The Carolina Panthers are betting big on Ikem Ekwonu to be an anchor of their offensive line for years to come after selecting him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft on Thursday.
A three-year starter at NC State, Ekwonu began his college career at left guard. He moved to left tackle midway through his freshman season and eventually stayed there for good.
Ekwonu was named to the All-ACC team in each of the past two seasons, including a first-team selection as a redshirt sophomore in 2021. He was also a unanimous All-American and won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best blocking offensive lineman in the ACC last year.
All of those accolades certainly won't calm the hype for Ekwonu as he prepares to start his professional career. Here is the Panthers' depth chart with the NC State alum added to the offensive line:
QB: Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker
RB: Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard, D'Onta Foreman
FB: Giovanni Ricci
WR 1: DJ Moore
WR 2: Robbie Anderson
WR 3: Terrace Marshall Jr., Rashard Higgins
TE: Tommy Tremble, Ian Thomas, Stephen Sullivan, Colin Thompson
LT: Ikem Ekwonu, Cameron Erving, Brady Christensen, Aaron Monteiro
LG: Pat Elflein, Michael Jordan, Dennis Daley
C: Bradley Bozeman, Pat Elflein, Sam Tecklenburg
RG: Austin Corbett, Deonte Brown, Mike Horton
RT: Taylor Moton, Austen Pleasants
In a draft that's deep on offensive linemen, Ekwonu is arguably the best in the class regardless of position. He's listed at 6'4" and 310 pounds with high-end athleticism to play tackle in the NFL.
B/R's NFL scouting department has Ekwonu ranked as the No. 2 offensive tackle, behind Alabama's Evan Neal, and No. 3 overall player in this class.
In his official scouting report, B/R's Brandon Thorn compared Ekwonu to two-time All-Pro Jason Peters:
"Ekwonu will need to learn to harness his aggressive nature and play with better precision before reaching his full potential at tackle, but he has A+ physical traits and the white-hot motor to appeal to scouts and coaches at multiple positions. He has the versatility to be a longtime impact starter at either tackle or guard in any scheme."
Ekwonu is the second NC State offensive lineman to be drafted in the first round in the past three years. The Minnesota Vikings selected Garrett Bradbury with the 18th overall pick in 2019.
Rashawn Slater and Penei Sewell set a high bar for rookie left tackles in the NFL after their performances in 2021. Ekwonu will look to follow the example they set while also being a stabilizing force for Sam Darnold to help the Panthers' offense take a step forward in 2022.
Virtually everything about Carolina's roster is a mess right now, with no easy solutions to fix it.
The best approach for general manager Scott Fitterer to take is the one he appears to be going with in the draft. Selecting Ekwonu suggests the Panthers want to build their foundation before investing heavily in other areas.
Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson ranked Carolina's offensive line the second-worst unit in the league last season, ahead of only the Miami Dolphins.
Fitterer did sign right guard Austin Corbett away from the Los Angeles Rams in free agency. He is a solid starter who brings a level of competency to a unit that needs it.
Carolina will eventually figure things out at quarterback, but the best approach for the team at this moment was to address the offensive line.
Ekwonu can slot in as the starting left tackle for the Panthers in 2022. He gives them rare upside at one of the most important positions on the field.