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Panthers 2022 draft wrap: Impact and traits

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers can't know at the moment how this is all going to work out.

But as they look back over a draft weekend in which they checked off their two biggest needs — two positions that are the hardest to fill — they can at least take a breath and realize that it couldn't have worked out much better for them.

Finding a left tackle and a quarterback is the kind of job that usually takes years, and it takes a high degree of luck. Some years, the draft doesn't match what you need, so picking high isn't always enough.

This year, on the other hand, this year fell perfectly.

Getting left tackle Ikem Ekwonu sixth overall was nothing less than a gift, as there was no reasonable way to expect the first five picks would all be on defensive players.

Making the move to get quarterback Matt Corral in the third round (he was not graded in the third round on their board) took some good fortune as well as some gambler's nerve. As tempting as it was as they watched him slide, they didn't get desperate, they didn't create the kind of hole they were in this year by trading a future second.

So being able to find both positions, without giving up any of next year's premium picks, was a windfall.

"I thought we got great value," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "Never thought we'd get Ickey, fired up to get Ickey. Never thought we'd get Matt, we got Matt. So today was just a blessing."

It's worth reading that again, because it's extremely rare to be able to find two potential answers — one now and one later — at those two positions.

General manager Scott Fitterer said after the draft ended that the Panthers still need a return specialist, but on the scale of needs and the investment required to obtain them, that's like needing a bottle opener as opposed to an entire kitchen or a house to put it in.

By the time they got to Saturday, there was music in the air (literally, at Bank of America Stadium), and they danced along with it. If there was a theme, they bet on traits, specifically guys who can get places in a hurry.

They traded a couple of fifth-rounders for Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith, a size-speed guy they plan to move around the defense in a number of roles (sound familiar?).

By the time they picked again, they took the fastest defensive lineman in the draft (Virginia Tech's Amaré Barno), and a reliable SEC guard (Tennessee's Cade Mays) who could play all across the line. They filled out the day by drafting cornerback Kalon Barnes, who was only the fastest player at this year's Combine (4.23 40-yard dash).

The reality is, those later picks aren't guaranteed to make the roster. Not like last year, when 10 of the 11 picks were on the 53 at some point (the other one spending the year on IR). This roster is better and more populated with talent. This roster doesn't have as many noticeable flaws, so finding spots on it will take more work.

So for the guys the Panthers drafted Saturday, their efforts will have to be eventual, and in the kicking game.

"It's basically what presented itself on the board," Fitterer said. "Basically, when you look at it, there were a lot of good accomplished players that had gone. What was standing there (Saturday) was a bunch of really athletic, almost freakish athletic guys. We're a draft-and-develop organization; that's where we trust our coaches to develop them. We have a vision for them. Once we get them here and they become ours, we can get them with the coaches, and put them in a position where they can excel.

"Until they do that, until they become impact position players, we know that they can contribute on special teams with their speed and athleticism."

And oh, by the way, they got the guy they consider the best offensive lineman in the draft, and a quarterback they considered taking on the first day. They're not finished, but they're much closer now.

"We felt like we have a really deep team now," Rhule said. "We feel like the last couple of years we've added depth. Scott's done a great job at the 53 cut of bringing guys in to build depth.

"And we wanted some impact players."

Time will tell if they got them. But at the moment, this was as close to a scripted weekend as they could have dared dream of.

View photos of all six of the Panthers draft picks in 2022.