NFL draft makeover: Which possible 2021 Panthers prospects fit the Matt Rhule mold?

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Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous few Sundays and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Rounds 5-7) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Carolina Panthers. What is the next step in their rebuild under Matt Rhule?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

The Carolina Panthers’ losing streak sits at a mere two games now, but Sunday’s home loss to the Denver Broncos was their seventh setback in an eight-game span. And it ran their season total of one-possession losses to a hard-to-swallow seven.

There’s a good chance that the Panthers enter the 2021 season on a lot of folks’ sleeper-team lists, as Year 2 under Matt Rhule figures to be better all around.

The reasons are ample: Almost half the current roster is 25 years or younger. That includes Christian McCaffrey, who has missed all but one game since Week 2. Rhule has a patterned history, even if it has been in college, of leading teams to big jumps in his second and third seasons of coaching.

A little more efficiency on both sides of the ball could lead to some big improvements. The Panthers have been a handful of plays away from winning in most of their close losses.

The quarterback position is one that will require long-term clarification. In some ways, Teddy Bridgewater has been better than expected, on pace to establish career highs in passing yards, completion percentage and touchdown passes.

He is also a better rushing threat than most expected. In 12 games as a Panther, he rushed 40 times for 239 yards and four TDs. For comparison, Cam Newton’s final 12 games in Carolina netted 321 rush yards and one TD on 70 rushing attempts.

But to see which QB the Panthers could draft and develop behind Bridgewater, you’re going to have to wait for our second crack at a 2021 mock draft, which comes out later this week.

Here, we’re going to fill some other holes at need positions and forecast how Rhule and Co. can help engineer a Year 2 leap in a tough division that could be undergoing changes with the futures of Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Tom Brady unknown beyond this season.

Early-round prospect

Oklahoma State OT Teven Jenkins

The Panthers must lock down one, possibly two tackle spots next year. Russell Okung and Taylor Moton are set to hit free agency in the spring, and the current staff doesn’t act like it’s eager to see Greg Little fill either of them.

Jenkins has played both tackle spots for the Cowboys, but most evaluators we’ve spoken to seem to like him best on the right side.

Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins has stepped up his game in 2020. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins has stepped up his game in 2020. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Jenkins can aptly be described as a finisher. He’s a country-strong mauler who loves burying opponents, even if he can get off-balance and will fall below the 33-inch arm-length threshold (he’s believed to be just shy of that) for some teams.

We don’t think Rhule would approach the pick with those trivial concerns. Jenkins could use some technical refinement, but he’s a weight room warrior who has improved in nearly every way this season and positioned himself as a top-50 selection.

Rhule would be tickled to find himself a play-through-the-whistle starting tackle to help continue his effort to toughen up the lines of scrimmage. That typically has been his blueprint from his prior stops, and it doesn’t hurt that Jenkins is a Big 12 player whom Rhule faced off against last year.

Mid-round prospect

Northwestern CB Greg Newsome II

Like with offensive tackle, cornerback is a spot where there could be some notable changes to the 2021 depth chart. The Panthers have two corners, Rasul Douglas and Corn Elder, set to hit free agency, plus a third in Donte Jackson who is entering the final year of his contract next season.

Although Douglas has been a nice reclamation project, losing James Bradberry has hurt the talent at the position. Fourth-rounder Troy Pride Jr. has struggled some, and seventh-rounder Stantley Thomas-Oliver is a virtual unknown. We expect them to add bodies at the position.

Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow likely are on the lookout for tough, physical corners who can send a message to the receivers they’re covering. Such is life in a division with Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Michael Thomas and plenty more gifted wideouts.

Hello, Newsome. The Wildcats junior — who has yet to make a decision on declaring — has entered the CB discussion with a fine season. He’s long and tough, runs and transitions well, and carries an edge in his play. If he enters the draft, he’d have a good shot to crack the top 100 overall picks.

Newsome first got on our radar in the Purdue matchup when he held wideout David Bell to 53 yards on five receptions (11 targets). The next week, Newsome absolutely killed the Badgers, allowing one 7-yard catch on six targets, picking up an interception and two passes defended.

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After taking Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Jeremy Chinn from Southern Illinois in Round 2 last year, the Panthers could dip back into the Land of Lincoln for more secondary help. Newsome’s toughness and smarts would be a welcome addition for a team that appears to place a high value on blue-collar players.

Late-round prospect

SMU TE Kylen Granson

The Panthers probably could use some help in the tight ends room, and the 6-2, 243-pound Granson is a jack of all trades who can line up in multiple spots. The Mustangs have used him at fullback, in-line tight end, in the slot and even out wide. He leads the team’s skill-position players in snaps played and has special-teams potential.

Granson essentially could be what Thaddeus Moss was at LSU for offensive coordinator Joe Brady in 2019. With nice vertical speed, strong hands and crisp route-running skill, Granson is a nice change-up target for a passing game that is well-stocked everywhere but at tight end. SMU has even given him some end-around rushing attempts.

Southern Methodist tight end Kylen Granson can make grabs downfield. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)
Southern Methodist tight end Kylen Granson can make grabs downfield. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)

We expect him to show out as a receiver at the Senior Bowl next month. There’s even a chance that Rhule and his staff are coaching Granson, making this pairing even more likely.

Although Granson might never become a massive producer, he’s the kind of seam beater who can sting a defense who naps on him. He’s not a great pass blocker, either, at least not from what we can tell in his limited opportunities to do so, and he lacks ideal length and strength for the position.

But Granson has the potential to elevate his game into a Trey Burton-Irv Smith Jr. type of player. He’s hauled in at least one 40-yard grab in each of his four seasons at SMU.

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