Going into the 2019 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers’ needed help on the offensive line, at safety, edge, wide receiver and linebacker.
The Panthers attempted to address those holes with seven draft picks and fewer than two years later, five of those selections are still on the roster. Only one, Brian Burns, has spent consistent time as a starter.
With the 2021 NFL draft two months away, the Panthers, with a different head coach and general manager, are searching for answers at most of those same positions while trying simultaneously to address many other holes and complete a rebuild. The 2021 needs? Offensive line, safety, wide receiver and linebacker make the list heading into free agency.
It’s easier to look back and wonder what could have been done differently than to predict the future. Injuries, changes in scheme and some uncontrollable factors are hard to account for. But after a season during which two of the Panthers’ three top 2019 picks sat while other backups replaced starting players ahead of them, it’s worth looking at what could have been done differently.
Round 1, Pick 16 — DE/EDGE Brian Burns
Should someone have been picked instead? No. This was the right selection.
This pick has aged well. Burns has transformed into one of the best players on the Panthers defense and an emerging leader. Originally drafted to fit Carolina’s new 3-4 scheme, he had a hot start to his rookie season under Ron Rivera, but was hampered by a wrist injury in the second half of the year.
Burns put up a strong sophomore season coming off the edge, but also being used in multiple ways in Phil Snow’s defense. He finished with a team-high nine sacks and 21 quarterback hits in 15 games. Without Burns on the defensive line, the unit would have struggled even more than it did at times. When the group was facing not having him for a Week 16 game vs. Washington due to injury, Carolina had to prepare not to use multiple packages without him on the field.
“He’s a dynamic guy and we use him in a lot of different roles. So (his availability) affects what personnel groups we use and so it kind of limits what we can do,” Snow said in December. “The package won’t be as full as it normally is because of his versatility and then obviously he makes big plays at big times, so we’ll miss that.”
The ceiling is high for Burns. Like many of former general manager Marty Hurney’s first-round picks, selecting Burns has aged well.
Round 2, Pick 37 — LT Greg Little
Grade: C -
Should someone have been picked instead? With what was given up in the trade? Yes.
Who stands out that was available? OL Cody Ford, OL Dalton Risner, WR DK Metcalf, WR A.J. Brown, WR Terry McLaurin
It would be easy to grade the Little pick much lower. The list of available players here is only a sampling of the players that could have been taken instead. Not among the list is a pure left tackle, like Little, which is part of why he was selected. Unfortunately for the Panthers and Little, injuries played a significant role in his rookie year, and he played in just four games.
With a new staff in place his second season, Little played occasionally behind starting left tackle Russell Okung. The veteran was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Chargers for Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner, in a trade that largely hasn’t aged well for either side due to both players’ injuries.
Little was a healthy scratch for multiple games in 2020 despite Okung’s health, and watched as free agent Trent Scott and fellow 2019 draft pick Dennis Daley played ahead of him.
The other offensive linemen the Panthers could have drafted are versatile and wouldn’t necessarily play left tackle in Carolina, but the Panthers have lacked sufficient depth at tackle in general. Ford, who was selected one pick after Little by the Buffalo Bills, would likely have been a better pick.
Hurney gave up the 47th and 77th picks in the draft to trade up to get Little, who ended his second season on injured reserve. There’s still time for him to move in the right direction, but a left tackle of the future remains a significant need, as it was in 2019.
Round 3, Pick 100 — QB Will Grier
Should someone have been picked instead? Yes.
Who stands out that was available? QB Gardner Minshew, LB Drue Tranquill, S Donovan WIlson, S Khari Willis
This selection has arguably aged the worst of the Panthers’ 2019 draft picks, and that’s without getting into who would have been available had the Panthers retained the two picks given up in the Little trade. Grier is the only quarterback drafted by the Panthers since Cam Newton in 2011. It was time, but was this the best fit?
