In about three weeks, my favorite offseason event will come to fruition: the NFL Draft. Hundreds of college players will have their dreams come true over the weekend, in a flurry of trade-ups, trade-backs, and selections. One pick could change your franchise's trajectory for the next ten years. Now to my first mock draft of the season:
**TRADE** Carolina sends #6, 2023 2nd to Arizona for #23, #55, #87, & 2023 1st
Round 1 Pick 23: QB Matt Corral Ole Miss
Is there a realistic Fitterer draft that doesn't include trading back at some point? In this scenario, the top tackles in Alabama's Evan Neal and NC State's Ikem Ekwonu weren't available and the Panthers trade back to get a better value in Matt Corral at #23. The only downfall to this could be that Malik Willis was selected by a division rival in the Saints. Scott Fitterer gets a multitude of Day 2 picks and a future 1st in the process.
Corral, with the quickest release in the draft, should compete with Sam Darnold for the starting job. In a dream world, Darnold would grind out a couple of wins at the beginning of the season before paving the way for Corral to play against a lesser opponent, like the Detroit Lions. Matt Corral has a big heart and personality that will endear him to fans; he also can spin a football. In 2021, Corral's stats were as follows:
262 of 386, 3349 passing yards (67.9%)
20 TD: 5 INT
152 rushes for 614 rushing yards (4 YPC)
Scouts have mentioned concerns for Corral's height at only 6'1 205 lbs, but we have seen quarterbacks like Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson have success in the NFL (all 6'1 or under). The young signal caller's willingness and ability to run the football adds to his dynamic skillset as a passer. Matt Rhule's job will likely be on the line with whoever he selects as QB for his third season.
Round 2 Pick 55: LB Chad Muma Wyoming
While the franchise's history is rich with middle linebacker talent, it seems that it's been forever since TD and Luke were manning the second level of the defense. Enter Chad Muma. The run-stuffing madman posted a career year with 142 total tackles, 8 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and two of those being returned for touchdowns as a Cowboy.
With Shaq Thompson likely sliding inside to MIKE linebacker, the Wyoming grad should be given the opportunity to win a job on the outside over free agency additions like Damien Wilson or Cory Littleton.
**TRADE** Carolina sends #87 to Tennessee for #90, #131, sends #90 to Kansas City for #94, 103; Round 3 Pick 94: EDGE Josh Paschal Kentucky
In his latest press conference, Phil Snow talked about getting bigger upfront to better defend against the run. The Panthers brought back Marquis Haynes but the former Ole Miss defender is more of a speed rusher. Paschal, a consistent producer at Kentucky, had a career year in 2021, recording 15.5 TFLs and 5 sacks at 278 pounds. At his most recent measurements, he weighed in at 268. His main goal will be to build that lean mass as he grows into his NFL body and be a rotational defensive lineman in his rookie year.
Round 3 Pick 103: IOL Cole Strange Chattanooga
Bradley Bozeman is only locked in for one more year, and Pat Elflein is here for just two years. It's important that the Panthers get the anchor of their offensive line for the next decade, whether that's re-signing Bozeman or drafting someone else like Chattanooga's Cole Strange who also has G/C flexibility. In 2021, Strange showcased the best of his abilities against Kentucky, mauling defensive linemen in the run game. The Draft Network describes him as a developmental starting guard at 6'6 307, who is extremely welcome in Carolina.
**TRADE** Carolina sends #131, #242 to New York Jets for #117; Round 4 Pick 117: TE Jelani Woods Virginia
In 2017 Ben McAdoo drafted a freak athlete in Evan Engram who was a mismatch against safeties. That is when he was healthy. Over the course of his professional career, he's suffered nine injuries, ranging from concussions to mild leg-pull. Drafting Jelani Woods from Virginia could be that potential star.
At 6'7 259, NFL front office members were astonished to see the former Cavalier run a 4.61 40 yard dash, one of the best in his position. Highly underutilized in college, Woods hauled in 44 catches for 598 yards and 8 touchdowns for a career year. It will be up to tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride to unlock his NFL potential.
Round 4 Pick 137: S Verone McKinley III Oregon
In a league that's becoming pass-heavy, it's more commonplace to see teams use a 3-2-6 defense with three safeties and three corners. Verone McKinley could serve as a third safety similar to the Bucs' Jordan Whitehead, who he's drawn comparisons to by NFL analyst Lance Zierlein. In 2021, the Oregon Duck made 77 tackles, 1 TFLs, 1 FF, and 6 INTs, which can provide us with stellar ball skills alongside Xavier Woods and Jeremy Chinn. McKinley also has promise as a slot corner at the next level.
Round 5 Pick 144: OT Obinna Eze TCU
Three words. Extremely. Long. Arms.
I'm kidding (only kind of). Matt Rhule has gone on record saying, "We want length at every position, start there. But on the inside, it's so close-quarters, quickness, power, balance, all those things can compensate. And Brady doesn't have long arms, he has good arms." This is all reasonable until you consider that Christensen played his entire college career at left tackle and your current starter at your QB's blindside is Cam Erving. Obinna Eze may have a chance to develop into a nice swing tackle or even a starter with development from decorated o-line coach James Campen.
Towering over almost all of his teammates, Eze stands at 6'6 327 lbs with a massive wingspan of 86 inches 😳 A foreign exchange student from Nigeria, the former Horned Frog from TCU hasn't played many games and still has an extremely tantalizing athletic profile. The Draft Network's Jordan Reid mentioned in his scouting report that Eze "shows the most athleticism in his game as a run blocker. " Matt Rhule has placed an emphasis on running the ball down defenses' throats next season, and Eze would fit into that mindset even as a potential protected practice squad player.
Round 5 Pick 149: WR Tyquan Thornton Baylor
With the news coming out about Shi Smith's arrest, it remains to be seen whether the team will take any action or if the league will enforce any amount of suspension. To increase the competition at the bottom of the roster, Rhule drafts his former speedster from Baylor in Tyquan Thornton who posted one of this year's fastest 40 times with a 4.28 (behind teammate CB Kalon Barnes with 4.23).
Built similarly to Robby Anderson at 6'3 182, Thornton had a career year in 2021, recording 62 catches for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns, and leading his team in all categories. This is a low risk pickup for the Panthers who may take a few years to develop him at the NFL level.
Round 6 Pick 199: EDGE Alex Wright UAB
There can never be too many pass rushers, said the AFC West. In a league increasingly focused on the passing game through elite quarterback play, pass rushers are viewed at premium value. At this point in the draft, Wright should be viewed as a steal for his athletic traits and ability to not only stand up but also put his hand in the dirt and win primarily with his bull rush. Blue Chip Scouting believes that the former Dragon is a future starter at the position within 1-2 years.