Draft Grades: Carolina Panthers

Newly appointed GM Scott Fitterer gave the Panthers exactly what needed to kickstart their rebuild: value all over the field. The Panthers are beginning a new era under Matt Rhule. Nothing is certain of the Panthers’ future, Fitterer’s job is to scrape together as many talented, hungry football players as he can, and then Rhule takes over, motivating them to fight for spots. The Panthers are now officially the youngest team in the league with an average age of 24.2, and this year’s draft was a huge part of their rebuilding process. 

After trading back a shocking five times, the Panthers went from having six picks on day 1 to 11 players drafted at the end of day 3. Fitterer accumulated nine picks in rounds 3-7, selecting a wide variety of positions on both sides of the ball. Fitterer executed this draft strategy to perfection, grabbing a ton of talented players to battle not only for roster spots, but starting spots too, in what should be a competitive restructured Panthers team. 

Round 1, Pick 8: CB Jaycee Horn, South Carolina

Grade: A-

Jaycee Horn is a certified dawg, according to Richard Sherman and myself. He may not have been the safest pick at number 8 overall, but he had the highest upside of any defender on the board. Horn basically is the mold of Panthers DC Phil Snow’s ideal cornerback 1. A big, physical corner with elite athletic ability is exactly who Snow needs to lead his press man coverage defensive scheme. 

Horn stands rigid at 6’1” 205 lbs with 33” arms, securing a 4.39 40-yard dash, 41.5” vertical, 11′ 1” broad jump, and 19 reps on the bench. Those absurd measurements are a testament to the variety of ways that Horn can beat number one pass-catchers. Horn will blaze past receivers with 90th percentile speed, he can out-jump nearly anyone with a 96th percentile Burst Score (via Playerprofiler), and he can beat you physically because he knows how to use his body. 

Horn’s a phenomenal athlete, but his real potential stems from the knowledge and control he has of his own body and skills. Horn seems to always just be in the way. His big frame combined with elite awareness and reach allow him to effectively contest almost everything that’s thrown his way. In a division where Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Micheal Thomas sit at the WR1 table, Jaycee Horn is the only corner in this draft I would feel comfortable taking as my number one guy going forward. All of those wideouts are 6’3” or taller, and although Horn is only 6’1”, he plays like he’s 6’5”, and that large presence will be vital to his success against these bigger, more experienced receivers. 

Now, let’s pump the brakes a bit on the Horn Hype Train and take a look at his shortcomings. There aren’t many, but Horn has two glaring weaknesses in his game that need correcting. The first is his tackling. Not only does Horn take bad angles, but he seems uncommitted. A lot of SEC corners have tackling issues, but many of them are remedied by good coaching at the next level. With Horn’s size and athleticism, his tackling mentality and technique shouldn’t be an issue for long. If it is, then the problem is his mindset, not his ability. 

Another hindrance in Horn’s game is his tendency to grapple with receivers and draw penalties. A lot of flags were thrown in Horn’s direction at South Carolina due to his liberal grabbing and blatant physicality. As NFL referees become softer year by year, this is an aspect of Horn’s development that Carolina will have to monitor very closely. The Panthers staff should focus on these issues as quickly as possible in camp because Horn will be thrust into the CB1 role from day one, and will be expected to perform like one. It’ll be very interesting to see how he fairs lining up against some of the biggest names in football right off the bat. 

Round 2, Pick 59 (via Chicago): WR Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU

Grade: A+

Terrace Marshall Jr. to Carolina just makes sense. From his affinity for lining up in the slot to his LSU connection with Joe Brady, everything just fits together nicely. Marshall played third-wheel to Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase’s historic breakout season in 2019 at LSU, however he still managed to scrape together a very respectable 671 yards and an astonishing 13 TDs in 12 games. Then came 2020. Jefferson is gone, CEH is gone, Chase opts out, and suddenly Marshall is the number one offensive weapon for the defending national champs. He certainly didn’t shy away from the spotlight, racking up 43 catches for 731 yards and 10 TDs in only 7 games.

