The Carolina Panthers are going to have an interesting weekend at the 2022 NFL Draft. On Thursday night, they will make one of the more consequential picks of the entire draft, selecting at No. 6 overall. Most mock drafters are convinced the Panthers are going to take a quarterback with that pick, and why wouldn’t they? Sam Darnold was a bust last season, and Cam Newton just isn’t the answer anymore.
But whatever the Panthers decide to do with that pick, they better make it a good one, because once the name is called, the Panthers don’t pick again until the fourth round on Day 3.
So all attention in Charlotte is properly focused on the pick-six, and one can imagine the laser-focus of the Panthers staff this weekend at the NFL Combine, although those late-round picks cannot go un-vetted. Here is a look at the three players the Panthers should be focused on at No. 6, and one pick in the later rounds that could pay big dividends.
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty
Kenny Pickett is getting most of the media attention at the Combine given his pre-workout status as being the most NFL-ready quarterback in a thin 2022 class, compared to last season’s quarterback festival in the first round.
But Willis has emerged as the true top quarterback prospect, and he did just about everything right during his time at the Combine, from putting on a dazzling throwing clinic to passing the character test in a most unexpected way, being captured on viral video aiding a homeless pregnant woman outside Lucas Oil Stadium by providing her and her son a suitcase full of swag clothing given to him by Nike.
Add to that his impressive grasp of offensive schemes that came out in interviews and the Panthers might have a true gem at No. 6, as none of the top five teams are expected to take a quarterback.
Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh
As well as Willis performed in Indy, Pickett does retain his title as most-NFL ready of the quarterbacks at the Combine. There was a bit of buzz over Pickett’s hands measuring a smaller-than-expected 8.5 inches, but it did not affect his throwing and while Willis chose not to run the 40-yard dash, Pickett clocked in at 4.73.
The fact that Pickett is considered the most likely to step into a starting role right away could be enough to sway the Panthers, even though Willis is probably the better long-term option. Win now or later? The pick here will tell the tale.
Charles Cross, OL, Mississippi State
A lot can happen between now and the end of April. There are quarterbacks available in free agency and a trade could happen at any time. If the Panthers find a different avenue to satisfy their quarterback needs, a top offensive lineman is next up on their list of most-pressing needs.
Evan Neal and Ikem Ekwonu are considered the top two linemen on the board, but both will likely be gone in the first five picks. Cross could end up as the consolation prize at left tackle. He is considered the best pass protector in the entire draft, and only rates below Neal and Ekwonu because of his run-blocking skills, which lag behind the other two top prospects.
Regardless of who winds up the starting quarterback, having the confidence to know the blind side is safe is worth the price of passing on the two top quarterback prospects.
Jelani Woods, TE, Virginia
The Panthers re-signed tight end Ian Thomas before the Combine, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use another tight end on the roster with upside. Woods had a terrific Combine and likely moved up significantly from his fifth-round projections before Indianapolis.
Woods was second among tight ends in the 40 with a time of 4.61 and had 24 bench-press reps to lead all tight ends. According to reports, Woods was fluid in his route-running and displayed good hands. He also looked good in blocking drills, which was his primary skill at Oklahoma State, before he transferred to Virginia, where he expanded his pass-catching role last season with 598 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I’d say I’m a balanced tight end,” Woods said. “I’m able to dominate in-line blocking and able to attack vertically down the field, be that guy who can stretch the field.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference