How NFL draft prospects perform at the combine tells teams a lot.
First, the physical tests can be important — but only if a player surprises a team, either with a superlative workout or one that is shockingly bad.
Player interviews, both with teams and with media, are extremely important. A team must know how a player will handle himself with coaches, but also while addressing reporters at a podium.
The Carolina Panthers are no different. With the No. 16 pick in this year’s NFL draft, they want a player who checks all of their boxes. And, they’d love for him to hit the sweet spot: Best player available, at their highest need.
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Following the NFL combine, here are five prospects who could be in play for the Panthers at No. 16:
Montez Sweat, DE, Mississippi State (6-foot-6, 260)
Sweat stunned everybody present for drills at the combine with a blazing-fast 4.43 40-yard dash that belied his prodigious frame.
And that means his draft stock, which has been steadlily rising since his strong performance at the Senior Bowl, is still streaking upward.
That doesn’t mean Sweat is out of reach for the Panthers at No. 16. They certainly don’t think so — they spent plenty of time with him in meetings in Indianapolis, and spoke with him about his ability to play in multiple fronts and to drop back in coverage as they mix more defensive looks in 2019.
Garrett Bradbury, C, North Carolina State (6-foot-3, 306)
Bradbury is one of the strongest interior offensive line prospects in the draft, and could be a great selection for the Panthers as they seek to replace longtime starting center Ryan Kalil.
He also had a great combine performance, including 34 bench press reps, which vaulted his stock from late first-round projections to mid first-round.
Bradbury, a Charlotte native, would also find a good home in Carolina. The Panthers have Tyler Larsen on the roster, and he could be their “bridge” player as Bradbury gets a little time to develop. Then, it would be likely that Larsen kicks out to left guard, giving Bradbury the long-term starting center role.
Andre Dillard, OT, Washington State (6-foot-5, 315)
Dillard’s footwork has been drawing rave reviews from draft analysts, and he doubled down on the hype with the best 20-yard shuttle among offensive linemen at the combine this year (4.4 seconds).
Dillard also has a ton of pass-protection experience from his time as the starting left tackle in Washington State’s air-raid offense, which has allowed him to develop in that regard much more fully than many other tackle prospects in the draft.
Carolina desperately needs to re-tool the left side of its offensive line this spring, and if starting left tackle Matt Kalil’s long-term health or status with the Panthers remains uncertain, Dillard could make for a good heir.
Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson (6-foot-4, 264)
Ferrell didn’t participate in all of his drills, preferring to wait until his Pro Day. But that didn’t sway his draft stock at all.
In fact, Ferrell was one of the most impressive podium interviews at the draft. He was confident, thoughtful and funny, sharing details of his upbringing in a military family, touching lessons he learned from the loss of his father at age 13, and drawing in media members to his story.
On the field, Ferrell is explosive, versatile and tenacious. He shows every sign of being an every-down defensive end who could immediately make an impact as a starting player.
Ferrell has long been known as one of the top prospects in this year’s draft, and would have been last year as well, if he had not decided to stay at Clemson for his senior season. If the Panthers can draft him at No. 16, they are getting the complete package, on and off the field.
Brian Burns, DE, Florida State (6-foot-5, 249)
Burns wore a hat that said “savage” to his podium session at the NFL combine last week, and it couldn’t be more descriptive of his style of play. He is strong and tenacious against offensive linemen, and is especially relentless in pursuit.
And the other word that could best describe Burns is “smooth”. Whether it’s shifting to multiple rusher positions or dropping into coverage, Burns seems to be seamless in his transitions while also maintaining his explosiveness. He also is one of the better run defenders in the defensive end class, which will be a crucial point of interest for the Panthers while making their selection.
In addition, Burns had one of the best 40-yard dash times among edge-rushers with a 4.53.
Burns could be a great fit for Carolina at No. 16, especially if he can keep his speed while still adding a little weight — and if Sweat and Ferrell, the two rising stars, get selected with earlier picks.