Will Matt Rhule's history with Kenny Pickett lead to Carolina Panthers to draft the QB?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On April 9, 2016, the spring before his senior season at Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst, New Jersey, quarterback Kenny Pickett tweeted, “Honored to say that I have COMMITTED TO Temple University!!’’

Along with the tweet were a few pictures, including one with the three-star quarterback wearing a No. 2 Temple jersey standing next to then-Owls coach Matt Rhule, who now coaches the Carolina Panthers.

“I got to see practice. It was a little cold today -- it was snowing -- but the intensity was still there like it was 75 degrees and sunny,” Pickett told NJ.com that day. “So you can tell why they are successful. A lot of schools would have probably been inside indoors. And they were out in the snow, and they had more energy than I’ve ever seen on a 30 degrees snowy day for spring practice.’’

Pickett never made it to Temple. His profile grew during a stellar senior season and he received offers from larger, more established programs. One was the University of Pittsburgh, where he went on to became a top NFL prospect during his five years.

Now Pickett is at the Senior Bowl as arguably the top quarterback prospect in the NFL Draft, and Rhule is giving Pickett another hard look as the head coach of Carolina.

The Panthers met with Pickett in Mobile, Alabama, the site of Saturday’s Senior Bowl (2:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network), and plan to meet with him again before Day 1 of the draft on April 28, in which they have the No. 6 pick. While they also have a big need at left tackle, Pickett can’t be ruled out because Carolina needs a franchise quarterback, even if that means reaching.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Pickett ranked No. 16 on his latest big board. Colleague Todd McShay also has Pickett 16th, just ahead of Ole Miss' Matt Corral.

Kiper has two left tackles -- Alabama’s Evan Neal (3) and North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu (5) -- ranked in his top five.

When it comes to which way the Panthers will lean in the draft, Rhule’s past relationship with Pickett could be the trump card. That the coach’s future at Carolina, where he is 10-21 in two seasons, could hinge on getting a franchise quarterback.

Pickett said he and Rhule still have a “great relationship.’’

“I trust him,’’ Pickett told reporters in Mobile. “Talking to all the players he coached prior to when I was thinking about committing, that's what they all talked about, what a great guy he is and how hard they played for him.’’

The Panthers have two quarterbacks under contract, starter Sam Darnold and backup P.J. Walker. Neither is considered a long-term solution.

Carolina could look at potential trades for veteran quarterbacks like the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo and perhaps Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson. The free-agency class is weak, so if a trade doesn’t happen, Carolina will be left with the draft to improve its quarterback situation.

Even though this quarterback class isn’t considered as strong as last year’s, when the top three picks were quarterbacks, Pickett is a Heisman Trophy finalist with potential after passing for 4,319 yard and 42 touchdowns to seven interceptions this past season.

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, when introducing Pickett earlier this week, said the 6-foot-3, 217-pound quarterback reminded him a little bit of Joe Burrow, the top pick of the 2020 draft who has led the Cincinnati Bengals to next week's Super Bowl.

It was Nagy who recommended Pickett return for a final year at Pittsburgh to grow as a player since he was coming off a junior season in which he threw 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

“That’s a heck of an intro,’’ Pickett said with smile when asked of the Burrow comparison.

While Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer said last month rebuilding the offensive line was his top priority, he didn’t rule out taking a quarterback in the first round, in an interview with the team website this week.

“If you have a quarterback you think you can win with long term; obviously, you’d probably lean that direction,’’ Fitterer said. “It’s not the safest way to go, but you have to take your shots. Any time you’re in the top 10, you’ve got to think about taking a shot on a quarterback if you’re able to.’’

And Fitterer likes Pickett. He got an up-close look at him in December when Pittsburgh beat Wake Forest 45-21 in the ACC Championship at Carolina’s Bank of America Stadium.

Pickett threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns, and he added a highlight-reel, 58-yard run -- which was extended by a fake slide to freeze the defenders, showing Pickett has some moxie.

"I was really impressed with the competitor, just watching him play,’’ Fitterer said last month. “Watched his arm strength in the pregame and all that checked the box. Everything we’re hearing, the reports from our scouts, the visits they’ve had with him, people that have been around him, everything is kind of checking the box.

“This guy sounds like the makeup you want to have at the position.’’

Rhule obviously liked Pickett, 23, enough in 2016 to offer him a scholarship for a Temple team coming off of a 10-4 season.

“Yeah, it was a great time for Temple football,’’ Pickett said. “I'm close to Philly, like an hour and 15 [minutes], so I loved the proximity to my house. They were trending upward.’’

But as Pickett got into his senior season, he decided to visit other schools, so he took back his commitment. Soon afterwards, Rhule accepted the head coaching job at Baylor.

“So each party kind of knew what was going to happen at the end of the day, and I’m glad I had the chance to have those interactions with coach Rhule,’’ Pickett said. “He’s a great person.’’