CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have already filled two of the big jobs this offseason, as you may have heard, with a new head coach in Dave Canales and GM in Dan Morgan. Now, they get to work on the roster, and the scouts have already been on the road as all-star games kick off around the country.
Following the East-West Shrine Bowl, scouts from every team will descend on Mobile, Ala., today for the longest-running all-star game, the Reese's Senior Bowl. It should technically now be called the Senior Plus All Draft-Eligible Players Bowl, but that doesn't fit on a T-shirt as easily.
The Senior Bowl, described by the NFL as "the preeminent college football all-star game and the first stage in the NFL draft process," will put on its 75th-anniversary game next Saturday, featuring 150 of college football's premier players. The past three drafts featured 100-plus players drafted from that year's Senior Bowl roster. In the past five years, 87.2 percent of players who participated in the Senior Bowl have made the 53-man roster at some point during their rookie season.
As every draft aficionado knows, though, the game is often of the least priority when it comes to evaluating prospects. The practices during the week, including the revered one-on-one drills, are where teams hone in on particular guys.
The Panthers have six picks in the upcoming draft, spread throughout rounds two through six. With that in mind, and considering positional need as much as particular selections, here are five players to watch during Reese's Senior Bowl week.
Tez Walker: Wide receiver, North Carolina
Walker is a Charlotte native who played high school ball at West Charlotte High School and finished his career at the University of North Carolina. Walker gained national attention last fall when the NCAA denied his request to play immediately, stating he had transferred more than the approved one time. The NCAA eventually overturned the decision, as Walker argued his first transfer was due to his season at North Carolina Central being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He transferred from Kent State to North Carolina after his head coach left for another job; he chose North Carolina to play closer to home. The controversial NCAA litigation, while eventually overturned, did cause Walker to miss the season's first four games. As such, his 2023 stats jump off the page less than those from 2022; in his final college season, Walker hauled in 41 receptions for 699 yards and seven touchdowns. His 87.4 yards per game was in the Top 20 for all of CFB.
Walker's ability to stretch the field can take a top off a defense. He played 93 percent of his college snaps, lined up wide, with a 62 percent catch rate. Walker will likely test well and could work his way into a first-round receiver option. With a deep class at the position, though, the task will be challenging. That could work in the Panthers favor if Walker is still available at pick 33, the first pick of the second round.
Sedrick Van Pran: Center, Georgia
One of the top-rated interior linemen in this year's draft, Van Pran brings an enticing skill set as a prospect. He spent his career at the University of Georgia as a center but possesses the traits to be cross-trained as a guard. He's 6-4, 310 pounds and uses his base to negate stunts from the defense. In his final season at Georgia, he gave up 13 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, with no sacks or hits.
The Panthers infamously used seven left guards and eight right guards to hobble through the 2023 season. Quality depth with starting potential is desperately needed. Van Pran or someone of the same type could be a pickup in the third round (pick 65) or fourth round (pick 101).
Xavier Legette: Wide receiver, South Carolina
Another Carolina receiver, Legette, finished in the top 10 of every major receiving category for the 2023 season. That to the tune of 71 receptions for 1,255 yards (eighth in CFB), seven touchdowns, and 104.6 yards per game (both also eighth nationally). He's heading into the Senior Bowl with a solid second-round grade, making him one to watch for a team that needs the depth.
Legette became only the fourth receiver in Gamecocks history to eclipse 1,000 yards. He did so from multiple receiver spots, taking 34.3 percent of his snaps from the slot and 65.7 percent from out wide. He is a physical receiver who is fine working in traffic and making contested catches.
Quinyon Mitchell: Cornerback, Toledo
Mitchell is a four-year Toledo product, originally from Florida. Mitchell accumulated 41 tackles in his senior season, 19 passes defended and one interception. According to PFF, he gave up an average of 22 yards per game, making him one of the higher-rated corners in the draft. His 19 passes defended are tied for second most in the nation for college football this year.
The draft profiles on Mitchell point out his hesitancy, flipping his hips out of routes he's already locked. However, profiles also praise Mitchell's ability to recognize routes from the offset, meaning getting caught in the wrong one is rare. He's tenacious at the point of the catch and popping balls out of the radius.
The Panthers needs at corner will likely increase this offseason. Starters Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson are set to return (and enter the offseason healthy), but the rest of the unit is entering into uncertain free agency, as CJ Henderson and Shaquill Griffin are among the list of unrestricted free agents.
Adisa Isaac: Edge rusher, Penn State
Isaac is currently graded as a second-rounder after a year at Penn State that saw him finish with 7.5 sacks, 37 tackles, 16 for loss, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. He's played the run and pass almost equally, so he's an every-down rusher. His strengths lie in the run game, where his physicality and speed allow a more instinctual game. His pass-rush skills will need to be refined; however, most league coaches feel they can teach those aspects.
Isaac is a good example of a defender the Panthers might target on day two or three of the draft. Someone who isn't necessarily a high pick but can learn from and compliment Brian Burns, assuming the latter returns next season (and the franchise tag option makes that likely).