The 2021 NFL Draft starts on Thursday, April 29. As a lead-up to the draft, we’ll be giving a team-by-team breakdown for positional needs. For each team, we’ll give an overview of the current depth chart and how big of a need each position in the upcoming draft. You can find the rest of the team needs (as they’re updated) and the rest of our draft content in the 2021 NFL Draft hub.
Carolina Panthers 2021 DRAFT PICKS OVERVIEW
Round 1 (8)
Round 2 (39)
Round 3 (73)
Round 4 (113)
Round 5 (151)
Round 6 (193)
Round 6 (222)
Carolina Panthers Offense
By Rich Hribar
Carolina made some noise just two weeks ago by trading for Sam Darnold. Taking a step of faith on Darnold for the 2021 season, Carolina will have until May 3 to pick up his fifth-year option at $18.8M in 2022. Given what they traded away, we should assume Carolina will do that after the draft.
That also lowers the probability that Carolina does take a quarterback with the eighth overall pick, but we cannot rule that out, either. The team just proved they are willing to eat perceived sunk cost at the position after signing Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year contract last offseason. Bridgewater carries a $20M dead cap hit for 2020 if released, but if Carolina can find a trade market for him during or after the draft, that will be reduced to $10M. If the team plans on moving on from Bridgewater, Carolina should be in the market to add a rookie quarterback, even if that player is not selected at No. 8 overall.
Mikey Daniel (FB)
Signing a huge contract extension last offseason, Christian McCaffrey is still singed through the 2025 season with dead cap numbers of $44.3M and $26.6M the next two seasons. McCaffrey only appeared in three games in 2020, but still was the same player when active. In those games, McCaffrey handled 44.7% of the team touches while producing 28.8% of the team yardage and 66% of the team touchdowns in those games. That touchdown share would have paced the position while the share of team touches and yards would have been second to only Derrick Henry over a full season last year.
Behind McCaffrey, Carolina is still very thin at the position. Trenton Cannon (68 career touches), Rodney Smith (50 touches), Reggie Bonnafon (36), and Darius Clark (zero) have limited career opportunities and none are under contract beyond this season. The team has exclusive rights on Bonnafon, Smith, and Clark, but there is an upgrade needed behind McCaffrey. The team can add a rookie contract on day three to the fold with the added opportunity to still add a lower-tiered veteran after the draft after having success going that route with Mike Davis a year ago.
Carolina wide receivers were one of the most heavily-used groups in 2020. The Panthers used three or more wideouts on 70% of their offensive snaps, while they targeted their wideouts 71% of the time, which ranked third in the league. They closed 10th in the league in yards per target (8.8 yards) when throwing to their wideouts and fourth in receiving yards per game (205.8) as a group, but ranked 28th in the league in collective touchdown receptions with just 10.
The loss of McCaffrey aided some of that usage, but heading into this season, Carolina only has newly signed David Moore and practice squad wideout Omar Bayless under contract beyond this season. The team will be able to pick up the fifth-year option on D.J. Moore (currently at $11.1M), something we should count on happening.
Playing in the same number of games as 2019, Moore had exactly the same yardage (1,215 yards) and touchdowns (four) this past season as he did the year prior. But on 21 fewer receptions and 17 fewer targets, Moore had a role change that saw him dip from a reception and volume-based option to a vertical target. His depth of target (13.7 yards) jumped from 11.7 yards the year prior as he averaged a career-high 18.1 yards per reception. His yards per team pass attempt has risen each season in the league where he ranked eighth this past season (2.17 yards) at his position.
In his first season with Carolina and reunited with Matt Rhule, Robby Anderson reshaped his career while setting career-highs with 136 targets, 95 receptions, and 1,096 yards. Anderson went from strictly a lid lifter for his offense to intermediate volume producer with the Panthers.
Carolina lost a chunk of opportunities and production when Curtis Samuel left via free agency this offseason. Samuel’s 118 touches were second in the NFL among all wide receivers, racking up 851 yards on 77 catches through the air and 200 yards on 41 carries on the ground. Getting McCaffrey back can mitigate some of that usage, but if Carolina wants to pursue a rookie wideout with similar qualities such as what Samuel provided, then this draft class is rich with that archetype. Rondale Moore, Kadarius Toney, D’Wayne Eskridge, Jaelon Darden, Amari Rodgers, and Marquez Stevenson are a few among many players in this class that fit that mold of manufactured opportunity-based wideouts. Regardless of what archetype Carolina prefers, they should be in the market at the position.
The tight end position was an afterthought for the Panthers in 2020. Carolina tight ends combined to catch just 27 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 41 targets. Ian Thomas suggested the team was figuring out how the position fit into this offense in late August and he was not lying.
The team added Dan Arnold via free agency this offseason, making him the only tight end on the roster that is signed beyond this season. Arnold is coming off a career-best 31-438-4 season with Arizona in 2020. His 9.7 yards per target ranked 12th among all tight end with double-digit targets a year ago, but Arnold still has just 51 career receptions through three years in the NFL. Carolina may outright not value the position as an important spoke in the wheel altogether or 2020 could have just been happenstance, but adding a rookie contract here with all of their expiring contracts at the position can provide some contractual depth.
LT: Greg Little/Cameron Erving*/Aaron Monteiro
LG: Dennis Daley/Mike Horton
C: Matt Paradis/Sam Tecklenburg
RG: Pat Elflein*/John Miller
RT: Taylor Moton/Trent Scott/Matt Kaskey/Martez Ivey
The Panthers have made no secrets that they are in the market for offensive linemen this offseason after ranking 23rd in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate metric at 53%.
