Carolina Panthers NFL Draft Picks & Grades 2022: Ikem Ekwonu Headlines One of the Most Athletic Classes of the Draft

The Panthers were heavily linked to the top quarterbacks in the draft with the sixth overall pick after Sam Darnold struggled through his debut season with the team. Still, they instead went with Ikem Ekwonu, who many believe to be the best offensive lineman in this draft. They later picked up Matt Corral in the third round with a much better value. Day 3 includes some swings on the athletic upside at positions of need, and overall, this was a fundamentally sound draft for the Panthers. This article will provide a complete draft recap for the Panthers, including individual grades for each selection.

Carolina Panthers Draft Picks 2022

Round 1 No. 6 OT Ikem Ekwonu
Round 3 No. 94 QB Matt Corral
Round 4 No. 120 LB Brandon Smith
Round 6 No. 189 DE Amare Barno
Round 6 No. 199 OT Cade Mays
Round 7 No. 242 CB Kalon Barnes

Overall Draft Grade: A-

Analysis: At first blush, this draft should be an A. However, I’m doing my best to factor in trades with 2022 draft capital into these grades. The Panthers traded second and fourth-round picks for Sam Darnold, who had nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions last year. That knocks their grade down a bit, but they crushed the rest of the draft from top to bottom. Ekwonu provides a foundational piece upfront with elite upside. Corral has massive potential if he can stay healthy. Smith and Barno were two of the best testers at the combine. Overall, this draft can be an excellent one for the Panthers.

Carolina Panthers Draft Grades 2022

Round: 1 Pick: 6 / Ikem Ekwonu, OT, NC State

The Panthers should be commended for this pick. Everyone assumed the building pressure for Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer would lead them to be brash and reach for a quarterback here. Instead, they calmly picked Ekwonu, possibly the top-rated player on their big board, with the sixth pick. Ekwonu’s combination of road-grading power and nimble feet is rare, and he was one of the best run-blockers in all of college football last season. After adding Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett as presumed starters in the offseason, Carolina should creep back toward average at least upfront, with Taylor Moton still holding down the right side. This was the right move, and Carolina gets an extra boost in the grade for not succumbing to pressure and taking a quarterback.

Grade: A+

Round: 3 Pick: 94 / Matt Corral, QB, Mississippi

The Panthers reportedly viewed Corral as the best quarterback in this class, so grabbing him late on Day 2 is an incredible value. Corral is dealing with an ankle injury and reportedly also slid down boards due to alcohol and depression-related issues, per the NFL’s Ian Rapoport. Nonetheless, Corral’s mobility and uncanny throwing power are highly enticing, and he significantly improved his knack for careless turnovers this past season. With Sam Darnold clearly not the long-term answer, Corral could see starting reps as soon as this season, and he will be supported by an underrated offensive line and high-level skill position talent.

Grade: A

Round: 4 Pick: 120 / Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State

I was surprised a team didn’t take a chance on Brandon Smith on Day 2, and I felt that this was a smart use of resources for Carolina. Smith showed out at the combine on his way to a 9.97 RAS. As a former five-star recruit, Smith never quite put it all together at Penn State. However, he was consistently excellent in coverage and had the rare ability for a linebacker to cover slot receivers in the tough Big Ten conference. At a minimum, he’s a three-down linebacker with elite athleticism whose run defense should improve over time. However, as a 6’4”, 250-pound linebacker who tested above the 90th percentile in the 40-yard dash, short shuttle, and broad jump, he has the upside to be the best linebacker in this entire draft.

Grade: A

Round: 6 Pick: 189 / Amare Barno, DE, Virginia Tech

There are some similarities between Smith and Barno in that his lack of feel for the game and sloppy technique held him back from being a consistent collegiate producer. However, Barno now owns the fastest 40-yard dash of any defensive lineman at the combine since 2003 as he clocked in at 4.36 seconds. Barno also finished in the 98th percentile for the broad jump. That elite athleticism never translated to high-end production at Virginia Tech, and he has a ton of work to do. However, this is the right time of the draft to take a chance on those high-end attributes.

Grade: B+

Round: 6 Pick: 199 / Cade Mays, OT, Tennessee

Cade Mays had extensive starting experience at right tackle and right guard for Tennessee. He can conceivably contribute at four of the five offensive line positions after playing all over the line in college. Mays earned All-SEC honors in 2021 with just one sack allowed over 272 pass-blocking snaps per Pro Football Focus, and his pass-protection experience will help his game translate to the NFL. The Panthers’ long-term plan for Mays will be interesting, but his ability to provide immediate depth across the line is very valuable.

Grade: A-

Round: 7 Pick: 242 / Kalon Barnes, CB, Baylor

After resigning Donte Jackson to join two former first-round picks, Jaycee Horn and CJ Henderson, at cornerback, the position wasn’t a huge need for the team, but depth is always good to have at one of the most positions in the NFL. Kalon Barnes allowed just 21 catches at Baylor, the fewest of all Big 12 cornerbacks with 300+ snaps, per PFF. He’s also the fastest player in this draft class, so he continues Carolina’s clear obsession with speed – Barnes ran a 4.23-second 40-yard dash, and it shows up with his ability to cover downfield.

Grade: A

I've been writing about sports for Lineups since the beginning of 2020 and on my own website since 2018. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. With my educational background in the sports business and a strong knowledge of the inner workings of professional and collegiate sports, I hope to tell enthralling stories about the world of sports as it unfolds around me.

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