CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers hosted a slew of quarterbacks this week ahead of the upcoming NFL draft, including the top three prospects in Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral.
Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe and Nevada’s Carson Strong also came to Bank of America Stadium, but they likely would be options only if Carolina looks to fill that need outside the first round.
Willis, Pickett and Corral are candidates for Carolina at No. 6, or somewhere else in the first round if general manager Scott Fitterer trades back.
The Panthers also are entertaining the top left tackles — they met with Alabama’s Evan Neal and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross this week, and N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu will visit next week — as candidates at No. 6.
It’s a busy time for third-year Carolina coach Matt Rhule and Fitterer, who is entering his second season as GM. But they’d rather be busy than the way the offseason has been the past two years with the COVID-19 pandemic turning pre-draft preparation into virtual visits and phone calls.
No spring break for them.
For Rhule, whose process of building a team is centered on personal relationships, this is a vital time. He hasn’t had this kind of access to draft candidates since being hired in January 2021.
“That’s a really important part of this that got lost the last few years, to be honest with you,’’ Rhule recently said.
The normality of this offseason has helped Rhule and Fitterer better define what to do, regardless of whether it’s a quarterback or tackle.
It’s also helped define the rest of the roster through free agency. Here’s a position-by-position look at the roster heading into the draft:
Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker
It’s clear Darnold isn’t the answer after three failed seasons with the New York Jets and a 4-7 record with Carolina last season. He’s on the roster simply because his fifth-year option was picked up a year ago when the Panthers traded for him. Walker is a backup at best.
Fitterer has made it clear he plans to add another quarterback. He was willing to give up three first-round picks, players and additional picks for former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who ultimately went to the Cleveland Browns. He’s strongly considering drafting one in first round, something the Panthers haven’t done since Cam Newton was the top pick in 2011.
Christian McCaffrey, D’Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, Darius Bradwell, Spencer Brown
No draft picks need to be used here. A healthy McCaffrey with Foreman and Hubbard make this position one of the deepest and most talented on the roster, as new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo builds a power-run-based scheme.
DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr., Rashard Higgins, Brandon Zylstra, Shi Smith, C.J. Saunders, Aaron Parker
The top three are solid if Marshall Jr. makes a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers add another wide receiver for depth in the draft, which is deep at that position. Smith facing legal issues may add urgency to that.
Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble, Colin Thompson, Stephen Sullivan, Giovanni Ricci (also a fullback)
Re-signing Thomas was one of Fitterer’s big moves before free agency, so the team believes in him as a blocker. Tremble also is a solid blocker and showed promise as receiver as a rookie, but not enough that the Panthers won’t look for a receiving tight end project in the lower rounds of the draft.
Tackles: Brady Christensen, Taylor Moton, Cameron Erving, Aaron Monteiro, Austen Pleasants
Guards: Austin Corbett, Pat Elflein, Dennis Daley, John Miller, Michael Jordan, Deonte Brown, Mike Horton
Center: Bradley Bozeman, Sam Tecklenburg
Signing Bozeman and Corbett solidified the middle and right side of the line, which already was solid at right tackle with Moton. There are plenty of decent candidates at left guard, which means the biggest question is whether Christensen can hold down the left tackle spot. Rhule seems to think he can, but that doesn’t preclude taking one of the top tackles at No. 6 in what is an exceptionally strong class. Neal or Ekwonu make the most sense for what Carolina wants to do with the run game.
Ends: Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos, Marquis Haynes Sr., Frank Herron, Joe Jackson, Darryl Johnson, Austin Larkin
Tackle: Derrick Brown, Matt Ioannidis, Daviyon Nixon, Bravvion Roy, Phil Hoskins, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
Adding Ioannidis in free agency was key for this group to solidify the middle. Finding another big body in the later rounds wouldn’t be a reach to add depth to this group.
Shaq Thompson, Frankie Luvu, Cory Littleton, Damien Wilson, Kamal Martin, Julian Stanford, Azur Kamara
The Panthers believe Luvu can replace 2021 sack leader Haason Reddick. Wilson and Littleton are upgrades over Jermaine Carter in the middle. But because linebackers also are valuable on special teams, adding one in the middle to late rounds makes sense.
Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn, CJ Henderson, Rashaan Melvin, Keith Taylor Jr., Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, Chris Westry, Madre Harper
Securing Jackson for the long term was key in free agency. Assuming Horn returns 100% from a broken foot and Henderson improves after a year in the system, this group joins running back as arguably the deepest on the team.
Jeremy Chinn, Xavier Woods, Sean Chandler, Kenny Robinson, Sam Franklin Jr., Juston Burris, Myles Hartsfield
Adding Woods next to Chinn should make this a strength. Plenty of experienced depth, but a mid-to-late-round safety for special teams and development is a definite option.
Kicker: Zane Gonzalez, Lirim Hajrullahu
Punter: Johnny Hekker
Long snapper: J.J. Jansen, Thomas Fletcher
Re-signing Gonzalez and adding Hecker in free agency makes this group as solid as it gets.