Trading for C.J. Henderson adds to young talent on defense

C.J. Henderson

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have taken deliberate steps to add young talent on defense.

So when they got the opportunity to add to the list Monday, they took a big swing — even if it cost them a player they didn't necessarily want to give up.

The Panthers filled in the gap created by cornerback Jaycee Horn's broken foot by trading for 2020 first-round pick C.J. Henderson.

They sent tight end Dan Arnold and a 2022 third-round pick to Jacksonville for Henderson and a fifth-round pick.

Henderson will turn 23 this week, and he joins a long list of ascending talent, including Derrick Brown (23), Brian Burns (23), Jeremy Chinn (23) and Donte Jackson (25).

From that standpoint, it can be interpreted as a win-now move, though the Panthers would have likely considered Henderson even if they hadn't gotten off to a 3-0 start or if Horn hadn't gotten hurt.

Like Horn, Henderson's a bigger corner (6-0, 204) who can run, giving them the ability to match up with some of the larger receivers in the division.

And because the Jaguars have already paid his signing bonus and he has four more years (if you include the fifth-year option) of his rookie contract remaining, the Panthers can continue to build as they did in free agency this year. That's why Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said this wasn't about filling an immediate need, but adding a long-term asset.

"He's just a young player on his second team in two years," Rhule said of Henderson. "He just needs to come here and be one of the guys and be around our guys. . . . This is a really talented player we held in really high regard, and he was available. We had to make a hard decision.

"This is not a right-now/this-week conversation. This is about the next two years, three years. On defense, as you can see, when you have a bunch of good players it's fun to watch. So just hopefully he's one more guy in that group."

While it might seem unusual that Jacksonville would give up on a high pick so soon, a change in administrations there was part of the equation. Either way, Rhule referred back to advice he got from Dick Vermeil about waiting to see how top picks looked in a new system before making decisions one way or another.

"Dick Vermeil said to me years ago, . . . be patient with great talents, that's why you have a job," Rhule recalled. "I have no debate at all about C.J.'s talent. Where he is now as a player I don't know those things because I haven't been around him.

"It was an opportunity for us to go get a top-15 pick for two and a half more years. It's not a short-sighted thing, a long term thing and hopefully we can get the best out of him."

Jackson's entering the final year of his rookie deal, but the Panthers would still like to keep him around if they can, and have told him as much.

That would create a wealth of talent in the secondary whenever Horn returns, whether that's late this year or next.

The trade leaves them thin on draft picks in 2022, with just six total, and one on the first two days (their own first-rounder).

But the way general manager Scott Fitterer has moved around (and the way Seattle has always traded back), it's reasonable to expect that more picks could be coming their way.

In addition to their own first, they currently own the Rams' fourth-rounder, a fifth from the Jaguars, their own fifth, either their own sixth or the Raiders' (the higher of the two goes to Buffalo), and Miami's seventh-rounder.

But to think in those terms, they sent a second- and fourth-rounder next year for a quality starting quarterback (Sam Darnold), and now a third for a starting-caliber corner.

Henderson was a consideration last year during the first round, but they ultimately went with Brown with the seventh overall pick.

And now they have another quality prospect, at a reduced rate.

View photos of C.J. Henderson during his time with Jacksonville in 2020 and 2021 as well as his college career at Florida.

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