Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera on his expectations for the future
The 2019 NFL draft will take place at the end of this month, and all we know for sure is that third-year starting running back Christian McCaffrey and retired defensive end Charles Johnson will be announcing the Carolina Panthers’ second- and third-round picks.
Oh, and that team needs include defensive end, offensive tackle, offensive guard, safety, running back, linebacker, nickel cornerback and receiver. And maybe backup quarterback. Phew.
As the team prepares its “big board” for the draft, all we can do is take educated guesses as to what will be on it from April 25-27.
With my first of two mock drafts, I wanted to address the possibility of the Panthers selecting an edge-rusher in the first round, perhaps because they feel it best matches biggest need with best available, or perhaps because an early run on offensive linemen could force them to pivot to defensive end.
Round 1, pick No. 16: Brian Burns, DE, Florida State
Burns’ speed and versatility are a great fit for Carolina. He ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds at the NFL scouting combine last month, and he can play both outside linebacker and defensive end. That matches the Panthers’ plan for 2019 as they become more multiple on defense, blending three- and four-man fronts and mixing up rush packages.
Burns would have to become an immediate starter for the Panthers — likely rotating with veteran defensive end Bruce Irvin — and his ability implies he will be up to the task.
His brother, former defensive end Stanley McClover, was a seventh-round pick by the Panthers in 2006.
Round 2, pick No. 47: Chris Lindstrom, OL, Boston College
Lindstrom (6-foot-4, 308 pounds) offers a key quality that was missing from the Panthers’ offensive line in 2018, whether due to injury or otherwise: Consistency, especially in run-blocking for a rush-happy Boston College offense.
Let’s say the Panthers move right tackle Taylor Moton to left tackle, thus sliding Daryl Williams into his more natural right tackle position. This would make left guard the highest immediate position of need.
The bulk of Lindstrom’s experience is at right guard and right tackle, with guard being a more natural fit. But if the Panthers are comfortable working him into left guard — with 2018 starter Greg Van Roten available as a “bridge” player — then Lindstrom could be a really solid long-term investment.
Round 3, pick No. 77: Juan Thornhill, S, Virginia
Thornhill (6 feet, 205 pounds), seems like a natural fit for the direction in which the Panthers are moving at safety. They could still use a young, fast and smart player to complement starter Eric Reid, who they re-signed to a three-year deal prior to free agency.
Thornhill is speedy (he ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash), has a history of making plays on the ball, and is versatile — all of which are qualities Carolina needs to infuse into its secondary in 2019. His prior experience at cornerback gives him even more of an edge.
He could fill the Panthers’ need at free safety well while also being able to play close to the line of scrimmage or in the box if needed. His skill set in tandem with Reid’s would give Carolina’s secondary an immediate upgrade.
Round 3, pick No. 100 (compensatory): Tytus Howard, OT, Alabama State, OR Renell Wren, DT, Arizona State
This is a stellar pick to have for developmental depth, and two players who immediately come to mind — and who both fit as needs in Carolina — are Howard and Wren.
Offensive and defensive tackle remain two key areas in which the Panthers must add depth. At tackle, Howard seems to have a high ceiling that would benefit from some coaching, plus he has great size and special athleticism.
Similarly, Wren is also on the upswing and could back up multiple positions on the defensive line as he continues to develop. A league source told the Observer in January that the Panthers had been interested in Wren for some time.
Round 4, pick No. 115: David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State
The Panthers re-signed Cameron Artis-Payne in free agency, but they could still be expected to pick up a running back in the draft to complement starter Christian McCaffrey, with Artis-Payne getting the bulk of his work on special teams.
Montgomery (5-foot-10, 222 pounds) is not lightning-fast — he ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine — but he’s very durable, and was used well in the passing game. NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein says Montgomery is “one of the safest runners in this draft with a desirable combination of size, vision, toughness and creativity.”
In tandem with McCaffrey’s “flash” and versatility, Montgomery could provide a steady, pounding baseline.
Round 5, pick No. 154: Mark Fields, CB, Clemson
Fields (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) ran a lightning-fast 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and his game-speed doesn’t get much slower than that. He could be a great fit for the Panthers at nickel, with the flexibility to move outside — a characteristic they like for depth reasons.
Second-year safety Rashaan Gaulden is expected to compete for the starting nickel position this fall, but his versatility — and Fields’ — would mean the Panthers have more options available for different matchups in the slot.
Like Burns, Fields has a family connection to the Panthers. His father, also named Mark, was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Panthers from 2002-04 and saw his career derailed by Hodgkin lymphoma. Fields II, a Hough High alumnus, said at the Senior Bowl in January that it would be an “honor” to suit up for the team that rallied around his father in 2003, when he sat out while battling the disease.
Round 6, pick No. 187: Cameron Smith, LB, Southern California
Smith has four years of starting experience and was a captain during his senior season with the Trojans. That follows a quality the Panthers liked with another late-round linebacker pick — 2018 fifth-round pick Jermaine Carter Jr. was also a team captain at Maryland. Smith would fill an immediate special teams need in Carolina after the retirement of linebacker Ben Jacobs and the loss of linebacker David Mayo in free agency. Smith could eventually project into a backup middle linebacker role.
The Panthers do not currently have a seventh-round pick (it was included in a 2017 trade with Buffalo for cornerback Kevon Seymour). But they need linebacker depth for special teams and are likely searching for a backup quarterback in later rounds, it’s not out of the question that they trade back at some point to acquire a couple of sixth- and seventh-round picks.