Panthers' Top 2022 NFL Draft Targets

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2022

Panthers' Top 2022 NFL Draft Targets

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    The Carolina Panthers are one of the most interesting teams in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft.

    Thanks to trades for Sam Darnold and C.J. Henderson, the Panthers' stockpile of draft picks is not all that exciting. They have the sixth overall selection but aren't scheduled to pick again until the 137th pick.

    That puts immense pressure for the Panthers front office to get that sixth pick right Thursday. Trading back would help them recoup some of the draft picks they lost, but they may not be able to find a partner or like a prospect enough to ignore that route.

    The team has two glaring needs they could choose to use the pick on: an offensive tackle or a quarterback. Both typically require top-10 picks to find a great prospect.

    If the team does stay put and pick at No. 6, these are the three options who should be at the top of the board.

OT Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State

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    The Carolina Panthers finished second-to-last in PFF's offensive line rankings for the 2021 season. Right tackle Taylor Moton was the only offensive lineman of the group to score above a 70.0 for the season. Matt Paradis was the only other starter to earn a grade above 60.

    In short, the Panthers have a whole lot of holes on the offensive line and not a lot of draft capital to address them with.

    They weren't active on the free-agent market, either. That leaves Cam Erving or Brady Christensen as the most likely starter at left tackle. The two combined to allow seven sacks last season, per PFF.

    The Panthers could reverse course on the perception of their offensive line by making a serious investment with the sixth pick. Ikem Ekwonu (scouting report) should be at the top of their list as someone who could change the mentality of their offensive line.

    He's a mauler in the run game whose pass-blocking continues to get better.

OT Charles Cross, Mississippi State

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    In the latest mock draft from the B/R Scouting Department, the Panthers opt for Ekwonu, but Charles Cross (scouting report) is also worthy of consideration.

    The Mississippi State tackle thrived in Mike Leach's pass-heavy offense. He surrendered just two sacks and 14 hurries in his final season with Bulldogs, per PFF.

    Cross did some of his best work against the strongest competition, and his ability to keep some talented pass-rushers in front him should be enticing to the Carolina contingent at the draft.

    Cross isn't quite the run-blocker that Ekownu is. With Christian McCaffrey in the backfield, that could be an important consideration. The other way to look at that, though, is that it's easier to expect the star running back to create yards with less-than-ideal blocking.

    The Panthers don't have a quarterback they can reasonably expect to make the best out of bad blocking.

QB Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

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    The Panthers' best path forward is to invest in the offensive line early and continue to build for a quarterback who isn't yet on the roster.

    But the allure of taking a quarterback with no clear answer at the position is too tempting to be ignored. Even if they decide to go for a quarterback, the one they should target in the draft is unclear.

    Malik Willis has the most upside. His athletic tools, including running back speed and agility paired with a strong arm, could make him a playmaking star in a few years. Then again, Willis struggled against the best competition he saw, and he's still raw as a prospect.

    Kenny Pickett had the best final season of the top quarterbacks. He exploded in his 2021 season for more than 4,000 yards passing and 42 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. That's just a one-year sample size after throwing for just 38 touchdowns and 24 touchdowns in his previous three seasons as a starter.

    Desmond Ridder is the happy medium between both and actually posted the highest relative athletic score, per Kent Lee Platte of Pro Football Network.

    He also showed the ability to take care of the ball and make plays throughout his four years as a starter for Cincinnati. If the Panthers are looking for someone who could start in 2022 and have a high-enough ceiling to take in the first round, then Ridder is the guy.