After last season’s virtual draft, Cleveland is playing host to the festivities this year with a handful of potential draft picks present and socially distanced because of COVID-19.
Here’s a pick-by-pick look at how each player Carolina has selected will fit.
Round 1, No. 8 overall: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
My take: The Panthers are so confident in quarterback Sam Darnold and believe they are so close to becoming a contender this season that they selected a player who could make the biggest impact on the roster, since Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell were already gone. Carolina passed on quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones for a press corner, which was a huge missing piece last season. With injury-plagued Donte Jackson entering the final year of his rookie deal, look for Horn to step right in as a starter opposite Jackson. Horn is much bigger than Jackson at 6-1 and 205 pounds and has a long wingspan, which the coaching staff wanted since they face so many big receivers in the NFC South. He was just too good to pass up.
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Good pedigree: Horn is the son of longtime NFL wide receiver Joe Horn, who played with the Chiefs, Saints and Falcons. So he grew up around the NFL and knows what it means to be a pro. “He’s seen it his whole life,” coach Matt Rhule said. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, which is something Rhule loves in his players.
Big receivers in NFC South: One area where the Panthers struggled last season was holding down big receivers such as Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, Atlanta’s Julio Jones and New Orleans’ Michael Thomas. They didn’t have corners who could match up size-wise. Now they do in Horn, whose 33-inch wingspan is impressive. That they’ll now be facing former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (Atlanta, No. 4 overall), who plays like a wide receiver, makes a coverage corner even more important, particularly on third down where Carolina couldn’t play man most of last season due to size and talent constraints. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Carolina cornerbacks allowed an average of 3.3 yards of separation last season, highest in the NFL.
Check out highlights from LSU’s prolific wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr.
My take: The Panthers needed to give quarterback Sam Darnold another big-time weapon after losing Curtis Samuel in free agency, and what better way to do it than to add a former star in offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s system during LSU’s 2019 championship season. Marshall is a big target (6-2) who can make plays at any receiver spot. He had 48 catches for 731 yards (15.2 average) and 10 touchdowns in the first seven games last season before opting out. He’s a legitimate threat to be a starter, and with Robby Anderson entering the final year of his contract this gives Carolina insurance moving forward. The team already picked up the fifth-year option on 2018 first-round pick DJ Moore. Some had Marshall rated as a first-rounder, so to trade back twice and still get Marshall feels like a steal.
My take: The Panthers must really believe in Christensen, because they passed on a lot of tackles in the second round that were rated ahead of him. That Christensen protected Zach Wilson‘s blind side in BYU’s pass-happy offense does fit the mold of what Carolina wants in its pass-happy scheme run by Joe Brady. Christensen’s grade by Pro Football Focus in 2020 was an amazing 96.0. That, by the way, is a record for a PFF tackle. At 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, he’s got room to add weight and develop into a starter. The good news is by adding Cameron Erving in free agency, the Panthers don’t have to throw Christensen right into the fire on the left side.
Round 3, No. 83 overall: Tommy Tremble, TE, Notre Dame
Check out the best highlights from Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble’s college career.
My take: In free agency, the Panthers lost one of the best blocking tight ends in the league in Chris Manhertz, so maybe Tremble is his replacement. Tremble is known as a great blocker on the edge, but not a great pass receiver. He had only 35 catches for 401 yards and 4 TDs in his two seasons at Notre Dame. He’s not the huge target Rhule has talked about wanting to add at TE, but he’s a gritty player that fits the mold of what Rhule wants up front, and he seems to be scratching the surface of the type of player he can be. In other words, lots of potential and upside here.
Round 4, No. 126 overall: Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
Check out highlights from Oklahoma State RB Chuba Hubbard’s college career.
My take: The effort to surround QB Sam Darnold with offensive options continues. Hubbard is a grinder who can be a nice change of pace back from Christian McCaffrey. The 6-0, 207-pound Hubbard rushed for 3,459 yards and 33 touchdowns in three years, but he’s also effective as a receiver. He had 53 catches for 479 yards and three touchdowns. Could be an option around the goal line where the Panthers struggled in 2020.
Round 5, No. 158 overall: Daviyon Nixon, DT, Iowa
Check out the best highlights from Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon’s college career.
My take: Depth on the defensive line was a need heading into the draft. The presumptive starters are last year’s first-round pick, Derrick Brown, and Roy Bravvion. At 6-3, 306 Nixon is not only a solid run-stopper but can provide inside pressure. He had 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. He also had an interception, so he’s always around the ball. Brown proved to be a great run-stopper last year, but more pressure up the middle is needed.
Round 5, No. 166 overall: Keith Taylor, CB, Washington
My take: The Panthers got bigger in the secondary in the first round with Jaycee Horn (6-1), and added even more size with the 6-3 Taylor. He’s best fitted for a team that plays a lot of press coverage, and that’s what defensive coordinator Phil Snow wants to do more. This also follows the blueprint general manager Scott Fitterer was a part of at Seattle in drafting big corners with a big wingspan. The Panthers learned a lot about Taylor while coaching him at the Senior Bowl. Rhule said that experience would be a big advantage for his staff, and this could be an example of that since Taylor had fallen on many boards.
Round 6, No. 193 overall: Deonte Brown, OG, Alabama
Check out the best highlights from Alabama OG Deonte Brown’s impressive college campaign.
My take: Interior depth was a need, and the Panthers found a solid pick in Brown, who is 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds, though some say heavier. His nickname is “Cornbread” for a reason. There are reports he was as heavy as 360-plus. But what the Panthers have to like is Brown didn’t give up a sack the past three years, according to Pro Football Focus, so it’s another pick to make quarterback Sam Darnold‘s job easier. The Panthers also have to like his position flexibility. He has started on the right and left side. He had some issues, suspended going into the 2018-19 college playoffs for failing a mandatory drug test. But overall, Brown is a solid player.
Round 6, No. 204 overall: Shi Smith, WR, South Carolina
Check out the highlights from South Carolina WR Shi Smith’s college career.
My take: The Panthers are leaning heavy on players they coached or got to see at the Senior Bowl on Day 3. Smith is the third one taken, joining Brown and Taylor, although Taylor wasn’t on Rhule’s team. In Smith, the Panthers get another weapon for quarterback Sam Darnold. He’s a smallish wide receiver at 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, but remember arguably the best draft pick in Carolina history was 5-foot-9 Steve Smith, drafted in the third round in 2001. Like Steve Smith, Shi is scrappy with good hands and will provide depth at a key position for a pass-happy offense.