Marshall brings something unheard of to the Panthers offense since Kelvin Benjamin ate that last Popeyes biscuit and became a tight end: It’s called a red-zone threat. Marshall scored 10 receiving TDs on an unranked LSU team in seven games last season. Robby Anderson, DJ Moore, and Curtis Samuel had a combined 10 receiving touchdowns in a combined 46 games last season. 

The Panthers just got a red-zone threat, which they desperately need, who plays primarily in the slot, which neither of their remaining starters do, and who has ties to the Panthers’ offense through Joe Brady, and they traded down in the second round to get him. Scott Fitterer, well done sir.

Round 3, Pick 70: OT Brady Christensen, BYU

Grade: B-

I like the position, but I don’t know that Brady Christensen is the best fit for the Panthers’ high volume, fast-paced, rushing offense. Christensen is an elite pass blocker in this draft, but lacks quick lateral movement. In layman’s terms, he’s slow and clunky. Two important, and rather fragile, jewels of the Panthers franchise reside in the Panthers backfield, and Christensen plays the most significant role in protecting them as a left tackle. A third round tackle won’t cut it for this developing Panthers team in a season where winning will dictate the direction and attitude of the club. 

On the flip side, Sam Darnold loves this pick. Christensen’s play at BYU was immaculate. He started all 13 games in two successive seasons, gaining All-American honors in 2019. While his consistently high level of play is admirable, BYU is an Independent school in the FBS, so their competition is somewhat lacking. This gives me pause because Christensen would be taking over a massive responsibility as the left tackle in the Panthers offense. Christensen will have to increase his mobility a bit in order to maximize the Panthers’ offensive production.

Round 3, Pick 83: TE Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame

Grade: B

Elite Grit. If there are any two words that describe Tommy Tremble, it’s these. Tremble is a blocking tight end with tons of potential as a pass catcher and scouts seem to think that Tremble’s best play is well ahead of him. He’s got the ideal, well… everything for a tight end. Combine/Pro Day numbers confirm that Tremble’s speed, size, arms, hands, and strength are all reminiscent of one George Kittle. 

Obviously, Tremble is no George Kittle, but he has the same play intensity. Every block is the one that will break the game open, every catch is the beginning of a run, every play is an opportunity to flatten someone. This is the energy that you feel seeping through the TV when you watch this guy play. Matt Rhule loves intensity, and Tremble is the embodiment of it.

This is a project pick for sure. As a blocker, Tremble will start from day 1, especially since the Panthers lost Chris Manhertz, who has been their blocking tight end for years. However, his receiving game needs some major work. At first glance, it seems foolish to take a one-dimensional tight end in the third round, but Tremble’s athletic upside makes this pick very intriguing. I would love to see Tremble take snaps at full back as well because he’s a guy that could bust games open in the run game provided he gets the correct feel for the position. 

Round 4, Pick 126: RB Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

Grade: A-

The Panthers just drafted a 2,000-yard rusher in the fourth round, as if their backfield needed more explosiveness. This pick really just solidifies the trust Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer are putting in Sam Darnold. ‘Hey kid, we got you some nice new toys that fill out our offense perfectly, now go do something with them,’ Rhule said to Darnold… probably. 

In his sophomore season at Oklahoma State, Hubbard racked up 2,094 yards and 21 touchdowns in 13 games, finishing eighth in the Heisman voting. Hubbard is a homerun hitter if I’ve ever seen one. Elite change of direction, breakaway speed, and spectacular vision helped Hubbard to reach the 2k milestone. Remind you of anyone? I’ll give you a hint, he’s “the baddest white boy in the league,” according to Gerald McCoy.

Hubbard is a spitting image of Christian McCaffrey when he entered the league. Everything matches up, from the 2,000-yard sophomore seasons to the concerns about running between the tackles. Carolina is the ideal place for Hubbard to maximize his development, and he should relish the opportunity to learn from one of the game’s best. Not to mention, the Panthers desperately needed running back depth after the departure of Mike Davis, so this pick isn’t merely a project. If McCaffrey goes down again, expect Hubbard to take over as the bell cow, and do so with the same sense of wild determination he had at Oklahoma State.

