By Zach Goins
April 19, 2021
Photo: Perry Knotts / AP
As the end of April nears, NFL general managers and coaches around the league are entering scramble mode– watching as much tape as possible, conducting final interviews and making the last adjustments to their massive draft board. The 2021 NFL Draft is quickly approaching and with the first round kicking off on April 29, the Panthers and new general manager Scott Fitterer have plenty of work to do.
Whether you’ve kept up with the never-ending mock drafts or not, there are plenty of ways the Panthers can choose to go with the eighth-overall pick. Earlier this month Carolina acquired former first-round quarterback Sam Darnold in a trade with the Jets. While the team could still opt to draft a quarterback, other positions like offensive line, tight end, defensive back and linebacker, among others, are now more likely options with Darnold in Charlotte.
Let’s break down the positions of need and see who the best fits are for the Panthers with the eighth overall pick.
With a shiny new investment under center, it will be hard for the Panthers to pass on offensive lineman Penei Sewell out of Oregon– assuming he’s still on the board. While it might not be a flashy or fun decision to draft a lineman with a first-round pick, it doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback if you can’t keep them upright, so adding Sewell would provide added security for Darnold. While Sewell primarily played offensive tackle for the Ducks, and the Panthers need help on the interior at guard, depth along the line is a luxury not many teams can afford to pass up. If Sewell is available, Matt Rhule can figure out how to shuffle the depth chart and make it work.
If the Panthers settle on a different position of need at No. 8, Darnold could still find his new best friend in round two. A pick like Teven Jenkins, offensive tackle from Oklahoma State, will help keep the new quarterback from taking too many hits. He’s spent most of his collegiate days as an exterior player, but he’s proven his ability to play on both the left and right side of the line during his days at Oklahoma State, and his shorter arms may push him inside in the pros.
It’s always convenient when the best available player aligns with one of your biggest needs, and that very well may be the case for Carolina if Florida tight end Kyle Pitts is still on the board at eight. Carolina hasn’t had a true threat at tight end since Greg Olsen departed following the 2019 season, and even his last few years with the Panthers were plagued by injury. Week in and week out Pitts was one of the most electric players in college football last season, racking up 12 touchdowns for the Gators and earning All-American honors. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Pitts has the size to line up at tight end in the league, but his 4.4-second 40-yard-dash makes him versatile enough to play receiver, too.
If Pitts isn’t available at No. 8, don’t expect Carolina to address their need at tight end until day three. Predictions get hazy when attempting to guess this deep into the draft, but with the departure of blocking specialist Chris Manhertz last month, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Carolina opt for a blocking-first player rather than a flashier receiving tight end. For that reason, Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble would be a solid fit as someone who could help buy time for Darnold, open run lanes for Christian McCaffrey, and occasionally sneak out for a pass or two.
The Panthers are looking to add a cornerback capable of starting opposite Donte Jackson. Although they’ve signed A.J. Bouye in free agency, the draft may provide depth and a long-term solution at the position. If that’s the case, Carolina could trade back a few slots, pick up some draft capital in the form of additional picks, and still secure an instant starter in Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. After grading out as the best corner in college football last season, Surtain has cemented himself as the consensus top pick at the position. But to be honest, this pick may not even require the Panthers to trade back, as most mock drafts have him going in the top ten.
Another viable option if Carolina is looking to trade back a few spots could be South Carolina Gamecock Jaycee Horn. The cornerback has an impressive blend of size, speed and man coverage skills that would make him a nice complement to Jackson. Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley could be another potential fit, but would also likely require the Panthers to drop back a few picks. Farley was once considered the best cornerback in this draft, but his decision to opt out of the 2020 season coupled with recent back surgery to address a herniated disc means teams haven’t seen him in action in quite some time. Farley should still be a first round pick, but there are more question marks surrounding him than there once were.
Should they opt to wait and address the cornerback position on Day 2 of the draft, Carolina could still steal a potential starter like Georgia’s Tyson Campbell. While he’s a little rougher around the edges, there’s no denying his pure athletic ability. Let defensive coordinator Phil Snow polish Campbell’s technique, and the ceiling is extremely high.
Last year was a struggle at linebacker following Luke Kuechly’s surprise departure. Shaq Thompson stepped up to lead the linebackers, and Jermaine Carter made tremendous strides, but veteran free agent Tahir Whitehead was a bust. Now Carolina is looking to shore up the linebacking corps, and they’ve made a few big moves in free agency this offseason bringing in veterans Haason Reddick and Denzel Perryman. That means linebacker likely isn’t at the top of their wishlist with the eighth pick, but Micah Parsons out of Penn State should be a legitimate option for Fitterer to consider. Another 2020 opt-out, Parsons’ year off hasn’t hurt his stock one bit– but that’s what happens when you’re this explosive and athletic. Picking Parsons would be a luxury at No. 8, but not the best move for Carolina.
A more realistic pick could be North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt. The former quarterback-turned-linebacker dominated for the Tar Heels over the last two years, and while he may not be the most complete linebacker in the draft, he very well may be the most athletic. Rhule and Snow have shown an affinity for versatile defenders (Exhibit A: Jeremy Chinn), and Surratt’s frame, mobility and coverage skills allow him to line up at outside linebacker, or pack on a few pounds and play inside. Keep the hometown kid in Carolina and draft Surratt as a value pick with tremendous upside in round three or four.
Five quarterbacks sit atop this year’s draft class, and there’s a decent chance at least three are gone by the time Carolina is on the clock at No. 8. Clemson star Trevor Lawrence is headed to Jacksonville as the consensus first overall pick, which leaves North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Alabama’s Mac Jones. At just 23 years old, Darnold is similar in age as all of these QBs, and it looks like Carolina is willing to ride with the former Jet for at least a year or two.
Still, Fitterer said that the acquisition does not preclude the Panthers from drafting a quarterback if it’s the right fit, but all signs point to other positions. If they do select a quarterback, it’s looking like either Lance or Fields will be the best bet for Carolina at No. 8, but don’t count on it.