First Round (No. 28 overall)

The 2024 NFL Draft begins Thursday, April 25 at 8 p.m. EST and continues through April 27.

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