Each offseason, a team’s rookie class delivers hope to their NFL fans.
Then, the games start.
Rookie mini camp, OTAs and one preseason game is far from a large enough sample size to declare a class boom or bust. But mid-August provides enough practices and competitive game tape to begin forming early evaluations.
Consider this your training camp rookie report card update. Here is a rundown of how the Panthers 2022 class (plus some undrafted free agents) are grading out.
T Ikem Ekwonu: B
Though Ikem Ekwonu is still rolling with the second team more than he is the first team, that does not mean it is time to panic. The team has a plan to ease Ekwonu into the starting left tackle role. Once he has it, the expectation is he’ll start there through at least his rookie contract (and ideally an additional five years after that).
Be patient with the Panthers’ No. 6 overall pick. He’s a natural run blocker and showcases that when the pads are on at practice. During the team’s scrimmage on the Tuesday before camp broke, Ekwonu was the pulling tackle on a 6-yard Chubba Hubbard rushing touchdown. No defenders wanted to take him head-on.
He’ll struggle at times, like when Washington edge rusher Montez Sweat beat him on Sam Darnold’s passing touchdown. The veteran went right by Ekwonu, though it did not affect Darnold’s 8-yard throw to Higgins.
But he’ll bounce back with violent pancakes. How he performances during the team’s joint practices in New England will influence his Week 1 role.
QB Matt Corral: C
It’s been a bumpy training camp for Matt Corral.
The rookie is sharing third-team reps with veteran P.J. Walker, which usually results in suppressed reps during competitive 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 situations. He looked unprepared against Washington, though the Panthers third-team offensive line protected poorly. Washington also heavily blitzed throughout the game despite it being a preseason game.
He completed just one pass on nine attempts despite leading an 11-play, 40-yard, game-winning drive. His eight straight incompletions is likely a football first for Corral, who came from an RPO (read-pass option) offense at Ole Miss that prioritized easy completions.
The team considers Corral a long-term project.
LB Brandon Smith: C+
In Shaq Thompson’s absence, Smith is playing more first-team reps than anticipated.
The team drafted Smith knowing it needs to pair Thompson with a running mate. But signing Cory Littleton and Damien Wilson delegated Smith to a special teams contributor. He’ll help there and perhaps earn some opportunities until Thompson is healthy.
Against Washington, Smith recorded a pass breakup and a special teams tackle.
DE Amaré Barno: B+
Carolina is in no rush to sign a pass rusher. The team wants to learn what it has internally before bringing in a veteran. Amare Barno is one of the players the team is closely evaluating as a potential Hasson Reddick solution.
He was disruptive against Washington. He hurried quarterback Taylor Heinicke in the first quarterback, forcing an interception. Barno also forced running back Antonio Gibson to fumble inside Washington’s 20 yard line, which set up the team’s first touchdown.
The fastest defensive linemen in the 2022 NFL rookie class is off to a quick start.
OL Cade Mays: A-
Cade Mays is already proving he’ll provide quality depth across the Panthers line. He played 45 snaps (second-most among offensive players). Pro Football Focus gave him a 79.1 grade against Washington, the third-highest rating of any offensive player league wide.
Mays won’t start for Carolina, nor is that the expectation. But if Austin Corbett were to get injured he’d likely earn a look.
CB Kalon Barnes: C+
Barnes should make the roster considering the team used a seventh-round pick on him. But he hasn’t had a standout moment in camp yet.
Barnes played 30% of team snaps against Washington. Of second- and third- teamers, he earned the fourth-most amount of reps. Chris Westry played more than him but he was cut on Sunday.
There should be plenty of opportunities for Barnes during joint practices with New England.
WR Ra’Shaun Henry: B
Henry is consistently making plays for Carolina. He features ideal outside receiver size and demonstrates sound body control when tracking balls downfield. The Panthers are deep at receiver, but Henry could prove to be a valuable practice-squad stash if he survives waivers once the team cuts down to 53 players.
Henry can really run. He recorded a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. That type of speed helps keep receivers on the field. Henry also notched an impressive 17.7 yards-per-catch average last season. He averaged 50 yards per game as a senior and scored three touchdowns.
DE Drew Jordan: B-
Drew Jordan is fighting for a roster spot. It’s unlikely he’ll make the team, but his sack against Washington helps his case. Like Henry, Jordan makes sense on the practice squad.
WR Derek Wright: B
Derek Wright had an impressive couple of practices in Spartanburg during one-on-one sessions against defensive backs. He’s compact and swift off the line of scrimmage and separates well downfield. Watch for him to make a splash preseason play soon.
Wright is the strongest receiver. His 21 reps in the bench press were more than any wideout at the combine. He scored 16 touchdowns, which ranked 16th in the nation, and made 48 catches for 789 yards. Wright was a walk-on at Utah State and went on to have a successful college career. Last season he showcased his explosiveness by making receptions of 41, 38, 25, 46, 41, 27, and 76 yards. He also scored multiple touchdowns in four different games