Ikem Ekwonu

Free Agency Notes: Queen, Seahawks, Packers, Panthers, Pats, Jackson, Bengals

The Ravens’ Roquan Smith payment always made it likely Patrick Queen would need to collect his money elsewhere. Now that Queen’s most recent defensive coordinator landed a coaching job, a logical fit has emerged. Indeed, many executives predicted (via the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora) Queen would wind up reunited with Mike Macdonald in Seattle. With the Seahawks likely to again part ways with Bobby Wagner, spots are open. Jordyn Brooks, who joined Queen as a 2020 first-round LB pick, is also on the cusp of free agency. Queen is coming off his best season — a Pro Bowl showing alongside Smith — and turned a corner once the Bears trade commenced last year.

Checking in eighth on PFR’s top 50 free agents list (before the Chris Jones and Baker Mayfield deals), Queen could be in line to rival what Tremaine Edmunds received ($18MM per year, $41.8MM fully guaranteed) last year and land a top-five ILB contract. Barely 12 hours from the legal tampering period, here is the latest from the free agent scene:

  • Not known for splashy signings, the Packers do look like they are ready to upgrade at one position on the market. Green Bay appears likely to look at the top safeties available, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler notes. Although several veteran safeties became street free agents due to recent cuts (Justin Simmons, Jamal Adams, Quandre Diggs and Jordan Poyer among them), this saturated market does include two young guns that should be paid well soon. It would not shock to see the Pack pursue Xavier McKinney and Kamren Curl, Fowler adds. Both safeties are going into their age-25 seasons, which could separate them on a crowded market.
  • The Panthers released Bradley Bozeman today, and while they will look for a center, expect a guard pursuit as well. This year’s market is big on guards, and The Athletic’s Joe Person writes the Panthers want to upgrade at a guard spot this offseason. Carolina lost both its starting guards — Brady Christensen, Austin Corbett — to major injuries last season, representing one of the many issues on offense in Bryce Young‘s rookie year. The team does not consider Ikem Ekwonu an option. Despite the 2022 first-rounder playing guard at points in college, ESPN.com’s David Newton indicates the new coaching staff is keeping him at left tackle.
  • The Patriots are open to bringing back J.C. Jackson, according to Sportskeeda.com’s Tony Pauline. Jackson’s season ended early after the team placed the veteran cornerback on the reserve/NFI list. Should Jackson move past the mental health struggles that wrapped his first season back in New England, Pauline adds the team is open to another reunion despite last week’s release.
  • Seeing a revolving door form at right tackle (Bobby Hart, Riley Reiff, La’el Collins, Jonah Williams) over the past four years, the Bengals want that to stop. They may be ready to take a two-pronged approach by adding a veteran and a potential rookie heir apparent. “We would like to have somebody man the right tackle spot for a number of years, yes,” player personnel director Duke Tobin said (via The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr.). “We’d like it to be a young guy that can come in and do that or a veteran that might have the opportunity to rebuild his career, something. But yes, we would like that to be manned on multiple fronts. But we’re focused with having it manned well enough to provide us a chance to win next year. That’s the No. 1 thing.” Williams is a free agent, and given the market he might have — as a chance to move to left tackle may await — it is unlikely the 2019 first-round pick is back in Cincinnati.

Matt Rhule Names Ikem Ekwonu Panthers’ Starting LT

The Panthers had been in the midst of a competition for the left tackle spot this offseason, but the winner of that battle has been named. Head coach Matt Rhule announced on Tuesday that Ikem Ekwonu will be the team’s starter at the blindside moving forward (Twitter link via Joe Person of The Athletic). 

The news doesn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the draft capital Carolina invested in Ekwonu. The No. 6 overall pick in April’s draft, the NC State alum was the first offensive player to hear his name called. Part of a trio of o-linemen in contention to be the first selected at their position (alongside Evan Neal and Charles Cross), Ekwonu received plenty of interest in the build-up to the draft, including from the Panthers.

Carolina has been in need of a long-term left tackle since Jordan Gross retired in 2014, so it came as little surprise when they added the six-foot-four, 320-pounder. Whether he would start at tackle or guard became an important question after his selection, however. Ekwonu played at both spots during his time with the Wolfpack, leading some to believe he would begin his career on the interior. The chances of that seemed to grow when 2021 third-rounder Brady Christensen took a significant number of starter’s reps at LT during minicamp.

