Grading all five selections of Carolina Panthers’ Bryce Young-led 2023 NFL Draft class

The Carolina Panthersaggressive offseason approach was highlighted during this week’s NFL Draft, which culminated in a Bryce Young-led five-pick class that will be expected to supplement a rebuilt roster at the forefront of the Frank Reich era.

Although “quality over quantity” would probably be a stretch phrase for the five players the Panthers selected throughout the draft weekend, it was clear in the aftermath of each selection that these are prospects Carolina fell in love with during the draft process.

The Panthers still have several spots to fill during undrafted free agency — which began immediately after the final pick in the draft — but The Observer decided to break down and offer tentative grades for each of the five selections made Thursday through Saturday.

First round (First overall): Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

The Panthers traded up to the first overall pick in March in an aggressive move that ultimately landed them a Heisman Trophy winner with outlier size traits. Young, on tape and paper, was the right choice for the Panthers, who didn’t overthink the size narratives surrounding one of the best college quarterbacks in recent memory.

Young thrives with decision-making and off-scheduled passing situations. Although there is some understandable external concern about his long-term durability due to his slight frame, Young was able to hold up in the SEC while facing NFL-caliber talent on a nearly weekly basis.

The Panthers won’t rush Young onto the field, but given his talent and pedigree, he should be on the turf at Bank of America Stadium in short order. Carolina has Andy Dalton to shepherd Young from a peer perspective, which might be just as valuable as partnering him with a coaching staff that features Reich, Jim Caldwell and Josh McCown.

On film, Young was the most dynamic player at the most important position in sports. He came from a powerhouse program in a powerhouse conference — so this moment won’t be too big for him. He’s fearless with the ball in his hands and, frankly, that mindset is as appealing as his passing skill set.


Second round (39th overall): Jonathan Mingo, WR, Ole Miss

Mingo comes from the size-speed mismatch wideout factory at Ole Miss. Like DK Metcalf and AJ Brown before him, Mingo is a big, bulky wideout with rare speed at the position. Frankly, he’s an athletic freak who should be a mismatch in coverage for most defenders.

However, Mingo felt like a bit of a reach at No. 39, especially with the other talent on the board at the time. His selection also led to a questionable trade-up situation in the third round (more on that later), which should factor into the immediate evaluation of his second-round pick.

Mingo played in just 21 games during his first three seasons at Ole Miss. His breakout campaign this past season led to 51 catches for 861 yards and five touchdowns, so it’s not like his college production was overly impressive, which makes his second-round selection feel a bit of an overreach.

Still, Mingo was clearly a guy that the Panthers valued. Reich is a creative play designer, and Mingo’s skill set allows him to be used all around the field. Given his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame, he has the makings of a long-term “X” receiver — like Metcalf and Brown — and that was a skill set that Carolina was lacking on the depth chart.

Mingo is very much a projection, which is why his pick is so polarizing. Typically, in the top 40, teams prefer to grab talent with plenty of tape and production at the college level. Mingo doesn’t really check that box — at all. But his traits are extremely rare, especially in this class, and his upside is tremendous.

Mingo was a highlight-reel machine last season, which makes him a flashy playmaker pick. He also should be a valued big-bodied target for Young, who will need jump-ball pass-catchers for his off-scheduled play tendencies.

But it felt like the Panthers could have traded back to acquire a few Day 3 picks before picking Mingo. But clearly, like with Young, the Panthers had conviction on the player and made their gamble, which they paid for in the next round.


Third round (80th overall): DJ Johnson, EDGE, Oregon

The Panthers traded the No. 93 and No. 132 picks — both acquired in the Christian McCaffrey deal with the San Francisco 49ers — to the Pittsburgh Steelers to acquire the 80th overall pick and select Johnson, a project pass-rusher with freakish athleticism but limited film and production.

With several notable prospects at other positions of need still on the board, general manager Scott Fitterer moved up 13 spots to land an EDGE rusher coming off a six-sack senior season. Johnson, a former tight end, moved all around the roster with the Ducks during his four years at Oregon, and he’s still an “upside” project at 24 years old.

