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Carolina Panthers

2022 Senior Bowl practice observations

Zion Johnson, Trevor Penning

MOBILE, Ala. — The game itself should be interesting, because competition always creates a different atmosphere.

But the Senior Bowl is different, in that a week of practice carries as much weight for evaluators as anything that happens in Hancock Whitney Stadium on Saturday.

So after a week on the sidelines, it's time to clear out the notebook with a few final thoughts on the practices there:

— For one thing, it was kind of a weird week for the Panthers' scouts, because it's unclear how many of the players they watched will be available to them.

A lot of the projected top-10 picks in this year's draft weren't in attendance, with the top two pass-rushers (Kayvon Thibodeaux and Aidan Hutchinson) and the top three offensive tackles (Evan Neal, Charles Cross, Ikem Ekwonu) not in the all-star game.

And since the Panthers have a large gulf between their first pick (sixth overall) and their next one (the Rams' fourth-rounder, which could be in the 140s once compensatory picks are awarded and the final draft order is known), a lot of the players in Mobile will be gone by the time the Panthers are on the clock for the second time.

For now, at least.

General manager Scott Fitterer is always interested in dealing, and they have to be prepared in case they get a good offer to move down this year and add picks on the second day, or make another deal.

— If the Panthers somehow end up picking somewhere other than sixth, there were (literally) a ton of linemen who would be of interest.

Northern Iowa tackle Trevor Penning got into a few scraps during the practices, because once he blocks someone, he has a tendency to make sure they stay blocked. There were a few swats between teammates as he put one pass-rusher after another to the ground and gave them some extra shoves after drills. He's got a mean streak, and for offensive linemen, that's a good thing.

Boston College guard Zion Johnson also had an impressive week of practice, and even got some work at center for the people who like positional flexibility.

But nobody made a bigger impression (pun intended) than Minnesota tackle Daniel Faalele. You can't miss him, as he checked in at 6-8 1/4 and 387 pounds Monday, with 11-inch hands and 35 3/8-inch arms. He's mountainous, but can still move for a guy his size. There are still some questions about him, as he's still very raw in terms of technique (he played one year of high school football after growing up on rugby in his native Australia).

The recent success of Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata (6-8, 365) will make people give such massive players more consideration, and when Faalele stands next to guys who were merely 300 pounds or so, he creates a shadow.

— Fitterer said this week that there's a certain wisdom in drafting a quarterback if you think he's the guy to lead you to the playoffs, mainly because it's so economically advantageous.

And after watching a week of practices, it's clear that there are several intriguing options this year, depending on where you pick.

Pitt's Kenny Pickett may have walked in as the consensus top player of the group, but it was an open question by the end of the week. He's still very good, but when they were in the rain on Wednesday, he bobbled a few snaps, and that will create more questions about his hand size. While it sounds like a joke, it's a thing scouts factor in with quarterbacks, and it won't go away. Pickett can clearly play, but it's no longer certain that he'd be the top quarterback taken.

Liberty's Malik Willis had an excellent week of practices, showing off the best arm of the bunch and impressing the coaches with his quick pickup of the playbook. He also misses big sometimes, but on the whole he was solid. In a perfect world, a guy who has little to no experience under center would get time to develop. In case you've noticed the current quarterback landscape, this is not a perfect world.

Ole Miss' Matt Corral wasn't in Mobile, and he'll factor into the equation as well. North Carolina's Sam Howell did some good things this week, as he's accurate and mobile, and some scouts are coming back around on him after he struggled a bit last season.

The Panthers have enough needs that it's far from a sure thing that they'll invest a pick there this year, but you have to do the homework so you can make an informed decision when you're on the clock.

— The Lions coaching staff did things a little differently this week, and singled out a couple of top players on the first day of practice. With running backs coach Duce Staley heading the Detroit staff (a nice nod to developing assistant coaches), they set up a showdown at the end of the first practice between two of the best players of the week.

Florida State pass-rusher Jermaine Johnson II and Kentucky guard Darian Kinnard were paired up at the end of practice for a one-on-one drill. It was a three-snap matchup, with the entire losing side of the ball having to do push-ups. After Johnson got him the first time, Kinnard held his ground the next two snaps, forcing a tired defense to do a little extra exercise. But both practiced well throughout the week.

— The consensus among several evaluators from other teams was that the Panthers did some good business this offseason in hiring veteran offensive line coach James Campen and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor. Both have been around the league, and have strong reputations among coaches and scouts.

View practice photos of college prospects during Thursday's practice inside South Alabama's facility at the Senior Bowl.

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