Round 5, Pick 158: DT Daviyon Nixon, Iowa

Grade: A

As a big, disruptive presence in the middle of the defense, Daviyon Nixon is a steal in the fifth round. With this pick, the Panthers grab a projected third rounder and a guy who will definitely compete for the starting interior line slot alongside Derrick Brown. Nixon is an explosive player, but in a very different way than Brown. 

Brown’s sheer power gives linemen nightmares at night, while Nixon relies more on his athleticism. He has a great first step, a powerful punch, and the quickness to make difficult, direction-changing tackles. I would love to see Brown and Nixon feed off each other’s games and develop as partners in crime in the middle of the Panthers defense over the next couple years, provided Nixon wins the starting spot. These two guys could haunt NFC South running backs for years to come.

Round 5, Pick 166: CB Keith Taylor, Washington 

Grade: C+

Another press corner goes off the board to Carolina. Taylor has good size, but is a little lighter than what you want from a press guy at 187 lbs. Taylor will provide good value from a scheme perspective, however, this pick really wasn’t necessary when you look at Carolina’s cornerback depth. 

Having picked Horn in the first, Troy Pride Jr. in last year’s draft, and added AJ Bouye in the offseason, I would have liked to see the Panthers go after some more offensive line depth here. I’m not convinced that they have enough depth or talent on that line to protect Sam Darnold the way he needs to be protected. Taylor is a good fit for what the Panthers are trying to do defensively, but seeing as he’ll be hard pressed to see the field, I would have opted for more competition among the offensive line. 

Round 6, Pick 193: OG Deonte Brown, Alabama

Grade: B+

Better late than never I suppose. Deonte Brown provides some much needed stability on a Panthers offensive line that is simply inept. Brown did not allow a single sack at Alabama in three seasons there, protecting the likes of Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, and Mac Jones. 

Brown legitimately could have been the Tide’s player mascot, because he’s built like an elephant. At 6’3” and a staggering 344 lbs, Brown is about as steady as they come in pass protection, but it’s the run game where he struggles. He’s surprisingly good at pulling, but every other movement he makes just looks a bit sluggish: getting to the second level and making lateral blocks are both huge aspects of the Panthers run game, but prowess in those areas is lost on Brown. 

Again, Sam Darnold is loving these offensive line picks because they are all bona fide studs in pass protection. Nevertheless, the Panthers offense runs through Christian McCaffrey, and I think the front office may have lost sight of that a bit when making their offensive line selections in this draft. 

Round 6, Pick 204: WR Shi Smith, South Carolina

Grade: C

This just isn’t an exciting or necessary pick. At this point, the Panthers already have adequate receiver depth, and Smith doesn’t bring anything to the table that the Panthers don’t already have. This was one of the few picks where I was genuinely curious as to why they made the selection. I am all for the influx of weapons that Fitterer is providing for Rhule and Darnold, but Smith just doesn’t bring any new or significant value to the offense, even from a depth perspective.

Round 6, Pick 222: LS Thomas Fletcher, Alabama

Grade: C

LS? What in the special teams is LS? The selection of Alabama Long Snapper (LS), Thomas Fletcher, in the sixth round is a head scratcher. I don’t think the Panthers would have been hard pressed to sign him as an unrestricted free agent or nab him in the seventh round. While 35-year-old LS JJ Jansen does need replacing, I just don’t think that positional need warrants a sixth round pick. 

Round 7, Pick 232: DT Phil Hoskins, Kentucky

Grade: A-

Phil Hoskins is a solid seventh round pick for Carolina. They get a player who produced relatively well in the SEC, and who has the size of a starting NFL DT. Hoskins is a bit slow-moving, but for a seventh rounder, he has everything that you could want. This pick addresses depth at a position of need and rounds out a great draft class with another solid defensive piece. 

Overall Draft Grade: A-

Would I have liked to see some earlier and more NFL-ready offensive line picks? Absolutely. However, that is my only complaint from this Panthers draft class. They got a ton of talent all over the field, and now it’s time to just sit back and watch Matt Rhule do what he does best: Inspire greatness.