Carolina Panthers' roster review: Rookie QB Matt Corral ready if Sam Darnold struggles?

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Matt Corral's NFL draft profile (0:49)

Watch some of the best plays that make Ole Miss QB Matt Corral a player to watch in the NFL draft. (0:49)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One phrase seldom, if ever, used to describe Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Matt Corral before the April draft was “NFL-ready."

Not being ready to start Week 1 was the knock on the entire 2022 quarterback class with the exception of Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, selected 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Corral’s offensive coordinator at Ole Miss said he understands, but believes the former Rebels star is closer to being ready than analysts gave him credit for.

“I don’t think he’s very far off at all," said Jeff Lebby, now the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. “If you watch the tape, you watch how he played against the SEC West with a marginal supporting cast, everybody will understand quickly what the guy did and how he put the team on his back.

“It was pretty impressive."

The Panthers thought enough of Corral to trade a 2022 fourth-round draft pick and 2023 third-round pick to move into the third round to select him.

They chose him over trading for Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield when the Browns refused to pay more than $3.5 million of Mayfield’s $18.86 million contract, according to a league source.

They chose him because of the uncertainty surrounding 2021 starter Sam Darnold, who was 4-7 in his first season with the Panthers and 17-32 in four seasons between Carolina and the New York Jets.

One slip by Darnold and fans will be screaming for Corral, who last season led an Ole Miss team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2015 to a 10-3 record and a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

“He is as an inspiring a young player as I’ve been around," Lebby said.

ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid said he loves Corral’s quick release and quick feet and the way his “feet marry up with his eyes really well." His only question is how quickly Corral can adjust to an NFL playbook.

“He was in a very run-pass-centric offense at Ole Miss that was very quarterback friendly," Reid said. “So adjusting is going to be his biggest hurdle."

The adjustment begins Friday, as Corral and the rest of Carolina’s draft class, along with undrafted free agents and invited tryout players, begin a three-day rookie camp.

“Matt’s able to adapt," Lebby said. “He had three different coordinators and quarterback coaches while he was [at Ole Miss]. He was able to process and learn at a high level and develop. He can do that at the next level."

Here’s a complete look at Carolina’s projected post-draft depth chart and how the Panthers' six draft picks (italicized) fit in:

Offense

Quarterback

Starter: Sam Darnold

Backups: Matt Corral, P.J. Walker

Comment: Barring the late addition of a veteran quarterback, Darnold will begin training camp and likely the season as the starter, but he’ll be on a short leash. With pressure on coach Matt Rhule to succeed after two consecutive five-win seasons, there will be little patience with Darnold.

Running back

Starter: Christian McCaffrey

Backups: D’Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard

Comment: McCaffrey has played in only 10 of a possible 33 games the past two seasons, so keeping him healthy is key. One way to do that is spreading the touches around.

Wide receiver

Starters: DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson

Backups: Terrace Marshall Jr., Rashard Higgins

Comment: The only difference from last year is Robby Anderson is now Robbie Anderson, and he has applied to have his jersey number switched from 11 to 3. Otherwise, the talent is there, particularly if Marshall steps up in his second season.

Tight end

Starter: Ian Thomas

Backups: Tommy Tremble, Stephen Sullivan

Comment: Look for a lot of two-tight end sets as new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo tries to establish the run and protect whoever is playing quarterback.

Tackle

Starters: LT Ikem Ekwonu, RT Taylor Moton

Backups: Cameron Erving, Brady Christensen, Dennis Daley

Comment: Getting Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick was the key to the draft. His 154 collegiate pancake blocks earned him the nickname "Pancake King" and fits McAdoo’s philosophy perfectly. He just needs to become efficient in pass protection.

Guards

Starters: LG Brady Christensen, RG Austin Corbett

Backups: Michael Jordan, Pat Elflein, Deonte Brown, Cade Mays

Comment: The Panthers see Christensen as a starter, and left guard is the only available spot unless Ekwonu struggles. Corbett, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Los Angeles Rams last season, was a big get in free agency as Fitterer rebuilt the line.

Center

Starter: Bradley Bozeman

Backups: Pat Elflein, Sam Tecklenburg, Cade Mays

Comment: Elflein could challenge here, but the Panthers invested a one-year, $2.8 million deal in Bozeman in free agency. The good news is Eflein and Bozeman can help at guard if needed.

Defense

End

Starters: Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos

Backups: Marquis Haynes Sr., Amare Barno

Comment: Carolina picked up Burns’ fifth-year option after he made his first Pro Bowl. What’s needed is for Gross-Matos to stay healthy and pick up the production of 2021 sack leader Haason Reddick, who left in free agency. Frankie Luvu could contribute here as well.

Tackle

Starters: Derrick Brown, Matt Ioannidis

Backups: Daviyon Nixon, Bravvion Roy, Phil Hoskins

Comment: Adding Ioannidis in free agency was big because he adds a pass-rush threat beside Brown, who has been more of a run-stopper.

Outside linebacker

Starters: Shaq Thompson, Frankie Luvu

Backups: Cory Littleton, Brandon Smith

Comment: Depth was the only question here, and the Panthers added speed and talent by trading up to get Smith in the fourth round. He posted a 4.52-second 40-yard dash time at the combine. Former Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. ran it in 4.6 seconds in 2005.

Middle linebacker

Starter: Damien Wilson

Backups: Julian Stanford, Cory Littleton

Comment: The question here is what will happen with the assault charges against free-agent signee Wilson? If he somehow is not on the roster, this will get interesting. Littleton, one of the better cover linebackers in the league, could be a factor.

Cornerback

Starters: Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson

Nickel: Myles Hartsfield

Backups: CJ Henderson, Keith Taylor Jr., Rashaan Melvin, Kalon Barnes

Comment: Outside of running back, this might be the deepest and most talented position. If Carolina can find a way to utilize Barnes’ 4.23-second speed in the 40-yard dash -- second fastest in combine history -- this group really becomes special.

Safety

Starters: Jeremy Chinn, Xavier Woods

Backups: Juston Burris, Sean Chandler

Comment: Keeping Chinn at safety versus moving him to linebacker was a goal. The additions of Woods in free agency and defensive pass game coordinator and secondary coach Steve Wilks, who lobbied for Chinn to stay at safety, make this group solid.

Special teams

Kicker

Zane Gonzalez

Punter

Johnny Hekker

Long-snapper

J.J. Jansen

Comment: New special teams coordinator Chris Tabor benefits from the addition of Hekker, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who is coming off a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams.