Why the Panthers should consider a wide receiver for Sam Darnold in Round 1

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- New Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold didn’t hold back his enthusiasm recently about being reunited with Robby Anderson, his favorite receiver with the New York Jets.

“Robby’s one of a kind," said Darnold, who completed 88 passes to Anderson for 1,341 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018-19, the most to any Jets pass-catcher in that span. “If he sees a play or a route a certain way, he’s going to let you know. And he’s not afraid to hear some criticism back. Robby’s a great teammate and I’m glad I’m back with him.”

But for how long?

This brings us to the NFL draft and what the Panthers will do with the eighth pick. It appears unlikely that Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell or Florida tight end Kyle Pitts will fall that far, and with Carolina having secured its next quarterback with the trade for Darnold, the best available player on the team's board could very well be a wide receiver.

With Anderson entering the final season of a two-year, $20 million deal and fellow receiver DJ Moore entering the final year of a his rookie contract, keeping both of 1,000-yard receivers from last season beyond 2021 will be difficult financially.

Carolina can use the fifth-year option on Moore up until May 3, but that will cost the team $11.1 million in 2022 and increases the odds it will have to move on from Anderson.

So the best way to ensure Darnold has a chance to succeed long term is to select a receiver in the draft.

That’s one reason ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has the Panthers taking Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith of Alabama in his most recent mock draft.

“He’s my No. 1 receiver," Kiper said. “Smith would be a great guy to put in the slot. Fifty percent of his catches came in the slot. He can play inside or outside. He can return punts. He will give Darnold another weapon."

ESPN analyst Todd McShay went with Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater for Carolina at No. 8 in a mock where he and Kiper alternated picks. However, Kiper likes a receiver there because Slater isn’t a lock to play left tackle.

Kiper also likes Darnold and believes surrounding him with Smith, Moore and Anderson, in addition to running back Christian McCaffrey, gives the No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft a chance to live up to the lofty expectations that came with him from USC.

“If you’re going to move forward with Smith, you’re guaranteeing him for four or five years," Kiper reminded. “You’re not going to find a receiver like that in next year’s draft."

Carolina also could go with a corner, and two good ones likely will be available at No. 8 in Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn of South Carolina.

But after signing cornerback A.J. Bouye to a two-year, $7 million deal in free agency and spending two picks on corners last season in fourth-rounder Troy Pride Jr. and seventh-rounder Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, the focus is expected to be on offense.

Quarterback also could be an option if one of the top four is still available at 8, but Kiper doesn’t believe the Panthers would have traded for Darnold if they planned to use this pick on a signal-caller.

Neither does ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who would rank Darnold second among this year’s quarterback class just behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

He believes Darnold is a player the Panthers can win with now because of the players around him.

“If you’re looking at all the things that make a quarterback really good in the NFL -- leadership, intellectually, toughness, athleticism, arm -- all that stuff he’s got,’’ Orlovsky said. “This will be far and away the best skill group that Sam Darnold has ever had the opportunity to play with.

“They need to add another pass-catching weapon."

Here are the arguments for taking each of the top three receivers and how each would fit Carolina’s scheme:

DeVonta Smith | Alabama | 6-1, 175

In case you missed the national championship game, Smith caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns -- in two quarters -- before dislocating a finger that is doing just fine now. Need more? Smith set SEC single-season records for receiving yards (1,856) and touchdowns (23) on 117 catches this past season. Put Smith in the slot with Anderson and Moore outside and Darnold would have no excuses if he fails in his second stop. Smith’s a perfect fit for Joe Brady’s pass-happy scheme. Beyond these things, he can return punts.

Ja'Marr Chase | LSU | 6-1, 208

Chase was Brady’s star receiver in 2019 when Brady was the pass-game coordinator at LSU, so he knows the system. If available, he’s a logical choice. For that same reason, it may be hard for Chase to fall beyond Cincinnati at No. 5, where he would be reunited with former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. Chase opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but his pro day showed he still deserves to be near the top of this draft. McShay ranks him as the third-best prospect regardless of position. His athleticism and speed are off the charts. He led the FBS with 24 deep catches in 2019, when he totaled 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. And again, he played in Brady’s system.

Jaylen Waddle | Alabama | 5-9, 190

If Smith and Chase are gone, or even if one of them isn’t gone and Waddle is on the board, you could make the case for Carolina to trade down a few spots for extra draft picks and take Waddle. Like Smith, he can line up anywhere. Many considered him Alabama’s best receiver before an ankle injury derailed his 2020 season after four games. And in those games, Waddle had 25 catches for 557 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also fast, clocked at 4.37 seconds in the 40 before arriving at Bama. Speed in Brady’s scheme is a must.