Ikem Ekwonu

Panthers Not Committing To Ikem Ekwonu As Week 1 Left Tackle

When no tackles came off the board in the top five, the Panthers pounced on the opportunity to stop their revolving door at left tackle. The team has not had the same primary left tackle starter since Jordan Gross‘ 2014 retirement, and Ikem Ekwonu is positioned to be the long-term answer.

It is not certain that stretch will begin at this season’s outset. Matt Rhule said Ekwonu has a “long way to go” in his preparation to be an NFL left tackle, via Joe Person of The Athletic, who adds Brady Christensen took plenty of reps (nonpadded reps, but still) during the Panthers’ offseason program (subscription required).

[RELATED: Christensen A Guard Option For Panthers]

Christensen’s three season-ending starts at left tackle appear to have impressed the Panthers’ staff, Person adds. The 2021 third-rounder has gained more momentum this offseason. Rhule said earlier this year he should have played the 2020 first-team All-American more last season, and offensive line coach James Campen said before the draft the BYU product would factor into the left tackle competition. Rhule said Thursday that Christensen is one of the best players on Carolina’s roster, via Person, who adds this should point to Christensen lining up as a first-stringer — at either left tackle or left guard — come Week 1 (Twitter link).

An offensive line featuring the team’s top left tackle prospect since Gross and the evidently improving Christensen alongside him at guard would make the most sense, from a need-filling standpoint. Ekwonu would not be out of place at guard, having played there in high school and at points during his stay at North Carolina State. If Rhule and Co. deem Ekwonu — a 2021 first-team All-American — not ready, a left side featuring Christensen at tackle and Michael Jordan at guard would seem to be the play. Carolina also has versatile veteran Cameron Erving (nine 2021 starts) entering his second season with the team.

It has been a while since a top-10 tackle draftee did not start in Week 1. Greg Robinson, the Rams’ No. 2 overall pick in 2014, is the most recent such investment to begin his rookie year on the bench. Training camp and the preseason will obviously be a much better gauge of Ekwonu’s readiness compared to various nonpadded workouts, and the No. 6 overall choice being a starter in Week 1 should still be considered more likely than not.

Panthers Sign Round 1 T Ikem Ekwonu

Three of the draft’s top six picks have agreed to their rookie deals. The Panthers announced Tuesday night they came to terms with Ikem Ekwonu, the No. 6 overall choice. This signing follows the Lions and Jets getting their top picks (Aidan Hutchinson and Sauce Gardner) under contract.

The slot deal is worth $27.6MM, fully guaranteed, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport (on Twitter). The Panthers will enjoy at least three years of their new left tackle being attached to a rookie contract — one that can run through 2026, via the fifth-year option.

Ekwonu panning out would fill one of the NFL’s longest-standing needs. The Panthers have started a different primary left tackle in each of the past nine seasons, seeing the position fall into disarray after Jordan Gross‘ 2014 retirement. Although Carolina made this setup work at points during this run, venturing to playoff brackets and Super Bowl 50, it has been one of the NFL’s least steady positions.

The Giants taking Kayvon Thibodeaux at No. 5 meant the Panthers would have their pick of the draft’s top tackles, and they went with the North Carolina State blocker. Ekwonu has experience at tackle and guard. He earned second-team All-ACC acclaim as a sophomore and first-team all-conference accolades last season. The in-state prospect, who is also a Charlotte native, is the top new addition to a Carolina line that is set to feature new starters in Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett. Ekwonu will attempt to carve out a long-term role opposite longtime right tackle starter Taylor Moton.

Panthers Select OT Ikem Ekwonu

The draft opened with four-straight defensive players being selected, but we finally have our first offensive pick. The Panthers have selected NC State offensive tackle Ikemefuna Ekwonu with the No. 6 pick.

In a draft that features a handful of top-level offensive tackles, “Ickey” was arguably the best. The lineman broke onto the scene during his 2020 season, and he established himself as a surefire first-round pick in 2021. Ekwonu earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the ACC’s best blocker and was a unanimous All-American selection en route to his top-1o draft stock.

In the NFL, Ekwonu’s main development will come via his ability to harness his aggressiveness into controlled energy. Still, he should be an immediate starter, and his athletic ability makes him scheme-diverse, so he should be a long-term fixture at his new home. Plus, for what it’s worth, he also played offensive guard in college, and that versatility could come in handy during his career.

Ekwonu was a popular name during the pre-draft circuit, with the lineman generating interest from teams throughout the top-10. The Panthers had their eye on offensive line help, but there were some who wondered if the organization would move back in pursuit of a mid-first quarterback. Instead, they stuck with No. 6, and barring a trade, we won’t hear the team’s name called again until pick No. 137.

Giants Eyeing Sauce Gardner, Ikem Ekwonu?

While the Giants are still open to trading out of one of their top-10 draft slots, plans on how the team will proceed if they stay at those spots might be emerging.

Connected to tackles at No. 5 throughout the pre-draft process, the Giants are believed to have cornerback Ahmad Gardner as their most universally approved prospect, the New York Post’s Ryan Dunleavy tweets. The Giants were connected to “Sauce” back in March and hosted the Cincinnati cover man on a visit.

As for their tackle preference, Charles Cross was the blocker most closely connected to the team in the days leading up to the draft. But Dunleavy adds Ikem Ekwonu is believed to be the team’s highest-ranked tackle — ahead of Cross and Evan Neal, respectively. The NFL smokescreen window obviously remains open, but both Gardner and Ekwonu would make sense for the Giants.

Ekwonu, who has played guard as well, has been connected to the Jaguars with the No. 1 pick. But Jacksonville is still viewed as likelier to take a defensive lineman to start the draft. The Jags and Lions going D-line would open the door to the Jets (No. 4) and Giants having corners and top-tier tackles on the board. The Giants had sizable presences at Ekwonu, Cross and Neal’s pro days.

The Texans have been the top five’s least discussed team, possessing a bevy of needs. Houston has, however, been connected to corners in the days leading up to the draft. Derek Stingley Jr. should be considered the favorite to go third, Dunleavy adds (on Twitter). This is not the first Texans-Stingley connection to surface. Since Lovie Smith‘s comments about his team’s need at corner, the Texans have been tied to the LSU and Cincinnati standouts. Stingley going third would likely leave the Jets with their pick of Gardner, the draft’s top tackles and this class’ third- and fourth-best D-linemen — generally believed to be Kayvon Thibodeaux and Jermaine Johnson.

The Giants have a need at right tackle — where Ekwonu, Cross or Neal would presumably step in as a Day 1 starter — but also are preparing to move James Bradberry‘s $21MM cap number off their books. Big Blue’s top corner for the past two seasons, Bradberry has no ties to the current regime and is going into an expensive contract year. Gardner would be an immediate replacement on a much cheaper deal. The Jets, who have also been linked to Garnder, could spoil any Giants plans here. But the NFC’s New York franchise might be OK with multiple prospects at 5.

Trade Down, OL Still In Play For Jaguars At No. 1?

Hours away from the start of this year’s draft, pundits and fans alike find themselves surrounded by uncertainty at even the very top of the board. Many expect the decision facing Jacksonville at No. 1 to come down to their preference between Travon Walker and Aidan Hutchinson, but other options may still be in play. 

Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reports that “the Jaguars are still hoping that they can find a path out of the top pick”. It has been known for a while that a number of teams set to pick in the top 10 – including the Jaguars – have been willing to move down, given the lack of surefire talent in this class. As Florio adds, however, they “continue to find no takers”.

Last week, it was reported that no one was calling Jacksonville regarding the top selection. This late in the game, the same appears to be true; most talk of movement within the top handful of teams relates to clubs wanting to add picks later on in the draft, rather than targeting specific prospects. Still, if the Jaguars remain split on their preference at No. 1, they would likely be amenable to any last-minute deal.

Meanwhile, Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated adds that offensive line might be on the table for the team to consider when they are on the clock. He is “still not ruling out” a linemen (presumably Ikem Ekwonu or Evan Neal) being the team’s eventual choice. Jacksonville has been linked to the former during the run-up to the draft, but the multi-year extension just given to left tackle Cam Robinson further points towards Walker or Hutchinson.

Seven hours from now, the team’s ultimate decision will be known. Until then, speculation is likely to continue regarding the start of a highly intriguing draft year.

Texans Eyeing OT, CB At No. 3?

While there is still plenty of debate regarding who will hear their name called first in this week’s draft, the Texans represent an interesting focal point with the third overall pick. Two of the top edge rushers are likely to be gone by the time they make that selection, but they will have a number of options, including at offensive tackle and cornerback. 

While general manager Nick Caserio has expressed a willingness to trade down from that slot, it is expected no team will move up into the top-five this year. That will leave them, in all likelihood, with the decision between Evan Neal and Ikem Ekwonu if they elect to pick their highest-rated offensive linemen. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reports that the team has been “connected to Neal dating back to the end of the college football season”, leading in part to the plethora of mock drafts linking the two.

On the other hand, the class’ top corners remain in consideration. It was reported last week that Ahmad Gardner could end up being the team’s preferred selection. Given their stated desire to invest more in the position, that wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. What could raise some eyebrows is the team’s apparent preference of Derek Stingley Jr. over Gardner as the top corner. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reports (on Twitter) that the Texans have done a significant amount of homework on the LSU alum; likewise, ESPN’s Todd McShay adds that Stingley is believed to be higher on Houston’s board than Gardner.

An edge rusher such as Kayvon Thibodeaux cannot be completely ruled out at No. 3, but a tackle or corner seems to be the more likely scenario at this point. In a year dominated by uncertainty, though, which prospect at those positions Houston will lean towards will remain to be seen until Thursday night.

Jaguars’ Shad Khan, Trent Baalke Disagree On No. 1 Pick?

Four prospects are believed to be in play for the Jaguars at No. 1 overall, but it might be a matchup between two defensive ends by the time the top decision-makers huddle up for their final decision this week.

Shad Khan will observe the Trent Baalke– and Doug Pederson-led operation’s deliberations this week, Albert Breer of SI.com notes, and the longtime Jaguars owner said he has an opinion on which way the team should go at No. 1. Khan’s opinion appears to be that Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson is the way to go, per Tony Pauline of ProFootballNetwork.com, who adds Baalke is backing Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker.

Despite his college production dwarfing Walker’s, Hutchinson now trails the size-speed freak in pre-draft odds to be the top pick. The Walker-Jaguars connection has persisted for several weeks now. Khan has held roster control in the past, and it would not surprise if the 10th-year Jags owner pulled the trigger on his preferred player. Khan would obviously prefer the room forms a consensus and intimated to Breer that Pederson and Baalke have control over the football operation.

Yeah, I have an opinion,” Khan said, via Breer, of the No. 1 pick. “I do have an opinion. We are supposed to get together on Wednesday, and so I don’t have as firm a decision as I did maybe last year, but I do have it. I think we’ll have to really firm up the draft board, so we have clarity on all the permutations and combinations we’re gonna hit.”

During Pederson’s tenure, the Eagles devoted significant resources to bolstering their offensive line. The new Jags HC may not be opposed to such a strategy this year, despite this draft’s bevy of high-end D-line prospects. The Jags were connected to Ikem Ekwonu early in the pre-draft process, before franchise-tagging Cam Robinson for a second time, and Breer hears Baalke is a fan of the North Carolina State O-lineman. Ekwonu remains in play for the Jags at 1, ESPN.com’s Matt Miller tweets.

The team is rumored to be close on a Robinson extension, and Jawaan Taylor has started at right tackle in Jacksonville for the past three years. Pro Football Focus, which graded Jacksonville’s O-line 24th overall last season, viewed Taylor as the team’s weakest link up front in 2021. Of course, no Jaguar blocker graded particularly well here. Jacksonville added Brandon Scherff but could upgrade at its other guard spot. Ekwonu played tackle and guard in college; some view guard as his better NFL position.

Latest On Jets’ First-Round Plans

An edge rusher-heavy 2022 class has seen Aidan Hutchinson, Travon Walker and Kayvon Thibodeaux overshadow Jermaine Johnson. But the Florida State defensive end is gaining steam to come off the board earlier than expected.

Johnson is tracking toward being a top-10 lock, Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com tweets, noting some view the 254-pound defender as this class’ top pass rusher. Johnson seems to have the Jets’ attention, and they could make the move with the first of their two top-10 picks.

GM Joe Douglas is a fan, according to The Athletic’s Connor Hughes, who adds Johnson is a better bet to come off the board fourth overall than Kayvon Thibodeaux (Twitter link). Several around the league believe Johnson has the edge on Thibodeaux with the Jets, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler adds (via Twitter). The Jets had what is believed to be a good meeting with Thibodeaux recently, and the Oregon product appeared to be re-establishing some of the value he had lost during the pre-draft process. This latest round of reports, including one that pitted the coaches against the front office regarding Thibodeaux, would go against that.

Walker’s ex-teammate at Georgia, Johnson transferred to Florida State in 2021 and had his best season. Johnson registered 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss with the Seminoles. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah ranks Johnson ninth in this class; ESPN slots him 10th. Thibodeaux comes in ahead on both hierarchies, but attitude and effort concerns have dinged the former No. 1 overall prospect throughout the draft buildup.

If defensive end is not the direction Gang Green goes at No. 4, Ikem Ekwonu and Ahmad Gardner come into play. “Persistent buzz” points the Jets toward the North Carolina State offensive lineman, SI.com’s Albert Breer said during an appearance on The Score 1260 (Twitter link). The Jets think “extremely highly” of Ekwonu, Mike Garafolo of NFL.com notes (video link). Ekwonu could slot at tackle or guard. For what it’s worth, no team has chosen a guard in the top four since the Cardinals took guard/tackle Leonard Davis second overall in 2001. Ekwonu would also serve as rather expensive, draft capital-wise, Mekhi Becton insurance.

Gardner-to-New York talk persists as well, ESPN.com’s Matt Miller tweets. Gardner was linked to the Jets weeks ago, but the Texans are a candidate to nab the Cincinnati prospect at 3. Houston doing that would seemingly put New York to an O-line-or-D-line decision. The Jets’ needs on the edge and at cornerback may outflank those on their O-line. They have drafted offensive linemen in the first round in each of the past two years, and the Jets’ defense ranked last in 2021. But the team using both of their top-1o picks on players who can help Zach Wilson, being linked closely to receivers at No. 10, would make sense as well.

