CHARLOTTE - It's officially Mock Draft season for the Panthers. With the Senior Bowl practices coming next week, media outlets have started rolling out their predictions for the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, scheduled for the end of April in Las Vegas.
Take a look at the analysis from each outlet as the majority of writers focused in on Charles Cross, a junior offensive tackle out of Mississippi State.
DANIEL JEREMIAH: The Panthers will likely have their pick of any quarterback in the draft class, but, barring an unexpected move, they're committed (at least financially) to Sam Darnold for one more season. Gardner is the most gifted cornerback in the draft and would team with Carolina's 2021 first-rounder, Jaycee Horn, to give the Panthers the best young duo in the NFL.
MEL KIPER JR.: This is an easy call based on Carolina's biggest weakness: It has to get a better left tackle. The Panthers ranked last in the league in yards per play (4.6) and 28th in sacks allowed (52). They went into the season with journeyman Cameron Erving manning the spot and finished with rookie third-rounder Brady Christensen filling in. Taylor Moton is a really solid right tackle, but they can upgrade the left side with this pick.
Cross took a big leap in 2021, allowing just a single sack while playing in a pass-happy Mike Leach offense. He can be a big-time NFL left tackle. This isn't a reach pick. The Panthers need to hit here because they don't have second- or third-round picks due to trades for quarterback Sam Darnold and cornerback CJ Henderson. This is a massive draft for coach Matt Rhule, who fired his offensive coordinator and might have to make the playoffs in 2022 to keep his job.
RYAN WILSON: Quarterback makes all the sense in the world here, but it's important to remember these two words: Fit matters. Put Mac Jones on the the Jets and he probably looks a lot more like Zach Wilson than a legit Rookie of the Year candidate. So knowing that, the Panthers bolster the offensive line and perhaps find their next franchise QB via free agency or a trade. Cross is a high-upside athletic offensive tackle who had a strong season for Mississippi State.
TREVOR SIKKEMA: It has got to be an offensive line selection for the Carolina Panthers — it just has to be. They’ll likely try to add some veteran talent at interior offensive line during free agency, but left tackle Cam Erving (56.0 PFF grade in 2021) and left guard Pat Elflien (50.1) can’t be counted on again.
Cross is still fine-tuning his craft, but he has really smooth movement for a player of his size. After flashing traits in his first year as a starter in 2020, he gave up only 16 pressures on 719 pass-blocking snaps this past season. It's hard to not think a great NFL career is ahead of him.
DANE BRUGLER: If the Panthers strike out on their quarterback options in free agency and on the trade market, this could be the spot where we see the first quarterback drafted. This is Carolina’s only draft pick in the top 100, putting even more pressure on Matt Rhule and the organization to get this selection right.
Cross is talented enough to be OT1 on some team’s draft boards. He has the athleticism and movement patterns to be comfortable pass-blocking on an island, and his hands are well-timed and precise. Cross should be able to start from day one as a rookie.
BRYAN PEREZ: Carolina has been a popular landing spot for a quarterback in a lot of mock drafts, but I don’t think that’s the direction they’re going to take. Instead, they focus on the offensive line here with Cross, who’s a bit of an overlooked name at the top of the offensive tackle rankings. He’s a plus athlete but needs to get a little stronger before he can be considered a player with the same kind of upside as Ekwonu and Neal. Regardless, he’d be an immediate starter (and upgrade) for Matt Rhule and the Panthers.