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.