Carolina Panthers Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State – Round 2
Over a couple of seasons, Gross-Matos was a consensus first-round pick for the 2020 NFL Draft. There was a trio of sophomore Big Ten defensive ends who had huge 2018 seasons, and Gross-Matos was right there with Ohio State’s Chase Young and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa as a force for Penn State. That trio stayed consistent in 2019, yet Young was the only one selected in the first round. Throughout the leadup to the 2020 Draft, Gross-Matos was projected to go in Round 1, but he ended up being an excellent value in the second round.

In 2019, Gross-Matos recorded 40 tackles with 9.5 sacks. He was a good run defender and demonstrated improvement as a pass rusher over his sophomore year. However, Penn State hurt Gross-Matos’ sack production in 2019 by playing him out of position at nose tackle, at five-technique, and in containment. The 6-foot-5, 266-pounder has good size with functional quickness, athleticism, and strength to be a solid base end in the NFL.

Even though he slipped out of the first round, Carolina was a phenomenal landing spot for Gross-Matos. The Panthers will be able to line him up against right tackles, as he has the skill set to give them problems off the edge. Gross-Matos should benefit from a lot of excellent talent around him. At the other end, Brian Burns could emerge as one of the most dangerous quarterback hunters in the NFL as soon as this season. Burns was very good during his rookie year, and now the interior of the defensive line is much better thanks to seventh-overall pick Derrick Brown. That young trio also could benefit from veteran Kawann Short coming back healthy in 2020. The disruption and pressure caused by these three could funnel a lot of quarterbacks toward Gross-Matos. Gross-Matos also shouldn’t draw double teams because of those players. Thus, Gross-Matos landed in a perfect place to launch a successful NFL career, and I think he will become a solid starter for Carolina.

2019: Brian Burns, DE
2018: D.J. Moore, WR
2017: Curtis Samuel, WR
2016: Daryl Worley, CB
2015: Shaq Thompson, LB
2014: Trai Turner, G
2013: Kawann Short, DT

Most Likely To Bust

Jeremy Chinn, S, Southern Illinois – Round 2
Among the Panthers’ draft class, Chinn stood out to me as a potential bust. Chinn is big and fast, but he has some limitations that I think could get exploited in the NFL. The 6-foot-3, 219-pounder could be a tweener linebacker/safety who is not quite big enough to be a traditional linebacker but not fluid enough in coverage to be a true safety.

Chinn faces some significant pass-coverage limitations because he is very stiff and tight. That is common with large safeties, so Chinn does not project to being able to play man coverage on NFL receivers or tight ends, as he will have a hard time of running with them out of breaks. They will be able to consistently create separation and get open downfield if Chinn is put in man coverage. On the plus side, he has straight-line speed and ball skills. For the sub package, Chinn could be better off being moved to linebacker. As a defensive back, Chinn has to be a true strong safety who does not offer interchangeable ability to move to free safety.

Chinn is a solid contributor for the ground game. He has good size and strength to tackle NFL running backs. Chinn’s instincts are okay, and his straight-line speed allows him to cover a lot of ground while being able to come down hill in a blur. As a run defender, Chinn should be a good enforcer and can function as the eighth man in the box.

Some team sources have said that Chinn could fall into the Mark Barron category in the NFL, aka not being good enough in coverage to play safety and being a bit undersized at linebacker. Barron was a bust for Tampa Baym and Chinn carries some of the same dangers. Thus of Carolina’s early-round picks, he looks like the most likely to be a bust.

2019: Will Grier, QB
2018: Rashaan Gaulden, CB
2017: Daeshon Hall, DE
2016: James Bradberry, DB
2015: Devin Funchess, WR
2014: Kelvin Benjamin, WR
2013: Edmund Kugbila, G

Potential Boom Pick

Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn – Round 1
Many teams around the league thought that Brown was the second-best player in the 2020 NFL Draft, having him behind only Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. The Panthers were fortunate to land the consensus second-best player in the draft with the seventh-overall pick, which is a phenomenal value.

As a pass rusher, Brown beats blockers with variety. He is very strong and routinely pushes the pocket with his bull rush. Brown also uses his heavy hands and upper body strength to shed blocks at the point of attack. He consistently tosses blockers to the side and charges after the quarterback. Brown has good speed with a burst to close and the ability to fire by blockers. His speed off the snap makes him a natural three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense. With his power and ability to bull rush, he also could play nose tackle.

On top of his unique combination of strength and speed, Brown has tremendous instincts. He uses good vision to redirect and has a real feel for how plays evolve. That leads to him making big plays in pursuit and out of giving a second effort. On top of his instincts and great skill set, Brown is a violent football player. He puts ball-carriers to the turf hard and is very rough with offensive lineman. Blocking Brown is an extremely difficult proposition, and he wears out interior blockers.

In run defense, Brown is a load. He uses his strength to hold his ground at the point of attack. Many college interior pass rushers struggle to defend downhill runs coming straight at them but Brown was the exception. He can stuff blocks at the line of scrimmage and doesn’t get pushed back thanks to his strength with good leverage. Brown will also toss blocks to the side and make tackles in the ground game. He showed incredible power to make one-armed tackles and throw blockers to the side to cause havoc at the point of attack. He has a strong lateral anchor, and it is nearly impossible to move him out of his gap.