Sure, he ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, but that athleticism won’t matter unless he figures out how to play outside linebacker at the NFL level. To the Panthers’ credit, though, it does sound like they have a plan and role for him.

As Reich explained after the pick, Johnson will initially be an edge-setter with a power approach. He is more of a power player than a speed rusher or technician. His 7.33-second 3-cone implies that he has limited bend as a pass rusher, so the Panthers will use him as a run-stopping complement to the likes of Brian Burns and Marquis Haynes, who are speed rushers.

The issue with this pick is two-fold. Johnson is already in his mid-20s and is still learning a position. And to make matters worse, the Panthers put added pressure on him by trading up to land him. Trading third- and fourth-round selections for Johnson, who was considered a fourth-round prospect (or worse) by draft analysts, is just awful optics — right or wrong.

Fitterer also admitted that the reason they traded up was because of a Day 2 run on pass rushers, which made the need to select a draft-worthy EDGE rusher in the third round pressing. Had the Panthers taken an EDGE at No. 39 — like say, LSU’s BJ Ojulari who was selected immediately afterward at No. 40 — they wouldn’t have had to force this move or pick.

For what it’s worth, though, The Observer spoke to an AFC defensive assistant on Saturday who said Johnson’s skill set is a perfect match for Ejiro Evero’s system. The coach, who was granted anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on another team’s players, said Johnson ideally fit Evero’s scheme because of his size, speed and heavy hands. The coach believes those heavy hands will make him a strong edge-setter for the squad.

Time will tell, but this felt like a massive reach, which was magnified even further by the trade up that cost the Panthers a valuable pick in a tight draft class to begin with.


Fourth round (114th overall): Chandler Zavala, G, N.C. State

The Panthers spent a good portion of the draft process checking out offensive line prospects. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise when they selected Zavala in the fourth round.

Projected as a third- or fourth-round pick by several analysts, Zavala was an uncontroversial selection at a position of need.

Although he played left guard during his two years at N.C. State, Zavala has the versatility to play both sides of the line. However, he was a line mate with left tackle Ickey Ekwonu in 2021 and they played next to each other on the left side before Zavala underwent surgery for a back injury in the middle of that season.

Zavala could serve as starting competition for veteran left guard Brady Christensen. The team has yet to identify a swing tackle, and Christensen has the skill set to fill that role if he were to lose out to Zavala in a training camp competition.

Either way, with Christensen coming off a broken ankle, and fellow starter, right guard Austin Corbett, recovering from ACL surgery, the Panthers made a move to solidify their depth at an important position. Cade Mays is likely to handle right guard duties this offseason with Corbett sidelined, but Zavala could be an option there as well.

This pick was good for value, depth and positional need.


Fifth round (145th overall): Jammie Robinson, DB, Florida State

The Panthers have rebuilt their safety room this offseason, and Robinson fits into the group as a high-energy, versatile piece.

Robinson has the ability to play safety and nickel corner, though he isn’t necessarily a natural fit for either position. Still, as a fifth-round pick, he’s exactly the type of defensive back to bring into a room that already features Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson, Xavier Woods, Vonn Bell and CJ Henderson.

Robinson, despite having relatively short arms, was a productive ballhawk at the college level. He produced seven interceptions, 16 pass breakups and three forced fumbles during his four-year college career. Those are strong numbers for an undersized tweener defensive back.

Known for being an effort player, Robinson has the right mentality to excel on special teams. He’s essentially an upgraded depth replacement for Sean Chandler, who remains a free agent in April. While Robinson’s measurables and speed aren’t ideal, his college production and playing personality should fit in well with the Panthers’ secondary outlook for this season and beyond.

He could complete for playing time at both nickel and strong safety this season, while providing support on special teams.


Overall thoughts

Although the value of Carolina’s Day 2 selections has rightfully come into question, the overall five-man crew from the 2023 NFL Draft takes care of some major needs for the Panthers. Young is obviously the centerpiece, while Mingo and Zavala will provide support on offense. On defense, the Panthers added an upside pass-rusher and a gritty, high-effort defensive back to the fold.

It’s a solid if not spectacular group for Carolina. While most Panthers fans probably hoped the team would have more picks, this group — on the surface — should provide some immediate production for the team.


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