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Carolina Panthers

Draft Debate: Why taking a tackle makes sense for the Panthers

Evan Neal

This is the third in a series of four stories explaining the Panthers' primary options at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft, and why each of them makes a degree of sense leading up to the first round Thursday night. Sunday covered the possibility of drafting a pass-rusher, Monday was about the quarterback decision, and Wednesday we'll discuss trade scenarios.

CHARLOTTE — There's an easy answer if someone asks whether the Panthers should use a first-round pick on an offensive tackle.

Because Jeff Otah is 35 years old and has been out of the league for 10 years, that's why.

When the Panthers took the very young and very powerful and actually-quite-good-when-healthy Otah 19th overall in the 2008 first round, it marked the last time the Panthers have used a first-rounder on a tackle. It's fairly easy to draw a line between that moment and nearly a decade of instability up front.

The Panthers have started a different left tackle each year since Jordan Gross (their 2003 first-rounder) retired after the 2013 season, and that streak will continue this year and possibly into 2023.

Unless they do something about it Thursday night.

There are three top tackle prospects in this year's draft, and at least a chance that one of them is available when the Panthers pick sixth overall. And if, as a former coach once said, "a punt is not a bad play," then there's also nothing wrong with calling for a fair catch and fielding whichever one falls into your lap.

There's Ickey Ekwonu, a Charlotte native with a bright mind and a mean streak, a dominant run blocker with the physical tools to continue to improve.

There's Evan Neal, the massive and technically sound blocker from Alabama, who has started all over the line, but would fill a most-important role on the edge.

The third of the three might be the most polished pass-blocker, Charles Cross of Mississippi State, who is also the best athlete of the group. He's likely graded a tick below the other two because he played in an unconventional offense and has little experience run-blocking, but he's still the kind of player who could make a significant difference here.

All the Panthers have to do is hope at least three of the group of teams including the Jaguars, Lions, Texans, Jets, and Giants decide to do something else with their picks.

Or, put simply, they need three non-tackles to be taken ahead of them to have a shot at the guy they need.

Drafting a tackle won't create the same kind of buzz as taking a quarterback. But this year, it's certainly a safer play, and will fit better with the offseason strategy.

The Panthers entered the offseason with an emphasis on getting stronger up front, and by agreeing to a deal with former Rams free agent Austin Corbett on the first day the market opened, and center Bradley Bozeman before the end of the first week on an affordable one-year deal, they did just that.

They could go into the season with a version of what they have, but that would include Brady Christensen being your full-time left tackle (which is a bigger ask than filling in at the end of a lost season), and likely Michael Jordan at left guard. It's also worth pointing out that a Bozeman-Corbett-Taylor Moton right side of the line would be the most talented they've had in some time, and being able to assume that much already puts them ahead of recent seasons.

While Christensen has earned praise for his early play, the reality remains he's a year removed from being the 70th overall pick. That's different than the possibility of adding a top-10 talent, and equating the two creates an unfair expectation of Christensen. He played well last year. They also had a second-round grade on him as a guard, and a third-round grade as a tackle. Some even think he could play center in the future, and with his awareness and athleticism, it's an intriguing possibility.

If the Panthers can add Ekwonu or Neal or Cross, and move Christensen in to left guard, then they suddenly have something resembling depth, with Jordan and Deonte Brown among some of the veteran holdovers.

But they'd also have a left tackle with pedigree. And it's been a long time, and a lot of "sometimes the answer is on the roster," and converted defensive tackles, and short-term stopgaps, since they've had one of those.

Since Gross retired after the 2013 season, the Panthers have used 16 different starters at left tackle, none with particular distinction.

Sit down if you need to, take a deep breath, and consider the following list.

Michael Oher (19 starts), Matt Kalil (16), Byron Bell (15), Chris Clark (13), Mike Remmers (13), Dennis Daley (12), Cameron Erving (9), Greg Little (7), Russell Okung (7), Christensen (4), Trent Scott (4), Daryl Williams (3), Moton (3), Marshall Newhouse (2), Michael Schofield (1), and even David Foucault (1).

And now think about someone who could start from day one, and ostensibly continue to start for four or five years. What would that be like?

No drafted player is truly a sure thing, but the chances of one of those tackles being a productive starter are higher than those of the quarterbacks in this year's class.

Drafting a tackle would leave them with a big unanswered question at quarterback, for sure. But there are other options there, however — ones that don't require risking a rare asset on an uncertain commodity.

It's been too long since the Panthers pushed the button on a tackle on the first day of the draft.

If they have the opportunity, they probably should.

View pictures of all of Carolina's first-round draft picks back to 2002 when Carolina picked Julius Peppers second overall.

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