That was still the case in practice as recently as last week. Overall, though, signs have pointed to Ekwonu ultimately winning out for the first-team spot. With the latter’s position confirmed, Person tweets that Christensen will now compete with 2019 fourth-rounder Michael Jordan for the starting left guard spot. Especially in the long-term, a left side of Ekwonu and Christensen should give Carolina some much-needed improvement up front.

It remains to be seen (at least officially) who will be the Panthers’ starting quarterback in Week 1. Whether Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold begins the season at the top of the depth chart, they will now know who is charged with protecting their blindside.

NFC South Rumors: Darnold, Christensen, Bucs, Murphy-Bunting, Werner

As Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield starts to run away with the starting job, questions have been raised about the future of incumbent starter Sam Darnold. When a rumor surfaced that Carolina may be shopping the fifth-year passer, general manager Scott Fitterer pulled Darnold aside to set him at ease, according to Joseph Person of The Athletic.

“I talked to Scott,” Darnold explained. “He said not to worry about it. To be honest, before he talked to me, I didn’t even see it. So I’m just gonna continue to do me and do what I can to put myself in a good position and put this team in a good position.”

Aiding Fitterer in convincing Darnold that he’s not likely to be dealt is Darnold’s $18.86MM salary. There could certainly be a team willing to make a call about Darnold if an injury occurs to their starter, but if the Panthers wanted to offload him, they’d likely have to eat some of his contract, as well.

There’s a good chance, though, that Darnold stays put. As Person explained, “in a league that saw only 12 teams make it through the 17-game regular season in 2021 with one quarterback,” the backup quarterback is still a crucially important position. And, while Darnold may not rank highly among the starters in today’s game, he certainly ranks as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league. The backup job appears to be his, too, as long as the Panthers continue to slow play the development of rookie third-round pick Matt Corral.

Here are a few other rumors from around the NFC South, starting with another note out of the Tar Heel state:

  • As certain as it seems that rookie first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu will start the 2022 season as the Panthers’ starting left tackle, Carolina is still giving last year’s third-round pick, Brady Christensen, plenty of snaps at the position. According to Person, Christensen took the majority of the first-team reps this past Thursday at the position. Christensen has a highly sought after versatility that gives the Panthers the option of playing him as a guard or a tackle. With Ekwonu still expected to win the starting job, perhaps offensive line coach James Campen just wants to ensure his best backup option has enough experience at one of the offensive line’s most important positions.
  • The Buccaneers‘ interior offensive line will look completely different in 2022 after the departures of Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet, as well as an injury that may cause center Ryan Jensen to miss a significant amount of time. Trade acquisition Shaq Mason will man the right guard position, while the left guard and center positions are still up in the air, according to ESPN’s Jenna Laine. The center position is currently a battle between Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett. Leverett is also competing for the left guard starting job with Aaron Stinnie and rookie second-round pick Luke Goedeke. A tweet from Bucs staff writer Scott Smith, though, may hint at one of the positions. Smith reports that assistant head coach & run game coordinator Harold Goodwin “hopes a decision (at left guard) will be made prior to the third preseason game” so that the new left guard can “build chemistry with Donovan Smith and (Hainsey).” Smith is projected to be the starting left tackle, so this comment from Goodwin may point to the fact that Hainsey has won the position battle at center.
  • We recently did a rundown of the Buccaneers’ cornerbacks room, but an update, provided by Matt Matera of the Pewter Report, may give us some new information. We claimed that Sean Murphy-Bunting was in a competition with Jamel Dean for the No. 2 cornerback spot opposite Carlton Davis, but that the loser of that battle would still likely get plenty of time as the top option at nickel. According to Matera, though, Murphy-Bunting is no longer working in the slot and is solely competing with Dean for the outside job. Matera adds that Dean seems to have the inside-track which will leave Murphy-Bunting coming off the bench.
  • It appears that Saints second-year linebacker Pete Werner has taken hold of the starting weak-side linebacker position next to Demario Davis, according to Jeff Duncan of nola.com. Duncan comments that the staff’s confidence in Werner is high enough that it assisted in their decision to allow former starter Kwon Alexander to walk in free agency.

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.