Brown is a great fit for Carolina, which needed a dominant run-stuffing nose tackle who can also collapse the pocket as a pass rusher. With speed rusher Brian Burns on the outside, Brown could form a lethal combination. On top of his on field ability, Brown is known to be a good kid and high-character individual. He should be a great building block for the new coaching staff in Carolina. Brown could end up being one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL and a Pro Bowler early in his career. He has real boom pick potential for the Panthers.

2019: Greg Little, OT
2018: Donte Jackson, CB
2017: Christian McCaffrey, RB
2016: Vernon Butler, DT
2015: Darryl Williams, OL
2014: Kony Ealy, DE
2013: Star Lotulelei, DT

Future Depth Player

Stantley Thomas-Oliver, CB, Florida International – Round 7
I don’t often pick late-round picks for future depth because so few make it in the NFL, but after Carolina’s final second-round pick, it was tough to find a player who looked like a future backup in Rounds 4-6. I didn’t like what the Panthers did on Day 3.

Fourth-round pick Troy Pride was an okay selection, but there were better cornerbacks available, like Tulsa’s Reggie Robinson. Pride never played up to his skill set at Notre Dame and lacked consistency. I’m not confident those issues can be fixed in the NFL. Fifth-rounder Kenny Robinson went a couple of rounds too high in my opinion. I feel that taking Baylor defensive tackle Bravvion Roy was a waste of a sixth-round pick. He should have gone undrafted, and Carolina turned down taking a potential starting offensive tackle in Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanogho. For where the Panthers landed him, I think seventh-round pick Stantley Thomas-Oliver was their best selection. He has a skill set with cover skills, and it would not surprise me if he ends up being their only player who sticks from their haul on the third day of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Thomas-Oliver (6-0, 192) has good size, enough speed, and coverage ability. He was a sleeper who could be a steal for the Panthers, as I think he has the potential to develop into a contributor. Carolina general manager Marty Hurney is an excellent drafter with a superb eye for talent. It feels like Hurney ran the draft on Days 1 and 2 when the Panthers made some great picks, but it feels like Hurney allowed rookie head coach Matt Rhule to take his guys on Day 3. Thus, I think Carolina’s seventh-round pick has the best shot at sticking as a backup cornerback.

2019: Christian Miller, LB
2018: Ian Thomas, TE
2017: Corn Elder, CB
2016: Zach Sanchez, CB
2015: Cameron Artis-Payne, RB
2014: Tre Boston, S
2013: Kenjon Barner, RB

Walt’s 2020 NFL Draft Grades:

7. Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn – A+ Grade
Some consider Derrick Brown to be the second-best prospect in this class behind Chase Young. The Panthers were able to get the No. 2 prospect with the seventh pick, so you could say that this is a steal. The Panthers now reside in a division with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. Beating elite (and very good) quarterbacks requires teams to have elite four-man fronts that can deliver pressure consistently without the help of a blitz. Brown will be able to provide that for the Panthers. I love this pick.

38. Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State – A+ Grade
What a steal by the Panthers! Yetur Gross-Matos was definitely a first-round prospect, but he slipped a bit because of off-the-field issues. As I wrote earlier, with Derrick Brown joining Kawann Short and Brian Burns, the Panthers are another talented edge rusher short of having the best defensive front east of San Francisco. Gross-Matos could be the solution.

64. Jeremy Chinn, S, Southern Illinois – A Grade
The Panthers traded up to this spot, but for good reason. There were a handful of second-round safeties entering Day 2, and Jeremy Chinn is the final one. The Panthers, who did a good job of bolstering their defensive front already, needed help in the back end. Chinn will be a nice upgrade, and Carolina is getting him for good value.

113. Troy Pride, CB, Notre Dame – B+ Grade
Troy Pride was very inconsistent at Notre Dame, but he ran a very fast 40 time at the combine and showed nice potential. The Panthers needed to add a cornerback in the wake of James Bradberry’s departure, and Pride makes sense in this spot as a third- or fourth-round prospect.

152. Kenny Robnson, CB/S, XFL – A+ Grade
This may not mean much, but Kenny Robinson shut down the best receiver in the XFL when that league was happening. Robinson was once considered a first-round prospect, but decided to play in the XFL. The Panthers are potentially getting a great steal.

184. Bravvion Roy, DT, Baylor – D- Grade
I’m stumped. I didn’t have this guy on any list anywhere. Is this a joke? Did the Panthers do this to protest ESPN’s horrible draft coverage? I don’t know.

221. Stantley Thomas-Oliver, CB, Florida International – B+ Grade
Stantley Thomas-Oliver needs to be developed, but the potential is there. He has nice size (6-2) and he runs a 4.48 40. The Panthers might be able to turn him into a viable NFL player. He certainly has the upside.

2020 NFL Draft Team Grade: A . Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

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