Draft Rumors: Jets, Dean, Walker, Hill, Hamilton

Both New York teams are in the enviable position of having two top-ten picks in Thursday’s first-round of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Jets have made it clear that they are prepared to use their No. 10 overall pick in order to acquire 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who requested a trade this week.

According to Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network, league sources believe the Jets will use the No. 4 overall pick to address their defense, despite recent chatter that they may be targeting NC State offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu. Pauline reports that he has heard that “the coaches love Kayvon Thibodeaux, but front office personnel have a lot of concerns.”

Thibodeuax has seen his stock drop since the tail end of the college football season with questionable concerns over his motor and effort. Coaches, though, see his ability and potential and, understandably, want him on their defense.

Here are a few more Draft rumors from Pauline’s article concerning some risers and fallers:

  • Pauline claims there’s a 50/50 chance that Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean goes in the first round. Dean led the National Champion Bulldogs in tackles for loss and was second on the team in both total tackles and sacks. He’s a talented prospect, but teams desire to have the fifth-year option at their disposal for other positions such as cornerback, receiver, or quarterback.
  • Dean’s teammate, fellow Georgia linebacker Quay Walker, has been soaring up the boards lately. Like Dean, it’s unlikely Walker hears his name called on Day 1, but it’s looking more and more likely that he won’t last long in the second round of the Draft.
  • Michigan safety Daxton Hill has been the consensus second-best safety prospect for all of the offseason. While he’s been rising up boards as teams begin to realize his versatility and ability to play as a free safety, in the box safety, or even over a slot receiver, he’s still unlikely to be selected in the first round. Hill is another player expected to be drafted early into Day 2.
  • The top consensus safety prospect on the board, Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, has been dropping in popularity in the days leading up to the Draft. It won’t be enough for him to lose his title as the top-ranked safety over Hill or even enough to drop him out of the first round, but for a player that is consistently considered a top-ten or even top-five prospect in the Draft, this fall is potentially costing him top money. Pauline reports that league sources see Hamilton going around picks 15 to 20.

Draft Rumors: Stingley, Jaguars, Alabama, Cine, Burks

According to Matt Miller of ESPN, Derek Stingley, Jr. is the hottest name in the 2022 NFL Draft right now. The LSU cornerback has long been considered one of the top-two cornerback prospects available, along with Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner. Miller claims that Stingley is trending as high as the top-three with the Lions or Texans rumored to be interested in him at No. 2 or 3 overall.

After a stellar freshman season, Stingley was easily viewed as the best cornerback that would be available by the 2022 Draft. But, after a subpar 2020 season and only appearing in three games last year, combined with another stellar season from Gardner, NFL teams have allowed a bit of room for Gardner to challenge as the best corner on the board. The NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has Gardner ranked as the third-best prospect overall with Stingley at 15th, while Dane Brugler of The Athletic has Gardner at fifth overall with Stingley at 14th. Miller, though, seems to think Stingley won’t make it past the Seahawks at 9th overall on Thursday night.

Here are a few more notes for the upcoming Draft, starting with some speculation down in Duval:

  • Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke let it be known on Friday that Jacksonville is considering four players for their number one overall draft pick this Thursday, according to Charean Williams of NBC Sports. Many mock drafts have them going with Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson or Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker, but they’ve also had their name attached to Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal and NC State offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu. It’s hard to imagine any other names entering the conversation for Jacksonville’s top pick.
  • On their postseason run last year, college football powerhouse Alabama lost two of their top pass catchers in two of the biggest games of their season. John Metchie tore his ACL in the team’s SEC Championship victory over Georgia on December 4th. A little over a month later, Jameson Williams tore his ACL in the team’s National Championship game loss to Georgia on January 10th. According to Jeff Howe of The Athletic, the two are progressing impressively in their recoveries, with that opinion being echoed by the NFL teams who have looked into their medical information. They may both be on track to play in the upcoming season, depending on how conservative of a team they end up with. The important thing, though, is that, while their stock may have been affected a bit by injury, they are both fully expected to hear their names called next week.
  • Georgie safety Lewis Cine visited with the Buccaneers this week, according to Jenna Laine of ESPN. Cine led the Bulldogs in tackles and passes broken up for the season last year en route to being named the defensive MVP of the team’s National Championship victory over Alabama. According to Laine, when asked if signing Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal precluded them from drafting a safety, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht simply replied, “No.”
  • According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks added two more teams to his list of visits earlier this week. Burks met with the Bears and Cardinals as he continues to trend in the first round. Read more about Burks in his NFL Draft Prospect Profile here.