Where Panthers stand after record-tying draft class

David Tepper, Scott Fitterer

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers can use a lot of words to tell you about what they did this weekend.

With as many trades and picks as they made, it takes a lot of words to simply describe it all.

But for all the transactions and all the action, the Panthers showed you exactly what they are, and what they aren't – at least not yet.

As productive as the weekend was, they are not yet built. They're building. And they want to make sure do it the right way.

The Panthers made a franchise-high five trades over the weekend, a testament to their recognition that they needed to make this roster deeper and more competitive.

They drafted 11 players, tying a franchise-high set in 1995, when they were an expansion team. That's almost a metaphor.

The roster they had assembled as of Thursday morning wasn't untalented, but it wasn't to the level it needs to be. They knew that, and they acted on it. Decisively. And with conviction.

When the draft was over, head coach Matt Rhule talked about having the faith to trust the board. He also trusted his own two eyes.

Among the seven picks they made Saturday were four guys they coached at the Senior Bowl, and one guy (fourth-round running back Chuba Hubbard) who had a big day against Rhule's Baylor team two years ago.

But mostly, they stayed true to the process that Rhule talks about so often.

Rhule admitted that if they hadn't traded out of their first pick Saturday, the 109th overall, they'd have taken Hubbard anyway. Coming to that decision and trading back — running the risk of losing a player before they picked again at 126 — isn't the kind of thing you do if you're not committed to following a specific blueprint.

They also followed it with the first pick of the weekend.

General manager Scott Fitterer made it clear before the draft he wanted to add numbers to the roster, and if the right trade offer had come Thursday night, they'd have likely moved back from the eighth spot.

But they also took a look around them, and a look at their own evaluation, and took the player they needed instead of the one that would be easier to sell.

Cornerback Jaycee Horn is the kind of cover player you have to have if you're going to compete against Julio Jones or Michael Thomas or Mike Evans. Horn's also the kind of player they didn't have. If you're going to endure the pain of a season that yields a top-10 pick, you need to come out of it with a cornerstone player. They believe Horn is one.

Plenty of people questioned their decision to not take Justin Fields, and drafting a quarterback in the first round is the easiest way to earn forgiveness from a fan base — for a year or two at least.

But instead of rendering Sam Darnold moot, they did the thing his previous team never quite did.

Beyond using the first pick on Horn, the Panthers draft class was a symbolic hug for Darnold. It was a recognition that to make this thing work, they needed to protect their quarterback and give him plenty of parts to work with, without the crippling pressure of him feeling like he needs to save a franchise.

"All I want Sam to do is just take it one day at a time," Rhule said. "Everything for him doesn't have to be a referendum on whether he's a great quarterback or not. He just needs to come into the building and work everyday. I believe the quarterback position is really, really important, but I also believe great teams win. I think Sam is going to be as good as the guys around him, and we've tried to put a lot of really good players around him."

They have a pair of very good starting receivers in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. But recognizing that Anderson's in the final year of his contract, they brought in Terrace Marshall Jr. and Shi Smith over the weekend, adding targets who can be cultivated and incorporated into the offense. There's also third-round tight end Tommy Tremble , who could be both protection and target.

They also recognized the need to protect Darnold, which is why they invested in tackle Brady Christensen and guard Deonte Brown. Whether Christensen can remain the left tackle he was in college remains to be seen (they're not committing to positions yet), but the Panthers line needed both youth and quantity.

The Panthers didn't solve every problem on the roster over the weekend. They couldn't have. No team can. There's still uncertainty on the offensive line and in the secondary, and they may not have the amount of top-shelf talent to contend for a Super Bowl right now.

But by being honest with themselves, recognizing where they were, and moving with purpose in a specific direction, they may have moved themselves considerably closer to the goal.

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