It’s a Game of Football, not a Game of Perfect
Oft overlooked 1980’s philosophers Fun Boy Three once sang “it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it”. And that’s the very antithesis to how teams should assess draft prospects. Virtually every draft preview you can read goes into great detail on how or where someone places their feet. Or how great their standing jump was at the combine. Here’s the thing about football, all sports really, it’s the most results-based business there is. If the Raiders are the most aesthetically pleasing team in 2023 but still miss the playoffs nobody will praise them. We’ll all be ripping Josh McDaniels again.
Identifying areas that players will need to work on after they’ve been drafted is definitely valid. But only an odd team decides who to draft based on weaknesses. Accurately evaluating individual players’ prospects in the NFL is an inexact science anyway because college defenses are rarely well drilled. And generally NFL coaching is of a higher standard so quarterbacks improve exponentially when they ascend to the professional ranks (Trevor Lawrence, anyone?). One would hope the first picks in the draft are the players whose strengths are greater than everybody else’s.
They Never Learn
A 2017 draft profile of Patrick Mahomes compared him to Matt Stafford and called his mechanics “scattershot” (whatever that means). Whether you agree with that assessment or not (and Mahomes is certainly not your classic pocket passer) Mahomes won as many playoff games in his first three seasons as Stafford has in 14. Analyse his technique until your blue in the face, but all nine teams didn’t draft him in 2017 wish they hadn’t let him fall to the Chiefs.
There are some really interesting draft profiles of Jalen Hurts. Hurts, who scored more rushing touchdowns in a Super Bowl than any other quarterback in February was drafted 53rd in 2020. And lest we not forget that someone once said of Brock Purdy “while Purdy does not have a starters skill set, he could develop into being a pro backup”. That’s 5-0 in the regular season and 2-1 in the playoffs Brock Purdy, that one?
Right Here, Right Now
This year Carolina made the bold move of trading their best receiver along two first round picks and two second round picks away to get the first overall pick. That’s an awful lot of pieces to trade in any year, but this year it’s far too much. Trades for the first overall pick don’t happen very often, but when they do there’s usually an obvious star in the draft class. Earl Campbell, Ed “too tall” Jones and Orlando Pace are amongst those selected with the first overall pick after a trade. There isn’t really a nailed-on superstar in this class though, so it was an odd move.
In theory you’d use the most important pick in the draft on the most important player in your team, right? So, the obvious first overall selection would be a quarterback (and bookmakers seem to have let the cat out of the bag). Bryce Young, who looks like a slower version of Kyler Murray is now prohibitive favourite to be Carolina’s quarterback in 2023.
Young is one of the three highly touted signal callers in the class, however none of them will be the best football player in the draft. Traditionally a quarterback who won a CFB Championship ring would be the one generating the most hype. Despite winning two rings Georgia’s Stetson Bennett isn’t even expected to even be drafted this year. Alabama’s Bryce Young, C.J Stroud from Ohio State and the late charging Anthony Richardson are the headliners in 2023’s quarterback class.
Will Levis Fit?
Will Levis is quite interesting too, but playing for a Kentucky team who went 3-5 in their conference might not help his cause. Levis seems destined to be the Colts first pick in the draft. Drafting a quarterback first in 2023 seems strange when next year’s class promises to have more talent. Some are predicting there will be as many as three or four elite prospects in 2024. They are led by Caleb Williams who actually looks like a superstar. Michael Penix Jr. Looks more talented than the 2022 class and he might be the third best quarterback in 2024.
But what if the Panther decide not to take a quarterback with the first overall pick? It seems unlikely, but they have already signed Andy Dalton in free agency. Dalton will be 36 in October so he’s obviously not a long-term solution, but he had a 66.7% completion rate in 2022, the best of his career. That made him a top 10 quarterback in the league. He did end the season with a 6-8 record but that had as much to do with the Saints’ lack of a run game and some peculiar play calling as it did with Dalton. With Frank Reich at the helm in Carolina and Miles Sanders running the ball (amongst others) Dalton would be a perfect place holder for one of the 2024 quarterback class.
