Folks, it’s that time of year again!
Some call it “silly season”, “smokescreen season” or simply mock the mocks mocked by mockers.
Love it or hate it, it’s mock draft season. And that means “Mock Talk” returns for a third year, in which I will break down various mock drafts from analysts around the NFL as they project who the Carolina Panthers might select this April with the No. 16 pick in the draft.
First, let’s keep things clear on Carolina’s biggest needs — you may hear fluff and buzz that proclaims otherwise, but say it with me: Pass-rushers. Offensive linemen.
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Re-building and recharging the Panthers’ front lines are of the utmost importance this spring. They need to protect quarterback Cam Newton, who is recovering from a cleanout surgery on his previously surgically-repaired right shoulder. They need to add speed and aggression at pass-rusher, with Julius Peppers’ retirement and a startling lack of those qualities in 2018.
They must also stay versatile: A center drafted to replace veteran Ryan Kalil, who retired after the 2018 season, might be more coveted if he also has guard abilities. A depth tackle may be asked to swing from left to right, and vice versa. A pass-rusher must feel comfortable pressuring off the edge, in three-and-four man fronts and possibly even on stunts to the interior. They must also be stout against the run. These qualities, second only to “speed”, will be in the front of general manager Marty Hurney’s mind in the coming weeks, and especially at next week’s NFL Combine.
Here’s a look at some pre-combine mock drafts. Could they be feasible?
Mel Kiper Jr., Mock Draft 2.0, ESPN (insider): Clelin Ferrell (6-foot-5, 265), defensive end, Clemson
What Kiper thinks: “Ferrell is a classic 4-3 defensive end who can get after quarterbacks — he had 21 sacks over the past two seasons — and hold his own in the run game.”
What I think: Excellent, excellent, excellent. Ferrell is long, strong and fast — three qualities of a great pass-rusher — and a day-one impact player in the NFL. Some have felt Ferrell will be selected even earlier, which gives Carolina great value for the pick if he does fall to No. 16. With the emergence of Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) as a post-Senior Bowl draft crush of many, Ferrell actually may be available at No. 16.
Dan Kadar, SBNation Feb. 11 Mock Draft: Montez Sweat (6-foot-6, 245), Mississippi State
What Kadar thinks: “Whether it’s Sweat, Ferrell of Clemson, or Brian Burns of Florida State, the Panthers will have options at pass rusher with the 16th pick. Sweat has the length advantage over Ferrell and the strength advantage over Burns.”
What I think: Another solid potential pick for the Panthers. Trades, the entrance of quarterback Kyler Murray and a plethora of talented defensive linemen in this year’s draft means that Carolina will probably have their pick of one of a few really talented edge rushers at the No. 16 pick point. Sweat turned just about every head present at the Senior Bowl and fits the style of pass-rusher Carolina has enjoyed in the past.
Benjamin Solak, The Draft Network, Feb. 18 Mock Draft: Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (6-foot, 208) safety, Florida
What Solak thinks: “Gardner-Johnson would have to step into the single-high role which he played with more mixed results over the last two seasons. He has the athleticism to win there, but it’s a question of mental processing and maximizing his playmaking ability. But Gardner-Johnson’s versatility gives the Panthers’ defense the freedom to rotate, spin, and work three-safety packages nickel packages that play to CGJ’s and Gaulden’s strengths. That’s big versatility in today’s NFL.”
What I think: I like Solak’s thoughts on versatility. However, the three-year extension of safety Eric Reid means a few things for Carolina: First, they don’t feel they have to go out and spend a high draft pick on a safety, preferring to use those picks to invest in offensive and defensive linemen. Second, they feel they can play Reid anywhere, which lessens the need of a hyper-versatile player at a high pick-point across from him — especially since they have Rashaan Gaulden, last year’s versatile third-round pick, on the roster. I can see Carolina drafting a safety — perhaps with that third-round compensatory pick they’re slated to get — but Reid’s presence and extreme needs on the offensive and defensive lines make it unlikely they pick a safety at No. 16. While Chauncey-Gardner could be a great fit for the Panthers, they’d probably not target him or a player like him until later rounds.
Finally, other than Reid, the Panthers are not known for putting premiums on the safety position, especially with other pressing needs. Players like Justin Reid and Jessie Bates would’ve been fantastic fits for them in 2018, but they opted for a pick that they felt was a higher need, selecting receiver DJ Moore at No. 24 to give Newton another weapon. It’s hard to imagine that would change now.
Maurice Jones-Drew, NFL Network: Andre Dillard (6-foot-5, 306), tackle, Washington State
What Jones-Drew thinks: “With Cam Newton’s health concerns, the Panthers have to be able to protect their franchise face.”
What I think: One of the most important things Carolina can do in 2019 is invest in its offensive line, after position catastrophes in 2016 and 2018 and remaining uncertainty at left tackle. Even if you slept through late-night Pac-12 games last fall, Dillard jumps out as a strong, capable pass-protector. In Mike Leach’s pass-happy air-raid offense as a three-year starter, Dillard will probably just need some work as a run-blocker.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue