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2021 NFL Draft: Exploring top options for the Carolina Panthers at No. 8 overall

The 2021 NFL Draft will begin on April 29 with a level of certainty. It would be a shock if Trevor Lawrence, currently -10000 to be selected with the first overall pick, did not end up a Jacksonville Jaguar. Zach Wilson brings a shade less certainty at -5000 to go second overall, but those odds still indicate that he is the heavy favorite to become a New York Jet in a few weeks.

The draft truly begins with the San Francisco 49ers and the third overall pick. Surely, that selection will also be a quarterback given what San Francisco had to give up to jump nine spots in the draft order. The subsequent debate between Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Trey Lance has dominated pre-draft coverage to this point.

I don’t want to want to continue to belabor that decision. Instead, I want to take a deeper look at several high-leverage selections beyond San Francisco’s pick that could shape the remainder of the draft. That’s what I’ll be doing over the next week — evaluating the options on the table for several teams with top-12 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Carolina Panthers are next on the docket after we hit on the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions earlier in the week.

View PFF's 2021 NFL Draft position rankings:

QB | RB | WR | TE | T | iOL | DI | EDGE | LB | CB | S

Option #1: Solidify the offensive line for Sam Darnold

Trading for Darnold has led to offensive tackle becoming Carolina's top priority in the 2021 NFL Draft. The need is glaring. The Panthers’ top two options right now are Greg Little (47.4 PFF grade in 358 offensive snaps since 2019) and Cam Erving (lowest-graded offensive lineman in the NFL over the past three years). 

That becomes more concerning after diving into some of Darnold’s struggles under pressure in his NFL career. His 36.8 passing grade under pressure since 2018 ranks 27th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks, and only Nick Mullens and Cam Newton have a lower passer rating than him (52.0) on those pressured dropbacks. Ill-advised throws like the one below were too common.

Ideally, both Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater will be on the board for Carolina with the eighth overall pick after quarterbacks and pass-catchers steal the spotlight early. It’s difficult to see a scenario where at least one of them isn’t available when the Panthers are on the clock.

Sewell locked in at left tackle with Taylor Moton playing on the right side would be a strong start toward giving Darnold the best offensive line of his young career. The next step would be adding some competition at guard so that Pat Elflein isn’t forced into a starting role. 

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