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Draft Debate: Why taking an edge rusher makes sense for the Panthers

Travon Walker

This is the first in a series of stories explaining the Panthers' primary options at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft, and why each of them makes a degree of sense. We'll go through the options for the next four days, leading up to the first round Thursday night. Monday will feature quarterback options, followed by offensive line prospects and a trade scenario.

CHARLOTTE — Defensive end is far from the most significant need on the Panthers' roster.

But in this particular instance, it might become the intersection of availability and value that makes the most sense for them when they're on the clock with the sixth overall pick.

The Panthers clearly need a cornerstone left tackle, and a long-term answer at quarterback, and have one premium pick with which to address those needs. But if all the tackles are gone in the top five (a distinct possibility), and the quarterbacks aren't deemed appropriately rated at the place they're picking, the right play could become looking at something else.

And in this draft, that means a rich class of pass-rushers.

Many expect the Jaguars to take one first overall, with early mock drafts leaning to Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, and later ones tabbing Georgia's Travon Walker. That shift is primarily based on the unpredictable nature of Jaguars GM Trent Baalke, who once chose Aldon Smith over J.J. Watt when he was general manager of the 49ers.

Regardless which one he chooses — the high-energy Bosa-Brother-clone, or the high-ceiling traits guy who lacked production while surrounded by spectacular teammates — there would be at least one left.

This doesn't take into account the fact that you could make a reasonable case for the Jaguars taking the best pass-protector instead, since keeping 2021 first-round quarterback Trevor Lawrence upright should be their greatest priority.

Regardless, there are multiple pass-rushers available with top 10 grades, along with Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, and some think Florida State's Jermaine Johnson also belongs in that category.

So if the top five picks come and go, and offensive tackles Ickey Ekwonu, Evan Neal, and Charles Cross are gone (the Jaguars, Texans, Jets, and Giants all have varying degrees of need for such a player), the Panthers could be faced with a choice.

Force a lower-rated player at a position of higher need? Or take the best player on the board?

That would require discipline, but it could also set their defense up for the next few years.

The Panthers still have defensive end Brian Burns under contract for two more seasons, as they're going to pick up his fifth-year option, and they've already talked about extending his deal. But Burns was helped last year by having Haason Reddick on the other side, and Reddick took his 11.0 sacks to Philadelphia in free agency.

The current plan is to create pressure by committee. Last week, defensive coordinator Phil Snow mentioned a cast that included Frankie Luvu, Marquis Haynes Sr., and a mix-and-match collection of guys at other positions (from safety Jeremy Chinn to inside linebacker Shaq Thompson) who could combine to replace the production.

Or, they could find it in one guy.

If there's a run on tackles, and Walker (who had 7.5 sacks which seems low, but probably isn't considering the constellation of talent surrounding him at Georgia) happens to be sitting there at six, taking him makes a lot of sense.

Or if Walker goes first, and for some strange reason Hutchinson hangs around on the board, adding a 14.0-sack guy who is known for consistent effort seems automatic.

The key is not to be a prisoner of the moment.

Of course the Panthers need other positions more than they do another pass-rusher.

But pass-rushers are expensive, especially if you try to buy them on the open market. Because of the economics of rookie-scale contracts, finding guys at premium positions who can produce on smaller deals adds value. Look at who makes the most money in the NFL — passers, pass-rushers, pass-protectors, and increasingly, pass-catchers. If you can pay one their first contract for five years, you can use the savings to add more parts at other positions.

(This same argument holds true of quarterbacks, but there are a lot more pass-rushers than passers with top-10 grades in this class.)

Taking a defensive end at six wouldn't be a popular choice for the Panthers, since the kind of instant draft grades that get attention are primarily based on need and name-recognition.

But taking the best player on the board is always the smartest way to do business.

There are still some quarterbacks available in trade (and the price isn't going up) who could help. There are a couple of veteran free agent left tackles (Duane Brown and Eric Fisher in particular), who could be signed at any time The Panthers still have one of the highest amounts of cap room in the league at the moment, so they have options.

But impact pass-rushers are only available at the top of the draft now, so taking one is something the Panthers should absolutely consider.

View college photos of Jeremiah's initial list of top prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft.

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