2023 Carolina Panthers mock draft: Big trade to find a quarterback

C.J. Stroud (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
C.J. Stroud (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) /

Believe it or not, trading for Sam Darnold, signing Baker Mayfield, and giving PJ Walker the scraps didn’t solve Carolina’s need for a franchise passer. Only seven years removed from a Super Bowl appearance fueled by an MVP season at the game’s most important position, this Panthers Mock attempts to recreate some excitement under center.

And, if you listen to GM Scott Fitterer and owner David Tepper, that’s exactly what they’re dead-set on doing this April.

Well abracadabra, boys. We pulled a Buckeye out of a hat with this one. Full disclosure, I used PFF’s Mock Draft Machine to ensure this draft felt more like a realistic scenario than a wishlist, but even with the added dose of machine intelligence, the Panthers still came away with a class that might finally give Charlotte an offense to get excited about again.

Round 1 Pick 1 (1st overall): CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State

It took some doing, but we were able to convince the Bears that dropping all the way to ninth overall was a smart move. And by “doing” I mean we gave up picks nine and 61 this year, plus 2024 and 2025’s first rounders. It’s a haul, for sure, but we were able to claw back the Bears’ fourth rounder, pick 103, this year.

Now, on to the good part: Stroud. Perhaps no other passer, despite their “rocket arms,” had as impressive a showing in the passing portion of the combine. Every single throw was layered and placed with the kind of precision that had Daniel Jeremiah swooning. Tack that onto the outing he had against Georgia in a playoff loss, where he seemingly answered questions about his ability to move within and out of the pocket, extend plays, and maintain accuracy even when pressured into off-script moments, and we’ve got a serious candidate for the top pick.

Plus, as we’ve mentioned, it’s not like the Panthers are in a position to sit on their heels at nine and pray someone falls into their lap. In all likelihood, they’re going to have to get aggressive to nab one of the top four QBs this season, and with a coach like Frank Reich, who’s already ridden the veteran QB carousel at his last stop, there’s reason to believe his appetite for mentorship will mesh with ownership’s desire to eschew a bandaid and find a true cure under center.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Josh Norris, who set the record for the most accurate mock draft in 2021 and has covered the Panthers as well as anyone, believes the team will do whatever it takes to find their answer at quarterback this cycle, saying the team “won’t be standing there with all the chairs filled this time around.”

Round 2 Pick 7 (39th overall): Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama

Sure, going running back immediately after going quarterback feels like a Madden move, but Fitterer was pretty open about this being a “sexy” draft after years of building the trenches.

It’s no secret that losing Christian McCaffrey had an impact on the offense’s big play potential, even if D’Onta Foreman likely earned himself a solid free agency payday with a strong performance in his stead. And while Foreman could be brought back, the position still lacks the kind of electricity a guy like CMC brought to the offense. Add in Chuba Hubbard’s disappointing start to his career, and grabbing Gibbs at the top of the second starts to make sense.

Of course, that’s assuming he’s still available. After blazing through the 40 with a 4.36, and showing off the kind of footwork that made him such a difficult tackle at Alabama, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear his name called before the end of Round 1. But if he’s there for the Panthers when they’re on the clock Friday night, his ability to pair with Foreman, or even carry the load as a true three-down back replacement, would certainly give a rookie QB a nice safety net out of the backfield while providing a dimension this offense has lacked since losing McCaffrey.

Round 3 Pick 29 (93 overall): Nathaniel Dell, WR, Houston

Sexy enough for you, Fitterer? Sure, there are pressing needs for speed at linebacker, a dynamic true No.1 tight end, and even a replacement for impending free agent DT Matt Ioannidis, but Dell brings an entirely new dimension to a receiving corps that currently touts DJ Moore, Terrace Marshall, and, well, no one else of serious note.

At the Senior Bowl, despite his slight size, Dell showed an almost uncanny knack for separation. Just check out Marcus Mosher’s video of every one of Dell’s 1-on-1 reps and tell me this guy wouldn’t bring a skillset sorely lacking among the current group.

Round 4 Pick 1 (103rd overall): Zack Kuntz, TE, Old Dominion

I know it feels unlikely that the Panthers will hit on each of the offensive skill groups with their first four picks, and the value we’ve found at each stop almost feels supernatural, but hey, I serve at the pleasure of the mock machine, and I’m not looking this gift horse in the mouth. Kuntz is here, Kuntz is a Panther.

Even after Greg Olsen’s retirement, Ian Thomas never quite took that next step, and while Tommy Tremble provides some serious flexibility at the position, he hasn’t shown that he can be a true No. 1, a luxury we’ve seen create some serious mismatch advantages for the league’s most successful teams.

Enter Kuntz, who has freakish size at 6065 255, and managed a 6.87 3-cone time, which is the 12th fastest at the combine by a tight end since 2006. You don’t find that kind of agility in a guy this size very often. And he’s not just a workout warrior, either. ODU’s offense faltered after Kuntz suffered a season-ending injury in early October, a disappointing end after grabbing 73 balls in 2021. And if that’s not enough for you, he achieved a perfect Relative Athletic Score after his showing in Indy.

Round 4 Pick 12 (114th overall): Yaya Diaby, EDGE, Louisville

Ok, we’re finally addressing the other side of the ball with an addition to the trenches. I’m not sure there was a more underrated performance at the combine than his. Sure, there were some excellent outings, but the fact that so few are talking about a guy who ran a 4.51 at 263 pounds and hung a 37″ vertical is still a little surprising.

Diaby, like Kuntz, isn’t just an underwear olympian, either. His final season at Louisville saw him tally nine sacks, including 1.5 in a bowl win over Cincinnati. The Panthers aren’t exactly hurting for star power off the edge with Brian Burns leading the way and Yetur Gross-Matos entering his fourth season, but YGM hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire so far, and he’ll be a free agent after this season. Adding depth with upside, especially if a guy this talented is available in Round 4, makes sense.

Round 4 Pick 30 (132nd overall): Jakorian Bennett, CB, Maryland

Sure, Donte Jackson was drafted before Fitterer’s time, but the speedy corner has stuck, and you can see the Panthers GM has a thing for ultra-fast CBs late in the draft — he nabbed Kalon Barnes and his 4.23 speed just last year, albeit in Round 7.

Besides, CJ Henderson has one year left before a massive payday due in 2024, which comes with a club option. And the aforementioned Jackson has only two years left on his current deal, as well. Bennett has been overshadowed by his college teammate Deonte Banks throughout the draft process, but he outperformed him in Indianapolis, and had more than twice as many passes defensed and interceptions throughout his career.

Round 5 Pick 11 (147th overall): Jalen Redmond, DT, Oklahoma

We’ve reached the end here, and while the Panthers have certainly addressed the “sexy” guarantee from Fitterer, they can’t entirely ignore the interior of the defensive line with Matt Ioaniddis likely on his way out.

A former 5-star recruit, Redmond dealt with medical issues and COVID concerns throughout his time at OU, but returned in 2022 and notched 3.5 sacks, even though some believe he was playing out of position in college, being asked to take on double teams and clog rushing lanes despite a natural knack for splitting the gap and rushing the passer. That’s something Carolina could use, and I’m betting they don’t ask him to play out of position.