Patient Carolina Panthers got their QB and have rocked through this NFL draft so far

Patient Carolina Panthers got their QB and have rocked through this NFL draft so far

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It wasn’t perfect, because no NFL draft ever is. It might implode, because all draft classes can. But the Carolina Panthers’ first two picks of the 2022 NFL draft sure look smart to me. The Panthers suddenly appear to be a team that has learned patience in the front office and is starting to become the serious football place head coach Matt Rhule has always envisioned.

When the Panthers didn’t trade for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo Friday night and instead took a much cheaper option by choosing Ole Miss QB Matt Corral late in the third round, I could feel myself nodding my head in agreement. Mayfield would have been a mistake — a big contract for a guy whose skill set may not actually be any better than Sam Darnold’s. Garoppolo made a little more sense, but the money and the injury history sure didn’t.

For Corral, the Panthers had to give up their third-round pick in 2023 and their fourth-round pick Saturday to New England. That allowed them to move into the third round and draft a quarterback at No. 94 overall, which in real time occurred just after 11 p.m. Friday.

Corral won’t start right away for Panthers

Corral won’t be a Day 1 starter. He’s a developmental quarterback with some issues and a lot of talent. “We’re going to bring him along slow,” Rhule said of Corral. “We’re going to train him from the ground up. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s got a lot to do.”

It sounded from the way Rhule explained it that Corral may well be third on the depth chart to start the 2022 season, behind both Darnold (now almost surely the starter in September) and PJ Walker. He’s also coming off a high ankle sprain he sustained in Ole Miss’s bowl game in January — a game he easily could have opted out of but didn’t.

Corral joins first-round pick Ickey Ekwonu — the massive N.C. State offensive lineman who grew up in Charlotte — as the Panthers’ first two picks. I favored Liberty’s Malik Willis, and he was still around until No. 86, but the fact that the Panthers will have a talented quarterback on a rookie contract for the next several years is big.

That cost-effectiveness allows Carolina to make another significant QB decision without being hamstrung much by the salary cap in 2023. They can either re-sign Darnold if he plays better this year under what should be an improved offensive line, or to go with Corral if the Panthers see enough from him, or to sign or draft someone else entirely if they don’t.

Panthers think Corral has ‘first-round talent’

The keys are options and flexibility. The Panthers have retained both at the game’s most important position rather than pick up the next shiny gold coin near them after their two proposed blockbuster QB trades over the past year — for Matthew Stafford (this would have been great) and Deshaun Watson (this would have been terrible) — didn’t work out.

Panthers GM Scott Fitterer said before the draft he was going to try to not mortgage the future — i.e. trade away very high draft picks in 2023 — simply to recoup some of the capital he lost in the questionable Darnold trade of 2021. You could argue he broke that promise by trading New England a future third-round pick for Corral; I would argue he didn’t, because that pick is going to likely be in the 70s or so. That’s worth taking a QB gamble.

Corral has had ups and downs — success in the SEC, battles with alcohol and depression, a reported fight with Wayne Gretzky’s son while in high school. You can kind of see why he lasted until late in the third round. But have you seen how quickly he gets the football out of his hand? This was worth the risk.

“We think he has first-round talent,” Rhule said.

Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral runs the football vs. Kentucky in 2020. The Panthers traded up to grab Corral with the 94th pick of the 2022 NFL draft.

The Panthers had several chances to trade into the second round Friday night but general manager Scott Fitterer said the price was too high.

“I thought Scott tonight was unbelievably elite,” Rhule said of Fitterer at nearly midnight Friday at a late-night press conference. “You know we had chances to trade up many times. At the last minute, his gut was not to do it and just to wait.”

Patience hasn’t been the Panthers’ best attribute over the past few years. They’ve done some splashy things that haven’t really worked out — signing Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore last season, to name just two.

But Ekwonu was about as safe a pick as you can get — a sturdy offensive lineman who can play guard or center and who can just envelop defenders. And Corral, while more of a risk, came at a realistic price and will likely now be forced to be patient himself, whether he wants to be or not.

“If you think about it, it’s amazing,” Rhule said, speaking of NFL quarterbacks. “This is the only position in sports where the best players are over the age of 35… I mean Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady…. In a perfect world, it’s going to take some time.”

Rhule also pointed out the obvious — that taking Corral in the third round rather than the first will also relieve some of the stress. “And so sometimes you take those guys at No. 6 (where the Panthers drafted Ekwonu),” the coach said of rookie QBs, “the pressure is so great to put them on the field that they can get ruined.”

It may all never work out. But it might. A Panther fan can legitimately dream a little after these first two draft days about an offense one day where Corral is throwing the ball and Ekwonu is protecting his blindside. It could be fun, just like the first two days of the NFL draft were.

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