Could this be the point where the first quarterback comes off the board? Sure, but I think the Panthers will instead cross off (pun intended) one of their other biggest needs here at left tackle. With only this pick in the first three rounds, the Panthers could pursue a trade partner to slide back and acquire more picks as well. In Mike Leach's Air Raid system, Cross gained tons of pass-blocking experience (1,293 snaps over two seasons, per PFF), and the former five-star recruit uses his length and light feet to excel in pass protection.
It wouldn't be hard to envision Matt Rhule pushing for Kenny Pickett here, given that Rhule recruited Pickett to Temple years ago. But we wouldn't be shocked by the Panthers shooting for the moon with the ultra-talented (but unrefined) Willis. GM Scott Fitterer certainly could try to pry Russell Wilson from his former Seahawks pals, but short of that, gambling on Willis is one route to consider. The owner, David Tepper, acts like a man who wants as close to a nuclear-grade QB as he can find.
This year's quarterback class is still a mystery in many ways, but after whiffing at the game's most important position last year (passing on Justin Fields, trading this year's second-round pick for Sam Darnold), the Panthers can't afford to do it again. Willis' rare arm talent and explosiveness/athleticism give him a sky-high ceiling.
This was the most difficult pick for me. For one, the QB situation remains unresolved. The Panthers are financially invested in Sam Darnold for 2022, but it's apparent he isn't the long-term solution. Even so, No. 6 is too rich for any of the signal-callers in this class, and if Carolina is set on drafting one, a move back would be prudent. Then there is the offensive line, which surrendered 52 sacks in 2021 (fifth most). But again, the board doesn't fill the holes. Mississippi State offensive tackle Charles Cross could work, but he's No. 22 on my board at the moment. (I'm a little lower on him than some teams; he could be a top-10 pick.)
So I ended up going with the best available, and that's absolutely Gardner. I mean, he gave up all of 60 yards in 14 games last season. That's a true shutdown cornerback. And yes, the Panthers took Jaycee Horn at No. 8 last season, but this duo would be one of the best young tandems in the league. A team has used top-10 picks on defensive backs in back-to-back drafts just three times in the common draft era -- and Carolina traded for CJ Henderson, who was Jacksonville's ninth pick in 2019 -- but Stephon Gilmore and Donte Jackson are both free agents, meaning this group isn't as strong as it appears.
While plenty of questions remain at quarterback in Carolina, there is no question that the Panthers must get better up front. If Neal, a legitimate No. 1 overall candidate, slips out of the top five, the Panthers might have the easiest choice yet.
Massive and shockingly athletic, Neal could be the difference-maker needed along the line of scrimmage to help Sam Darnold (or another QB) and RB Christian McCaffrey make a playoff push.
A case could be made to go quarterback here as they head into the final year of Sam Darnold's contract ... but given how this year's crop looks, meh. A case could be made for an O-lineman to improve the cast around Darnold ... but do you go with the third one off the board if Neal and Ekwonu are gone? The best move might be for GM Scott Fitterer to trade back given this is currently his only selection in the first three rounds, and decent blocking options will be available deep into Round 1. (And, yes, much is likely to change between now and draft day anyway.) Barring such conjecture, going the good ol' best available player route might be best, and "Sauce" might qualify at this spot. The consensus All-American allowed only 20 receptions in 2021, picked off three passes and -- evidence of his all-around game -- had 40 tackles and three sacks. His 6-3, 200-pound build is just another selling point to a league that likes big corners. He and 2021 first-rounder Jaycee Horn could be quite a tandem for Carolina, which stands to lose CBs Stephon Gilmore, Donte Jackson and Rashaan Melvin in free agency.
The Panthers need to bolster their offensive line, but it's just too hard to pass up an elite prospect like Hamilton. The dynamic defender could be the keystone to what's already an ascending defense, and alongside Jeremy Chinn and Shaq Thompson, Hamilton gives Carolina endless possibilities for how to deploy their back-seven chess pieces.
The quarterback talk will be real as the Panthers are expected to be very active this offseason, but for right now their books still have Sam Darnold on them for the 2022 season. The word around the league is that a new offensive coordinator and an improved offensive line will be the key to Darnold's success in Carolina. Charles Cross and Taylor Moton as bookends will certainly help that.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule's search for a QB1 continues and, in this scenario, Carolina trades up for the playmaking Willis despite sending valuable draft picks to the Jets for Sam Darnold a year ago.
Cross is one of the most battle-tested tackles in the class in terms of pass protection. While Mike Leach's offense doesn't ask many NFL things from its tackles, Cross' 1,293 pass-blocking snaps over the past two years are far and away the most of any top tackle.