In this series we are looking back on Scott Fitterer’s second year as the Carolina Panthers general manager and assessing his performance in salary cap management (here), free agent signings (here), the 2022 draft, and player trades. This week we’ll evaluate the early returns of Fitterer’s most recent draft class.
The higher a player was drafted, the higher the expectations are. A “C” grade means the player met expectations based on where he was drafted. Anything above a “C” means he exceeded expectations for where he was drafted and anything below means he fell short.
Now, this is just my personal perspective, but here’s what should reasonably be expected from rookies during Year 1 based on where they are drafted:
- Top 10 pick - Good starters who flash future Pro Bowl potential
- Picks 11-32 - Average to above average starters
- Second round - Regular contributors with just below league average play for their position
- Third round and fourth rounds - Rotational players who also contributes on special teams
- Fifth and sixth rounds - Special teams players with limited offensive/defensive snaps
- Seventh round - Make the 53 man roster by season’s end and play limited special teams snaps
Here’s how the Panthers 2022 draft class stacked up relative to their draft positions:
First round, No. 6 - Ikem Ekwonu, OT
Stats: 17 Gs, 17 starts, 1,016 OFF snaps (100%)
After a bumpy start against some stiff competition in his first few NFL games, Ekwonu eventually showed why he could finally be the Panthers long-term answer at left tackle. His play across the second half of the season was very good. Ekwonu’s overall PFF grade of 65.3 ranked 47th of 81 tackles this year, so about league average, but none of us would be shocked if he was a Top 20 tackle next season and a Pro Bowler in the future. Hallelujah!
(Remember, expectations are very high for the No. 6 overall pick. To get an “A” I would have needed to see closer to Pro Bowl-level play than league average.)
Third round, No. 94 - Matt Corral, QB
Stats: Missed season due to injury
The Panthers traded up 43 spots to land the Ole Miss quarterback, giving up a 2023 third rounder in the process, only to see Matt Corral miss his entire rookie season due to injury. As I’ve written before, one of the biggest disappointments from the Panthers 2022 rebuild year was not getting a look at Corral in live action. What a bummer.
Fourth round, No. 120 - Brandon Smith, LB
Stats: 12 Gs, 53 DEF snaps (7%), 193 ST snaps (57%), 8 tackles
Scott Fitterer traded up to land Brandon Smith in the fourth round, sending away No. 144 and No. 149 for No. 120 (used to take Smith) and No. 189. In all the Panthers moved up 24 spots in the fourth round while moving back 40 spots in the sixth round, which is about as ho-hum as a draft day trade can get.
Expectations for a fourth round rookie is to play at least some rotational defensive snaps while contributing on special teams. Brandon Smith met expectations on special teams (193 snaps) and was just starting to carve out a somewhat regular role on defense before a Week 13 ankle injury cost him the final four games of the season. Through the Panthers first 10 games he played only 10 defensive snaps total, which is below expectations. But in Weeks 11-13 he played a total of 43 defensive snaps and was starting to get some regular action before his season-ending injury. Ideally Smith would have carved out more defensive snaps earlier in the season, but he was trending in the right direction.
Sixth round, No. 189 - Amare Barno, DE
Stats: 9 Gs, 51 DEF snaps (9%), 73 ST snaps (30%), 9 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 2 TFL
A successful rookie season for most sixth rounders is to make the 53 man roster, play on special teams, and get some limited defensive snaps. Amare Barno did just that. While he only played 53 defensive snaps on the season, he somehow managed two sacks and two tackles for loss. That’s just fine for the No. 189 pick.
Sixth round, No. 199 - Cade Mays, OL
Stats: 11 Gs, 51 OFF snaps (8%), 47 ST snaps (16%)
It was doubtful coming into his rookie season that Cade Mays would displace Brady Christensen or Austin Corbett from the starting lineup, so a successful year was making the 53-man roster and getting some reps on special teams. Mays saw his first action in Week 7 and went on to play limited special teams snaps in each of the Panthers next 11 games. Then in Week 18 both of Carolina’s guards got injured and Mays ended up playing 34 snaps in the season finale. That’s just about what to expect from the No. 199 overall pick playing behind two entrenched starters.
Seventh round, No. 242 - Kalon Barnes, CB
Stats: Waived during roster cuts
The Panthers took a gamble on the former Baylor speedster (yes, he was one of Matt Rhule’s Baylor guys) after he ran a blazing 4.23-second 40 yard dash at the combine. His 40 time was just one one-hundredth off the fastest time in combine history. But as sometimes happens with seventh round picks, Barnes was released by the Panthers during final roster cuts.
Barnes went on to sign with the Miami Dolphins practice squad. Then late in the season the Minnesota Vikings signed him to their active roster and Barnes played limited special teams snaps in Minnesota’s last two regular season games and in their playoff game. If Barnes was good enough to get some special teams reps in Minnesota, he probably could have played a few snaps for a rebuilding Carolina team in 2022 while giving him at least one season do develop.
The final summary
Yes, outside of Ekwonu, Scott Fitterer’s 2022 draft class on the surface was one of the least impactful, most yawn-inducing rookie classes in recent Panthers history. Last week Chris Trapasso at CBS Sports went so far as to call Carolina’s draft class “rather ghastly”.
But let’s be realistic. With third round pick Matt Corral missing the entire season, all Scott Fitterer had to work with after his first round pick was a mid-fourth rounder, two sixth rounders, and one in the seventh. Good luck to any GM finding impactful rookies with with those draft assets.
Overall, Scott Fitterer did the most important thing for the franchise by apparently nailing the Ekwonu pick at left tackle. It was also smart of Fitterer to roll the dice on a third round quarterback in Matt Corral whom NFL.com has predicted “will become a good starter within two years.” If Corral develops into a capable starter in the next year or two, then Fitterer’s 2022 draft is a home run based solely on Ekwonu and Corral.
Day 3 picks Brandon Smith, Amare Barno, and Cade Mays generally did was was expected of them based on where they were drafted. With the Panthers in playoff contention until the second to last game of the year, interim head coach Steve Wilks was clearly - and understandably - prioritizing “winning now” over developing unheralded rookies.
It is frustrating though that the Panthers cut the cord so quickly on seventh round rookie Kalon Barnes since he ended up making another team’s active roster and appearing in a playoff game. Why not give him a year or two and see what he can become? That was a waste of a draft pick, but seventh rounders rarely pan out.
Scott Fitterer’s final 2022 draft grade: C