In a slightly counterintuitive way, the best way to improve the Panthers’ offence is to draft a defensive player. And Frank Reich’s not the only new coach in Carolina, Ejiro Evero is the new defensive coordinator. Evero’s 2022 Broncos defense conceded an average of 18 points per game until injuries really took their toll. By December Denver had 10 defensive players unavailable.
Carolina only made 35 sacks in 2022, only six teams made fewer than them. It would be a good idea to get the new defensive coordinator some new tools to help him fix that, luckily there’s quite a few in this draft.
Ready To Go
Defensive lineman Jalen Carter looks like the player most likely to dominate straight away as a rookie. The defensive lineman from Georgia could line up at defensive end or defensive tackle. He looks like a more athletic version of Jordan Davis. Carter has the power to beat blockers and the speed to chase down running backs before they get to the line of scrimmage. On tape Carter has similar highlights to Maxx Crosby but Carter won’t be dropping into pass coverage any time soon.
However, Carter is Red Flag Central at the moment and a team won’t want to invest $9.2 million in someone who makes headlines for the wrong reasons. In March this year Carter was sentenced to probation for his involvement in a street racing incident that saw two Georgia teammates lose their lives. In another worrying turn of events Carter managed to put on nine pounds in the two weeks between the NFL combine and Georgia’s pro-day. According to one report Carter was cramping and breathing heavily as he failed to complete athletic drills at the pro-day. That will see him drop in the draft but probably not too much. Wrongly or rightly, most teams will believe they can mentor him.
Someone else who would help Brian Burns on the Panthers defensive front is Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr.. He can line up as a defensive end or as a standup linebacker and he plays really fast. His pass rushing ability would not only complement Burns but also help out Frankie Luvu. Luvu recorded seven sacks in 2022, second to Burns. He also made 111 tackles which was also second most for a Panther.
Defensive Backs to The Future
If the Panthers are happy with their defensive front, one thing that Evero had in Denver last season that the Panthers were sorely missing was a playmaking defensive back. Justin Simmons made six interceptions in 2022 and forced three fumbles. Jaycee Horn led the Panthers last season with three interceptions. Honestly, it’s difficult to find a part of the Panthers defense that couldn’t use improvement, but their cornerbacks were a decent unit last season. Although they did miss 12 tackles between them (the team only missed 17 in total) and both Josh Norman and T.J Carrie are currently without contracts.
Taking a cornerback with the first pick would technically be classed as absolute insanity, but just imagine the Panthers front office are all insane. Christian Gonzalez already looks like an NFL ready, ball hawking cornerback. His closing speed is alarming, and he tracks the ball and catches it better than some wide receivers you could name.
But if the Panthers are in the market for a defensive back first (and with the free agency signings of Eric Rowe and Vonn Bell they’re not) Brian Branch will be a Panther in 2023. Like Gonzalez his ability to track the ball and arrive at the receiver as the ball does is freakish. Unlike Gonzalez he tackles like a linebacker. Branch is actually smaller than Gonzalez but try telling that to anyone he absolutely leveled during his time in Alabama. He can even rush the passer, he’s just an all-round play maker who will improve any team, not just a defense.
It’s a Long Shot, but it Might Just Work
Eight of Carolina’s 14 free agent signings in 2023 have been offensive players so it seems unlikely they’d use the first pick on another one who isn’t a quarterback. However, if they are looking for a dominant receiver to fill the whole left by DJ Moore they look towards Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Physically he’s slightly smaller than Moore but he’s more powerful than someone who weighs less than 200lbs should be. He has the strength to easily break arm tackles and carry defenders downfield. Smith-Njigba also has the innate ability to find the space between zones or easily lose defenders making his quarterback’s job easier. If the Panthers are going to wait until 2023 to draft a more polished quarterback, he would be a very useful asset.
Never Say Never Again
They took Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick last year and he wasn’t great at left tackle. He conceded 11 penalties in his 17 starts in 2023. Four were holding penalties and four were false starts. Even so it seems highly unlikely they’d take two left tackles in two consecutive first rounds. Peter Skoronski looks like he’ll make one quarterback’s job a lot easier in 2023, so maybe they’ll surprise everyone.