NFL draft experts agree on how Carolina Panthers should use their first-round pick

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If there is one thing the NFL playoffs have shown us the past two weeks, it’s that nothing else matters until you have a franchise quarterback.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they are still searching for one.

The Panthers have the sixth overall draft pick in the 2022 NFL draft, their highest pick since 2011, when they took quarterback Cam Newton at No. 1 overall

Pitt’s Kenny Pickett has often been linked to the Panthers because of his ties to coach Matt Rhule and owner David Tepper. He once committed to Temple when Rhule was head coach there.

Tepper is a Pitt alum.

But even though the Panthers have a chance to pick a quarterback, this may not be the draft to take one.

The Observer spoke to three NFL draft experts to get their thoughts on this year’s quarterback class and asked whether drafting a quarterback at No. 6 would be a reach.

All three said “yes.”

“The thing that’s different about this quarterback class from previous years is that with this class, we don’t have that guy that really jumps out at you as far as being the No. 1 overall pick,” ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid said. “If you ask five different people, they could have five different guys as the top quarterback.”

Is a QB at 6 a reach?

There was never a doubt who’d be the No. 1 overall picks in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence were all top of their classes.

But it varies in the 2022 class. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper’s first mock draft of the year doesn’t even have a quarterback within his top 10 picks. He has the Panthers choosing Mississippi offensive tackle Charles Cross.

The first quarterback he has coming off the board is Liberty’s Malik Willis at No. 11.

Other draft experts agree.

“I think there’s just one major question with every single guy,” Yahoo! Sports draft analyst Eric Edholm said.

Pickett, in particular, is a 12-15 range guy, Edholm said.

The top quarterbacks in this draft class include Pickett, Willis, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Nevada’s Carson Strong and UNC’s Sam Howell.

CBS Sports’ Ryan Wilson compares this class of quarterbacks to the 2013 draft class when E.J. Manuel was the first quarterback to come off the board at No. 16. The second quarterback, Geno Smith, wasn’t drafted until the second round.

This crop of quarterbacks just isn’t graded as high as other players in the draft.

“Technically, it would be a reach, but I wouldn’t be surprised (if the Panthers took a quarterback),” Wilson said. “But the thing is, if they have one of these offensive linemen that they love, and you have a choice between Kenny Pickett or Matt Corral, Malik Willis, whoever you love, I’m taking the offensive lineman.”

Who the experts would pick

The Panthers’ top priorities this offseason include fixing their offensive line and upgrading the quarterback.

The issue is that solving both in the same draft will be difficult. After the Panthers’ first-round pick, they won’t pick again until the fourth round. Trading for a starting quarterback like Deshaun Watson or San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo will require at least one first-round pick — and in Watson’s case, at least three first-round picks.

But Panthers coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer have both been clear that the offensive line will take precedent.

“Absolutely,” Fitterer said last month when asked was offensive line their top priority this offseason. “Both sides of the ball, but offensive line, that’s how you build a team.”

The Panthers allowed 52 sacks in 2021, which was the fifth-most in the NFL. The Panthers started 13 different offensive line combinations. “Until we can control the line of scrimmage, it will be hard to win,” Rhule said then.

Right guard, left guard, left tackle, center will all likely have new faces. Rookie Brady Christensen will start at either left tackle or left guard and Taylor Moton will again start at right tackle, but outside of that, the Panthers will address other positions in the draft or free agency.

All three draft experts say the Panthers can address their most pressing need in the offensive line and still get great value with the sixth pick.

Cross is ranked in the top 10 by most draft experts. Alabama’s Evan Neal and N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu are others mentioned as top options at left tackle.

“I think all three are Day 1 starters,” Edholm said. “Neal is the just that rare combo of mass, athletic traits, reach, he’s pretty coordinated. I think his pass protection has come a long way. Ekwonu he gets out and pancakes people on the move. He’s really fun to watch.”

Edholm said if he was the Panthers, he’d take Ekwonu.

Wilson said he’d take Ekwonu too.

“If he’s not there and everyone else is there, I’m taking Evan Neal,” Wilson said. “I like Matt Corral. I like Kenny Pickett. I like some of the things Malik Willis does. But if you’re drafting one of those guys, they have to go to a team like the Saints.

“It’s sort of like a Mac Jones situation where you’re going to a program where you’re not asked to do everything right away.”

And the Panthers aren’t there yet. They had the 30th-ranked offense in the NFL and finished 29th in points per game. Aside from offensive line and quarterback, they need Christian McCaffrey to stay healthy and their wide receivers, outside of DJ Moore, to play a lot better.

Reid said he anticipates Neal coming off the board before No. 6. But Ekwonu and Cross would be a “home run,” taking one of those tackles.

He added that trading back and acquiring assets to make up for the lack of second and third-round picks won’t be a bad idea either.

“This is a deep offensive tackle class,” Reid said. “They go to the back end of the first round and even the front end of the second round.”