Carolina Panthers Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Ikem Ekwonu, OT, N.C. State – Round 1
The Panthers had two dire holes on their roster, a left tackle and a quarterback. Carolina did not feel any of the quarterback prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft were worthy of the No. 6-overall pick, so the organization filled its need at tackle by making Ekwonu the first offensive player drafted. Ekwonu needs some development for handling NFL speed rushers, but he has a tremendous skill set and could be a very good starter to pair with Taylor Moton.

Ekwonu has some real nastiness to him in the ground game, where he is a fierce run blocker. He blocks through the whistle and is very physical at the point of attack. Bringing a bad attitude, Ekwonu gets violent with defenders to push them around and challenge them to stay in their gap. Ekwonu is quick out of his stance and fires to the second level. It is rare to see offensive linemen who are as fast as Ekwonu is in a straight line, and he is a real asset to get downfield on screens. Ekwonu is a smooth mover in space, so that combined with his drive-blocking ability makes Ekwonu a great fit for either a zone or power-man scheme in the NFL.

As a pass blocker, Ekwonu is very gifted, as he combines athleticism with quickness and agility. He has the quick feet needed to get depth in his drop to take away the edge from speed rushers. Ekwonu is fast and athletic to play the typewriter with his feet and cut off the edge from speed rushers. He can glide and mirror speed rushers yet retains the power to knock them off balance. He has natural strength to anchor and stop bull rushes. Ekwonu is a smooth mover with the power to finish off defenders and to keep them from getting pressure on the quarterback.

Ekwonu still has some areas he could stand to improve for the NFL because he is somewhat raw and could use some development in his technique. Sometimes, his hands get too wide, and improving his hand placement will help him to capitalize on his excellent strength. Ekwonu can also get sloppy and bend at the waist, but he has the ability to use his feet to get in position and not lunge after defenders. Speed rushers can get on his edges, and he has to improve on that to be a good starter in the NFL. After some pro coaching, Ekwonu should have improved technique in the early portion of his career.

The Panthers have needed a left tackle for years, and Ekwonu should be an upgrade immediately. However, if he doesn’t improve upon his technical issues, that might make him more of a solid starter as opposed to a boom pick.

2021: Terrace Marshall Jr, WR
2020: Yetur Gross-Matos, DE
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

Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss – Round 3
The Panthers traded back into the third round to land Corral and have him join Sam Darnold in a competition for the starting quarterback job in Carolina. Some other NFL sources did not like Corral and felt he was a backup-caliber player with a skill set similar to Taylor Heinicke or Case Keenum.

For the NFL, Corral needs to get faster working through progressions and working off his first read. Those things are points of improvement for the majority of quarterbacks going to the NFL. As a junior, Corral showed vast improvement in his decision-making and did a great job of cutting out the meltdown performances. He looks like he is wary of overthrowing receivers at times, so that leads to him overcompensating with his ball placement, which leaves it a little off. He has a tendency to leave passes a little short, behind, or low in order to make sure he gets the completion. That leads to receivers reaching and behind at times to make the catch. If Corral improves his timing, that would help to improve his ball location. It would also help him to throw receivers open and lead his receivers for more yards after the catch.

I have doubts about Corral’s skill set translating to the NFL, and I think the Panthers have problems in development under head coach Matt Rhule. Hence, I could see Corral topping out as a backup only and he could end up being a bust for Carolina.

2021: Brady Christensen, OT
2020: Jeremy Chinn, S
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

The Panthers were without their second-round pick from the Sam Darnold trade and gave away their third-rounder for C.J. Henderson. Carolina’s early picks fit other categories, with Ikem Ekwonu looking like a solid starter and Matt Corral having bust potential. There just isn’t a boom pick in this draft class.

2021: Jaycee Horn, CB
2020: Derrick Brown, DT
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

Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State – Round 4
Smith flashed more potential in 2020 than he did in the 2021 season, but he still has a good skill set with size, speed and athleticism. The Panthers are set with their top two linebackers in the sub package of Shaq Thompson and Jeremy Chinn. However, Chinn also lines up at safety, and Carolina could use more rotational linebacker talent for its base sets. With his lack of instincts, Smith may never become a starter, but he could end up as a solid backup linebacker who rotates into the game and also is a core contributor on special teams.

2021: Chuba Hubbard, RB
2020: Stantley Thomas-Oliver, CB
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 2022 NFL Draft Grades:

6. Ikem Ekwonu, OT, N.C. State – A- Grade
The Panthers are getting some value with this pick, as many believed that Ickey Ekwonu could have been the third-overall pick. More importantly, Carolina is taking Ekwonu over a mediocre quarterback prospect, which is the correct decision. The Panthers are better off either trading for Baker Mayfield (assuming the Browns take on some of his salary) or waiting until 2023 to land a quarterback. Either way, this quarterback will have quality protection because of Ekwonu.

94. Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss – A+ Grade
I thought the Panthers would trade future picks for Matt Corral, but would do so in the second round! Getting Corral toward the end of the third frame is amazing value. I don’t know why Corral slipped outside of possible injury concerns. He’s a legitimate second-round quarterback who might be able to beat out Sam Darnold sooner rather than later.

120. Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State – B+ Grade
Brandon Smith has great athleticism and upside, so I like the Panthers taking a shot on him in the fourth round. He’s also a versatile player who will be able to help the Panthers’ defense in a number of ways, provided he lives up to his potential.

189. Amare Barno, DE, Virignia Tech – A Grade
I was told that the Panthers wanted to address their edge-rushing depth with one of their “earlier” picks in this draft. They finally addressed the situation with this pick, and they did so with an incredible value. I had Amare Barno in the third round of my mock in some updates!

199. Cade Mays, OT, Tennessee – B+ Grade
Cade Mays has great physical talent, but he has some injury concerns. If he can get over those, he’ll be a potential starter down the road for the Panthers, though that may not be so difficult, given the team’s major blocking issues. It’s nice that Mays can play every position.

242. Kalon Barnes, CB, Baylor – A+ Grade
Wow, what a steal! I had Kalon Barnes in the fourth round. Leave it to a former Seahawks executive to obtain a high-upside cornerback in the late rounds. Kalon Barnes is extremely fast, so at the very worst, he’ll contribute on special teams.

2022 NFL Draft Team Grade: A. Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

Carolina Panthers Season Preview

Fantasy Football Rankings - May 23

2025 NFL Mock Draft - May 21

NFL Power Rankings - Feb. 22

NFL Picks - Feb. 12