Most mock drafts have the Carolina Panthers using the No. 7 pick on linebacker Isaiah Simmons, cornerback Jeff Okudah, or defensive lineman Derrick Brown, depending on who’s still available. All three of these players are considered to be excellent prospects and would fill a position of need. Their names are almost becoming a mantra around here: Simmons-Okudah-Brown. Simmons-Okudah-Brown.
Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t the Panthers biggest long-term need still left tackle? You know, that critically important position that has vexed the Panthers since, like, Civil War times? Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but after Jordan Gross retired following the 2013 season Carolina has been a mess at left tackle.
Left tackle left in tatters
Since 2014 the Panthers have auditioned a host of players trying to find one who can protect the quarterback’s blindside. Most of us can tick off the names of Byron Bell, Michael Oher, Mike Remmers, Matt Kalil, Chris Clark, and Daryl Williams, among others. In 2019 rookies Greg Little and Dennis Daley joined the list and as of today neither of their names are written in stone as the starter for years to come. This offseason the Panthers traded for Russell Okung who will turn 33 in October and is playing on the final year of his contract.
Now, I understand the logic of drafting Jeff Okudah, for example. He’s an elite corner prospect and the Panthers just lost James Bradberry. Same goes for Isaiah Simmons stepping in for Luke Kuechly. Derrick Brown could account for the losses of Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy and shore up a shockingly weak defensive interior.
But isn’t there just as pressing of a long-term need at left tackle?
Think of it this way: If an NFL genie appeared to you today and said, “I will grant you one wish. The position the Panthers address with the No. 7 pick will be locked down with strong play for the next 10 years. You won’t have to worry about this position again until 2030. Which position do you select, my master?”
I’d tell the genie to nail down left tackle.
Possible left tackle options at No. 7
As I’ve stated before, I don’t follow college football closely or break down tape on top prospects. I read the public scouting reports, follow some mock drafts, and scan the national big boards to learn the basics about major prospects, but that’s about it. I’m also a draft skeptic who openly preaches that the draft is just educated guesswork and there are no sure things, so I take all of my research with a grain of salt.
With that in mind and with my so-so research, the two left tackles the Panthers could target at No. 7 are Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Louisville’s Mekhi Becton. The mock drafts at CBS Sports have both players generally being selected somewhere between No. 9 and No. 12. The most recent SB Nation mock draft has Becton going No. 10 and Thomas No. 11.
When CSR’s Billy Marshall previewed offensive tackles he said the team that drafts Thomas “will likely have their future left tackle for years to come.” That, my friends, is music to my ears. Regarding Becton, Billy noted “(his) rare combo of size and athleticism coupled with his ability to dominate in the run game gives him a chance to be a special player.” Again, I’d love to have a special player at left tackle. Billy’s assessments of Thomas and Becton are pretty consistent with other sources and the bottom line is they are the two best left tackle prospects in the draft and will likely go in the top half of the first round.
Left tackles are so hard to find
The other reason I’d prioritize left tackle over linebacker, cornerback or defensive tackle is because those positions can be more readily addressed in free agency and in Rounds 2-3 of the draft. It’s fairly rare for capable starting left tackles to hit the free agency market, and when they do there are usually multiple teams who are interested. There are simply more linebackers, cornerbacks and defensive tackles to choose from in any given year between the draft and free agency to find a least a few who are at least capable. The same can’t be said for left tackle.
While Carolina just traded for Russell Okung, that shouldn’t create any major issues. If the Panthers draft their next 10-year franchise LT at No. 7 and he’s ready to start Day 1, the team can either seek to trade Okung or release him to free up $13 million in cap space with no dead money.
The Panthers have a ton of roster holes to fill and this team as currently constructed won’t be competing for a Super Bowl title anytime soon. With that in mind I’d prefer to try to land a franchise left tackle at No. 7 this year then try to plug the rest of the holes through the remainder of the draft and free agency.
And if we don’t address the long-term issue at left tackle in 2020, then maybe - just maybe - Byron Bell or Mike Remmers will be available to fill in once again in 2021.