Despite opportunities in both 2019 and 2020 to win the backup job, Grier has largely remained the third-string quarterback. For someone in whom the team invested so highly, the lack of playing time despite multiple injuries to the starting quarterbacks is not a positive sign for how two different coaching staffs have felt about him.
Grier had the chance to start the last two games of the 2019 season, but it did not go well for a variety of reasons, some of which were outside of his control.
He did admit in 2020 that he could have performed better in his rookie year and that he had needed to learn how to be a backup. But this past season, P.J. Walker was given multiple backup opportunities over Grier. Teddy Bridgewater was signed to the quarterback room after Cam Newton, and now the Panthers are looking for a quarterback yet again.
Selecting Grier, the hometown kid, was always a great story. It just hasn’t worked out so far.
Round 4, Pick 115 — LB/DE Christian Miller
Grade: C +
Should someone have been picked instead? Maybe
It’s a bit too early to give a strong opinion on the Miller selection compared to the rest of the draft picks. He opted out of the 2020 season in part due to being high-risk, meaning he had a health condition that left him more susceptible to COVID-19 and its potential impacts.
Miller played in seven games his rookie year, seeing limited playing time after suffering an ankle injury mid-season. He has yet to play under Matt Rhule and Snow, and didn’t get much of a chance to finish out his 2019 season. There’s still much unknown about how this pick will play out.
Round 5, Pick 154 — RB Jordan Scarlett
Grade: D +
Should someone have been picked instead? Yes.
Who stands out that was available? RB Myles Gaskin
Scarlett was not destined to be a backup to McCaffrey after all. This pick has not aged well, which is reflected in the Panthers still being without a clear No. 2 behind McCaffrey for the 2021 season. Having someone like Gaskin on the roster, who put together a fine performance in Miami in 2020, could have helped the Panthers build more depth in the running back room.
In his rookie year, Scarlett had four carries for nine yards. He was then waived during training camp this year and spent most of the 2020 season as a free agent. Scarlett’s skills as a receiver were a concern coming out of the draft. Correspondingly, the running back room behind McCaffrey has found success when players have multiple skills like the All-Pro.
Round 6, Pick 212 — OL Dennis Daley
Should someone have been picked instead? Nope.
It’s hard to pick a player in the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft who makes the roster outright, let alone has the potential that Daley has. Hurney made some tough late round picks that haven’t proved to be the best options, but Daley was a great find by the team late in the draft.
Daley hasn’t started a tremendous number of games, 12 total over two years, but his versatility stands out, playing both tackle and guard for the Panthers. After he finished last season on injured reserve, he has a chance to compete for a starting job at guard this season. Even if Daley doesn’t secure a starting role, he has significant value as a backup at multiple positions. That’s well worth a sixth-round pick.
Round 7, Pick 237 — WR Terry Godwin
Should someone have been picked instead? Possibly, but it’s a seventh-round pick. There weren’t a substantial number of missed players selected later or that went undrafted.
Who stands out that was available? T Ryan Bates, LB T.J. Edwards, WR Preston Williams
Godwin didn’t end up spending much time with the Panthers. He was cut prior to the start of the regular season, but he did find a landing spot with the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad soon after. Godwin was on the team’s practice squad again in 2020.
Late seventh-round picks are often long-shots to make the roster. The Panthers could have used depth at receiver, but it wasn’t a bad selection.
A couple more years may have to pass before we can take a bigger step back and conclude how the 2019 draft will fall long-term in Panthers history. The picks were intended to help the 2019 roster in areas of need and set up for the years to come. That has come with varying degrees of success.
There are positives in Burns and Daley and there is potential with Miller, but the team’s second- and third-round picks have not worked out thus far, and the impact is not insignificant. It’s common to walk away from drafts with successes and misses, and it’s possible for players like Grier and Little to turn things around.
But two years later, Carolina has question marks along the offensive line and at quarterback, and they have every intention of investing highly — again — to try and get it right.