Carolina's Draft Strategy Suggests Team has Playoff Aspirations

There are a few noteworthy signs from the 2021 NFL Draft that suggest that the Carolina Panthers are postseason hopefuls in year two of a rebuild.
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Matt Rhule was named head coach of the Carolina Panthers a little over a year ago in hopes to rebuild a depleted roster and Scott Fitterer just finished up his first-ever draft as general manager for the team. Both are hoping to end a playoff drought that has now stretched throughout three seasons. Could 2021 be the year that the team plays a postseason game for the first time since David Tepper bought the franchise?

There were a few notable moves that the Panthers made in last weekend's draft that suggests that they believe they could have a shot at the playoffs. Let's start with the move that they didn't make:

Carolina didn't draft a QB:

When the Panthers were on the clock at No. 8, both Justin Fields and Mac Jones were still on the board. Both were projected by many draft analysts to be long gone before the Panthers' first-round pick. Despite the slide, the team decided to address a position they have severely struggled at the last few seasons by taking cornerback Jaycee Horn

You see, drafting a quarterback that early in the first round is usually made by a team that does not figure to make the playoffs. There has never been a rookie quarterback that has led their team to a Super Bowl and they rarely even make the playoffs. It is just too difficult of a learning curve to be able to step in right away and excel. Last year Justin Herbert had arguably the best rookie season a QB has ever had and the Chargers finished the season 7-9.

By passing on a quarterback the Panthers are essentially saying they have no interest in developing a rookie QB in 2021. They are rolling with Sam Darnold who has three years of NFL experience under his belt.

When asked about taking Horn over Fields, Scott Fitterer had this to say:

"He was just the top rated player on our board. We saw someone that could come in and make an immediate impact for us as a starter, as a corner, playing opposite of Donte [Jackson]. He'll do a great job for us. We see him as his potential is unlimited and the immediate impact is why we did it."

Immediate impact is the reason why Horn was the pick. A team looking for players to step in right away has no interest in a rebuild. They are interested in making a push towards the playoffs.

Panthers added a true shutdown CB:

Enough about who Carolina didn't draft, let's talk about the player they did take. That being Jaycee Horn, of course. 

The simplest way to make the playoffs is to outplay the division. The Panthers play in a division full of big-play pass-catchers. Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Michael Thomas have burned teams that don't have the personnel to cover them. Up until this point, one of those teams has been the Panthers.

Horn can talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to covering these types of receivers. He faced off against some of the toughest competition in the SEC throughout his collegiate career. Most notably his performances against Alabama and Florida TE Kyle Pitts.

Carolina now matches up much better within the NFC South division. The missing piece of the defensive puzzle has finally been placed. The road to the playoffs is a lot shorter for teams that can win interdivisional matchups. 

Panthers added offensive depth:

Anyone who watched the Panthers last season knows that the team was limited on offense when Christian McCaffrey was forced to miss time due to injury. After the Horn pick, the team spent its next four selections on offensive players.

WR Terrace Marshall Jr., OT Brady Christensen, TE Tommy Tremble, and RB Chuba Hubbard were picked in rounds 2-4.

Marshall is the big-bodied receiver that Carolina missed last season when the team struggled inside the red zone. Christensen adds an athletic presence that the team has missed on the line. Tremble is essentially a sixth lineman that the team can bring in to causes mismatches in a short-yardage situation. And Hubbard is an insurance pick in case McCaffrey gets nicked up again this season.

When asked about day two of the draft, Matt Rhule had this to say:

"I would say also, that they are all elite athletes. I mean Brady Christensen, ten‐foot broad, 4.92 at 6‐5, 302. Besides a really good player, a really good person. An elite athlete. Tommy Tremble, an elite athlete. Terrace Marshall, an elite athlete. So, they have the physical abilities to continue to develop at this level."

When McCaffrey was not on the field the Panthers often lacked enough athleticism to make defenses pay. Adding these four offensive players will assure that isn't an issue in 2021.

Carolina might not be on as long of a rebuild as most experts have suggested. Only time will tell if the 2021 NFL Draft was enough to push them into playoff contention this upcoming season. 

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