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Grading the Panthers first-round pick of Ickey Ekwonu

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It's easy to love Ekwonu because he is a beast in the run game (both in the box and downfield against smaller defenders in space) and has the agility, anchor and length to hold off NFL-caliber edge rushers. The Panthers fill a major need with the former N.C. State star. He will help whichever quarterback competes with Sam Darnold for the starting gig in the fall and can lead the way for RB Christian McCaffrey.

Grade: A

The Panthers were thought likely to trade out of this selection given that the club is not scheduled to select again until the fourth round. However, with their choice of the top-rated tackles available, the club fortified its front with the Ekwonu, whose blend of size, agility and power projects beautifully all across the line. 

While a tad shorter than most like at tackle, Ekwonu is functionally bigger than his 6-4 height suggests due to his extraordinary wingspan. Providing Sam Darnold with better protection (and anticipating a healthy 2022 season from Christian McCaffrey) gives the club its best chance to compete immediately. Ekwonu is the second local prospect selected in the first round by Carolina, with the club nabbing South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn a year ago.

Grade: A-

I love the Panthers getting offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu at No. 6. He's No. 2 on my Big Board, and he's a dominant run and pass blocker who will start on the left side from Day 1. Carolina didn't reach for a quarterback, and it ended up with the best tackle in the class.

Ekwonu (6-foot-4, 310) started 31 games — 27 at left tackle and four at left guard — during his three college seasons. He plays with a nasty streak and should be an outstanding run blocker from day one.

Ekwonu needs to clean up some issues in pass protection (PFF charged him with 10 sacks allowed in the past two seasons), but there's no denying his upside. Ekwonu should have the versatility to play guard or tackle.

This doesn't solve the Panthers' quarterback problem, but left tackle has been a disaster for them for years. Ekwonu is a tone-setter, and he plays a premium position. The Panthers still have a lot to figure out, but Ekwonu is a fine pick.

Grade: B+

Well, so far no one has done anything dumb! After cycling through subpar left tackle options for what seems like forever, the Panthers may have finally found their answer at that critical spot. Ekwonu is my third-ranked player: He is a mauler in the run game and a smooth mover as a pass protector, and he provides a huge boost to an offensive line that desperately needs it.

Grade: A+

The Panthers chose to pass on a quarterback and that decision was made easier by having their pick between Ekwonu and Evan Neal. Scott Fitterer circles back to address Carolina's biggest need by looking right down the road to Raleigh for a strong, powerful but also very athletic force to form bookends with Taylor Moton. The Panthers' QB course of action this year might be instead adding veteran competition for Sam Darnold.

Grade: A

The Panthers have to be foaming at the mouth with how this all went. I honestly don't think they expected Ekwonu to be on the board at No. 6, and end up getting the best offensive tackle in this draft without question. Fans can breathe a sigh of relief that this team didn't get monumentally stupid and draft Kenny Pickett at No. 6, instead fixing their woeful offensive line and get an absolute anchor. Great luck, great pick, this one is easy.

Grade: A+

The Charlotte native will save on moving costs. The Panthers made the smart move here, taking OL help over reaching for a QB. Ekwonu's pass protection, despite taking a jump in 2021, remains unrefined. But his upside is high, starting with his pile-driving run blocking. He's also a smart, charismatic young man with a great work ethic.

Grade: B-

"The Panthers played spinning tops at left tackle last year, so getting a tackle was a no brainer in this draft. I liked Evan Neal more, but I get this choice. Ekwonu needs to work on his pass protection some, but he is fixable."

Grade: B+

PFF

The board couldn't have fallen much better for Carolina here with all three of the top offensive tackle prospects still on the board. The Panthers opted for the top run blocker in the class in Ekwonu. The NC State tackle earned PFF run-blocking grades above 85.0 in all three of his college seasons with grades above 90.0 in each of the last two years. It's worth noting that the Panthers didn't trade back here to add another pick or two given that they aren't on the clock again until the fourth round.

Grade: Good

Strengths: Bulldozing run-blocker, punch packed with dynamite, lateral agility, inside-out versatility

Weaknesses: Oversets, hand placement can be all over the place

North Carolina State's Ikem Ekwonu has some Incredible Hulk in him.

As a result, NFL offensive line coaches won't be able to help but fall in love with the 310-pound blocker. Ekwonu is aggressive on the field and has a level of violence in his blocks not often seen from line prospects. Off the field, Ekwonu brings an affable personality, which invites everyone to congregate around him. 

Of any offensive line prospect in this year's class, the unanimous All-American posted the most dominant performance. Ekwonu buried opponent after opponent, particularly in the run game. His fearsome demeanor derives from overwhelming power at the point of attack. Ekwonu can crush defenders or just wash them completely down the line. His highlights from the 2021 campaign are something to behold. Bodies fly everywhere. 

Athletically, Ekwonu is such an easy mover. The Wolfpack employ a zone-heavy scheme in which the line prospect excelled with his ability to reach and destroy defenders at all three levels. His movement skills showed up at the NFL combine, where he ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash and floated through the position-specific drills. 

Issues arise with the fact that Ekwonu is so athletic yet unrefined. Sometimes, his athleticism allows him to reach landmarks quicker than he should based on the opponent. He must become more patient in pass protection and far more sound with his overall technique. If an offensive line coach can harness his skills, a dominant force will emerge at the NFL level. 

A little home cooking can certainly help in Ekwonu's development. Situations matters. Those on the outside forget these are young men in new situations and new systems. They have to deal with new coaches and newfound fame and riches. It can be a lot.

For Ekwonu, the transition should be a little smoother than it is for a typical rookie since the Charlotte native gets to play close to home.

The Panthers rightly passed on a quarterback. The team didn't need to force the selection of a signal-caller in what's clearly a weak position group. Instead, the organization now has a complete offensive line to protect whomever is behind center.

Carolina's addition of this year's sixth overall pick, as well as veterans Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett, should significantly elevate the Panthers' trench play. 

Grade: A

The Panthers are getting some value with this pick, as many believed that Ickey Ekwonu could have been the third-overall pick. More importantly, Carolina is taking Ekwonu over a mediocre quarterback prospect, which is the correct decision. The Panthers are better off either trading for Baker Mayfield (assuming the Browns take on some of his salary) or waiting until 2023 to land a quarterback. Either way, this quarterback will have quality protection because of Ekwonu.

Grade: A-

View photos of Ickey Ekwonu with the Commissioner on the draft stage in Las Vegas.

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