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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Jonathan M. Alexander

Three dream scenarios for the Carolina Panthers as they approach the 2022 NFL draft

In less than three weeks, the wait, the guessing games and the anticipation will all be over.

The Panthers will be on the clock with the sixth overall pick in 2022 NFL draft. That is, unless of course they decide to trade back. Ideally, Carolina will address one of their major holes they have to fill — whether that’s at quarterback or left tackle.

But things don’t always go as planned. There’s always that one surprise pick that could either hurt or help Carolina.

Say, for instance, last year when the Bengals passed on left tackle Penei Sewell and drafted wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick. There was a chance Sewell could have fallen to the Panthers, and they addressed their biggest need that year.

But the Lions scooped him up with the sixth pick, one ahead of the Panthers. This year’s draft is a wild card. There isn’t a clear No. 1 pick like there has been the past three drafts.

Anything can happen.

So the Panthers are bringing in all the top quarterbacks this week for their top-30 visits, including Matt Corral, Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis, Sam Howell, Bailey Zappe and Carson Strong.

Former Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal and former Mississippi State offensive tackle Charles Cross will also visit this week, while offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu will visit next week.

The Panthers are already high on Ekwonu and Neal, who would be steals if they fall to No. 6. We’ll get to that later.

But for players like Cross, who Carolina is increasingly starting to like, and the top quarterbacks this week is crucial as the Panthers’ staff get to know them and see how they learn the offense.

For this draft to be a home run, though, the Panthers are going to have to get the best available player while still addressing their top needs. For that to happen, someone must reach within the first five picks.

Here is how that happens:

Which teams’ decisions could impact the Panthers?

Every team ahead of the Panthers.

The Jaguars, the Lions, the Texans, the Jets and the Giants all hold the top five picks in the draft. All are wild cards.

No. 1 Jacksonville: The only thing that seems to be certain about the first five picks is that former defensive end Aidan Hutchinson will be off the board by the time the Panthers pick at No. 6, and many people have him going first overall.

Neal and Ekwonu have also been mocked as the No. 1 overall pick, too, but that became less likely after the Jaguars placed the franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson last month.

So let’s assume Jaguars go Hutchinson first.

No. 2 Detroit: It’s hard to imagine that the Lions believe Jared Goff is the long-term answer, so do they go quarterback here?


Some draft experts have predicted the Lions will take Malik Willis. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty with this quarterback class, and many people will say taking a quarterback second overall is this draft is a reach.

The Lions desperately need to fix their defense and generate a pass rush. Travon Walker is there and has been climbing up the draft boards.

Whether the Lions take a quarterback or defensive end would be in the Panthers’ favor because it pushes back one of the top offensive tackles.

No. 3 Houston: OK, this might be one of the biggest mysteries of the draft because Houston has holes on the offensive line and defensive line. So they could go a number of ways.

New coach Lovie Smith is a defensive guy. But maybe they want to help rookie quarterback Davis Mills and draft either Ekwonu or Neal. That’s one of the top tackles off the board

No. 4 New York Jets: The Jets had the worst defense in the NFL in 2021 and they invested heavily in their offensive line. They’ll likely go defense here.

No. 5 New York Giants: This is the biggest pick to watch.

The Giants have the fifth and seventh picks. And they’ll trade one of those picks, perhaps to a quarterback-needy team. Most teams will probably want to get ahead of Carolina, which could also choose a quarterback.

And, ideally, this would be best for Carolina. Because it pushes down Neal or Ekwonu, whichever is still on the board.

But the Giants could also decide to keep their pick and address offensive line. That would hurt the Panthers.

Neal at No. 6

If the Giants trade out of the fifth spot, then Neal will likely be available when the Panthers pick sixth.

There are some within the Panthers who love Evan Neal, like most teams do. He’s considered a Day 1 starter. And if he falls, that’d be an ideal scenario for the Panthers.

And though, it’d be impossible to get a Day 2 pick if they remain at No. 6, addressing one of their biggest needs while getting the best available player is the best thing for them.

The Panthers could have gotten All-Pro left tackle Rashawn Slater last year when they picked seventh. They chose to go with cornerback Jaycee Horn instead, and he could still be great for the Panthers.

But all would be restored if Neal falls to sixth. And that seems possible with the way things look.

“If there’s a good player at six we’re going to take him,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said at the combine. This would qualify.

Behind quarterback, left tackle is one of the most important positions. We’ve been talking about this for years. The Panthers haven’t had a franchise left tackle since Jordan Gross retired in 2014.

Carolina becomes significantly better with Neal.

Pick: OT Evan Neal (No. 6)

Trading back with Seattle and recoup a Day 2 pick

If the Giants decided to take an offensive tackle with the fifth pick, the Panthers have got to consider trading back. At the same time, they’ve got to find a team willing to trade up for one of these quarterbacks.

Atlanta at No. 8, Seattle at No. 9, Washington at No. 11, New Orleans at No. 16 and Pittsburgh at No. 20 all need long-term answers at quarterback and could be interested.

Trading within the division, though, doesn’t happen often, so let’s eliminate Atlanta and New Orleans. And Washington just traded for and invested in Carson Wentz, so let’s eliminate them, too.

Carolina could trade with Seattle or Pittsburgh. A trade with Seattle could net them a third-round pick. And they could get Cross with the ninth pick, if he’s still on the board.

Cross, again, addresses the Panthers’ biggest need. Mississippi State ran a pass heavy, air-raid offense. So Cross knows how to pass block.

Or maybe they fall in love with Willis and take him with the ninth pick. Willis is considered the quarterback with the most upside.

But he’s also considered a project, who should sit the first year.

Pick: OT Charles Cross or QB Malik Willis (No. 9), and Seattle’s 72nd overall pick (third round).

Trading back with Pittsburgh and recoup a Day 2 pick and more

Meanwhile, a trade with Pittsburgh to move back 14 spots, will likely net them the Steelers’ 52nd pick in the second round this year and potentially a first- or second-round pick next year, too.

That’s a lot for the Steelers to give up.

But if they’re desperate enough, it could happen.

Remember, coach Mike Tomlin was front and center at Willis’ pro day and even ate chicken wings with the quarterback. So perhaps they’d be interested.

Accumulating those picks gives the Panthers a lot of options. If they get a 2023 first-round pick, they could use that, along with their own 2023 pick to move ahead in the draft again and get one of the top quarterbacks in what’s considered a much deeper quarterback class in 2023.

They could also try their luck at perhaps former Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who is projected to go late in the first round or early in the second round.

Or maybe Northern Iowa left tackle Trevor Penning is still there, and the Panthers grab Strong in the second round.

Pick: QB Desmond Ridder or LT Trevor Penning (Pick No. 20), Pittsburgh’s 52nd overall pick, Pittsburgh’s 2023 first round pick.

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