CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s been 17 years since the Carolina Panthers used a first-round pick on a true edge rusher.
It worked out, too. North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers was the second overall pick in 2002. Peppers, who recently retired, finished his career fourth on the NFL’s all-time sacks list with 159.5 and seems destined to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.
Based on pre-draft visits and the team’s free-agent moves, the Panthers seem ready to end this draft drought and use the 16th pick of the draft on April 25 to find a long-term replacement for Peppers. If not, they could pick an offensive tackle.
Drafting an edge rusher seems most likely based on overall need and draft depth at the position, whether it’s an end or outside linebacker — or ideally a player who can play both, depending on whether Carolina lines up in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
An end-tackle combination also makes sense because coach Ron Rivera would like to play multiple fronts.
Everything the Panthers have done up until now puts them in position to make this move. Peppers retired, and the team moved on from outside linebacker Thomas Davis (36), signed end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to a one-year deal and re-signed safety Eric Reid.
With that, here are five players to keep an eye on with the No. 16 pick:
Montez Sweat, DE/OLB, Mississippi State:The 6-foot-6, 260-pound senior might not be there at 16, but he’s worth mentioning in case a heart condition that was revealed during the draft process impacts his status. The condition didn’t impact his performance at the NFL combine. Sweat clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.41 seconds) ever by a defensive lineman. Remember, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei fell to Carolina at No. 14 in 2013 after a heart condition was discovered. That never was a factor in his five seasons with the Panthers. Sweat had 30 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks in his last two college seasons, and those are numbers the Panthers can’t ignore.
Clelin Ferrell, DE/OLB, Clemson: Like Sweat, the 6-4, 264-pound Ferrell offers position flexibility. He had 21 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons for the reigning national champions. He also would bring leadership to the line and locker room. Ferrell has a strong military background, which also could make him an attractive pick. Rivera grew up in a military family and remains involved with the armed forces. But most of all, Ferrell flat out can play — and anywhere up front. The Panthers really can’t go wrong if any of Clemson’s top three defensive linemen — Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence — are on the board.
Brian Burns, DE/OLB, Florida State: Carolina hasn’t had a lot of luck with draft picks from Florida State — wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (first round, 2014), defensive end Everette Brown (second round, 2009) and quarterback Chris Weinke (fourth round, 2001). But Burns (6-5, 249) feels like a can’t-miss prospect based on college production. He had 38.5 tackles for loss and 23 sacks in three seasons. He also can play multiple positions and seems like an ideal player to groom behind Irvin, who had a similar build coming out of West Virginia in 2012. This wouldn’t be the first member of Burns’ family to be drafted by Carolina, either. His brother, former Auburn defensive end Stanley McClover, was a seventh-round pick in 2006.
Dre’Mont Jones, DT-DE, Ohio State: It might seem silly to go with Jones (6-3, 281) because the Panthers have Pro Bowler Kawann Short and Dontari Poe at tackle. But 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler has underachieved, so there’s a need for another big body to maintain the rotation Rivera likes to use. Jones is a disruptive force who had 13 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks this past season as he finally came into his own. He might be a reach at No. 16, but if there is an early run on edge rushers and the Panthers are determined to beef up their defensive front, Jones could be a viable option.
Andre Dillard, OT, Texas A&M: Remember, Rivera said at the owners meetings that the Panthers “feel real good” about their five projected offensive-line starters. That doesn’t mean the Panthers wouldn’t take a long-term solution at left tackle if their top choices at edge rusher were gone. Dillard and Washington’s Kaleb McGary have traveled to Charlotte for pre-draft visits. Dillard is the most natural fit at left tackle as a four-year college starter. McGary has played right tackle throughout his career and could be a candidate at guard.