The only legitimate starter Carolina has on the offensive front is right tackle Taylor Moton, who is playing this season under the franchise tag. Starting center Matt Paradis is only under contract for this season, as is depth in John Miller, Trent Scott, Matt Kaskey, Martez Ivey, Sam Tecklenburg, and Mike Horton.
The team went this offseason and added both Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein on multi-year contracts, but both veterans leave a lot to be desired. Erving is expected to compete with Greg Little at left tackle (pending the draft). Erving graded out as the 76th tackle among 89 qualifiers per Pro Football Focus, while Little (a second-round pick in 2019) has started just six games over his first two seasons with the Panthers.
Elflein was a third-round pick in 2017, but started just seven games last season between the Vikings and Jets, two of the worst offensive lines in the league a year ago. Elflein was the 78th graded guard out of 86 qualifiers per Pro Football Focus in 2020 while allowing a pressure on 10.0% of his pass blocking snaps, the fourth-highest among all guards.
No quarterback was under pressure more the past two seasons than Sam Darnold and pressure was a contributing factor to his lack of rookie contract success. If the Panthers are hopeful in maxing out Darnold’s potential he had as a prospect, there still has to be a lot more work to be done across this offensive line.
Carolina Panthers Defense
By Dan Pizzuta
Interior Defensive Line
Derrick Brown was Carolina’s seventh overall pick last season. The rookie played 70% of the defensive snaps and had some up and down performances throughout the year. Brown didn’t have a high pressure rate as a defensive tackle (ranked 47th of 102 qualified defensive tackles per Sports Info Solutions) but the snaps he did get to the quarterback were impactful. Brown had 12 quarterback hits, which is the sixth-most for a rookie defensive tackle in a season since 2006, per Stathead.
Bravvion Roy was selected in the sixth round of last year’s draft. He started six games and played 39.6% of the defensive snaps. Roy was 31st among defensive tackles in pressure rate but put up only two tackles for loss on the season.
Carolina just signed DaQuon Jones, who has started all 16 games in each of the past three seasons for the Tennessee Titans. The 320-pound Jones has been a plus run defender as a nose tackle but had his best season rushing the passer in 2020 — 45th at the position in pressure rate with sixth quarterback hits.
The Panthers rushed three at the second-highest rate in the league last season at 20%.
Brian Burns turned into a top-tier pass rusher in Year 2. Burns was fourth among edge rushers in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate and 18th in pressure rate per SIS. The 2019 first-round pick played 70.8% of the defensive snaps, a long way from being used as a special teams gunner during his rookie season.
The Panthers added another explosive pass rusher with Haason Reddick on a one-year deal. Reddick bounced around positions early in his career with the Arizona Cardinals, but found the most success as a full-time edge rusher last season. Reddick ranked 30th in pressure rate in 2020. He’s now reunited with his college coach, Matt Rhule, who will keep him playing a role similar to where he excelled at Temple.
Due to Phil Snow’s defensive scheme both of those players will also drop back in coverage quite a bit and both have the athleticism to do so.
Carolina spent a second-round pick last season on Yetur Gross-Matos. He finished 60th in pressure rate and played 35.6% of the defensive snaps. Gross-Matos will continue to develop as the No. 3 pass rusher with Reddick on just a one-year deal.
Jermaine Carter Jr.
Shaq Thompson played 97.4% of the team’s defensive snaps and had to cover a lot of ground without much around him. Only 41.4% of Thompson’s tackles came before a first down was gained, which ranked 41st among 59 linebackers with at least 40 tackles. Thompson was also 43rd among linebackers in yards allowed per coverage snap. The hope is with more around him, Thompson won’t have so much on his plate and his production can be more impactful.
Thompson was often the only true linebacker on the field as the Panthers used the third-highest rate of dime or lighter personnel in 2020 (41%).
Denzel Perryman and Frankie Luvu were brought in as depth this offseason but neither played more than 31% of his team’s defensive snaps last season. Luvu is a tweener who could fit in this defense with experience as an edge rusher and dropping into coverage. He rushed the passer on 64% of his pass snaps last year with the New York Jets.
Stanley Thomas-Oliver III
Donte Jackson held up quite well in his third season as a second-round pick. Jackson finished 50th among 148 cornerbacks in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap, which accounts for touchdowns and interceptions. Jackson had a career-high 11 passes defensed in 2020, which tied for 25th among defenders. He’s in the final year of his rookie deal.
The Panthers will hope a change of scenery can help A.J. Bouye, who was released by the Denver Broncos. Bouye peaked as a top corner with the Jaguars but was traded after a down year in 2019 and in his lone season with the Broncos, which lasted seven, games due to a six-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, he ranked 109th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap.
Carolina tried out a number of other corners throughout the season. The most promise came from fourth-round pick Troy Pride, who ranked 57th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap — a ranking that should be celebrated for a rookie corner. His 61.5% completion percentage allowed still ranked 94th among that group of corners, so there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The question will be who will play the slot. That might fall on Rashaad Melvin by default. The 31-year-old is the oldest player on the Carolina defense.
Jeremy Chinn had some inconsistencies but some huge splash plays as a rookie second-round pick. Chinn was used as a modern versatile safety with snaps in the box, the slot, and deep. He’ll continue to develop in that role in his second season.
Juston Burris also played all over the defense with most of his snaps coming deep. With Tre Boston gone, Burris could be in line to start as the team’s deep safety.
The Panthers ranked 23rd in DVOA against deep passes last season, so while there are some young intriguing players at the position, more talent could definitely be added to the group.