CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – With the help of a panel of voters from ESPN, The Athletic, AP, Charlotte Observer and the Carolina Panthers Radio Network/WBT, the 7Sports Team has compiled a list of the top ten Carolina Panthers draft picks of all time.
Seven reporters from national and local publications/broadcast stations provided their top ten rankings. A tally of all the votes resulted in this final list.
Panel: David Newton (ESPN NFL Nation Panthers Beat Writer), Joe Person (The Athletic Panthers Beat Writer), Steve Reed (The Associated Press Panthers Beat Writer), Scott Fowler (The Charlotte Observer Columnist), Jim Szoke (WBT Radio and Carolina Panthers Radio Network Broadcaster), Pete Yanity (WSPA Sports Director), and Todd Summers (WSPA Sports Reporter/Anchor).
Click here for a look at the top 10 Panthers of all time, voted on by the same panel.
Top 10 Panthers Draft Picks
#10 Kris Jenkins (2001 Round 2: 44th overall)
The Panthers’ 2001 draft class was among the most successful in team history, especially in the first few rounds. After selecting linebacker Dan Morgan 11th overall, Carolina doubled down on the defensive side, taking Kris Jenkins with the 44th pick.
Jenkins was an integral part of helping turn the defense around from being the worst statistical unit in the league to one of the best the following season. Jenkins was part of a dominant defensive line that included Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. And his transition to the NFL was fairly seamless, as he was a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2002 and 2003.
Jenkins played seven seasons with the Panthers, and ten overall before retiring after the 2010 season. He finished his career with 58 tackles for loss and 24 sacks and four Pro Bowls (‘02, ‘03, ‘06, ‘08). He remains one of the best interior defensive linemen in franchise history.
#9 Jordan Gross (2003 Round 1: 8th overall)
Entering the 2003 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers were in desperate need of an offensive lineman, particular at the tackle position. And Jordan Gross’ versatility made him a perfect fit for the team as he played both tackle positions as well as left guard during his time at the University of Utah. With the 8th overall selection, Gross was the first offensive lineman off the board.
He stepped right into the starting lineup and never looked back over the course of the next 11 seasons. Commonly referred to as the best left tackle in Panthers history, Gross displayed great flexibility along the offensive line and was just as productive as a right tackle, which is where he started his rookie season. It was good enough to earn him a spot on the 2003 All-Rookie Team. He switched between the two positions every now and then, but played the vast majority of snaps at LT from there on out.
The epitome of reliability, Gross started all but eight games in his career and committed a mere 11 holding penalties. He was a vital part of the Panthers often ranking in the top ten in the league in sacks surrendered during the 2000s, and displayed great awareness as he recovered seven fumbles as well. A three-time Pro Bowler and 2008 first-team All-Pro, Gross remains one of the greatest to ever put on a Panther uniform.
#8 Muhsin Muhammad (1996 Round 2: 43rd overall)
Muhsin Muhammad, otherwise known as “Moose”, was taken with the 43rd overall selection by the Panthers in 1996. Fresh off of its inaugural campaign, the Panthers turned to the Michigan State product to help bolster the offense. After two decent seasons, Muhammad enjoyed a breakout in the 1998 season, recording six touchdowns and nearly one thousand yards. He became a go-to target for quarterbacks Steve Beuerlein and Jake Delhomme.
“Moose” was often known for his physical style of play, and never shied away from blocking assignments on the perimeter. His most productive season came in 2004 when he posted a league-leading 1,405 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns. That production earned him First-Team All-Pro honors and his 16 receiving touchdowns remains a single-season franchise record.
Muhammad finished his NFL career in 2009 after 14 seasons, 11 with Carolina. He is second in team history in most receiving categories. He is also known for his charitable outreaches, particularly his support for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in Charlotte. He was the Panthers’ Walter Payton Man of the Year selection in 1999.
#7 Christian McCaffrey (2017 Round 1: 8th overall)
Christian McCaffrey came to the Panthers as the team’s first-round selection at #8 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Carolina was in need of a dynamic playmaker in the backfield, but there was uncertainty as to whether the team would go with McCaffrey or LSU standout Leonard Fournette. McCaffrey’s stellar tape during his time at Stanford, though, ultimately gave him the advantage as he posted over five thousand total yards and 22 total touchdowns in three collegiate seasons.
In 2018 he became the team’s featured runner, rushing for over 1,000 yards and scoring 7 touchdowns on the ground. He combined that with 107 catches for 867 yards and an additional 8 touchdowns. He was a dual-threat running back in every sense of the term. And he helped take the defensive focus off of Cam Newton.
In 2019, McCaffrey continued on his upward trajectory tallying 1387 yards and 15 touchdowns to go along with 116 catches and 1,005 yards receiving and four scores. With that, McCaffery became just the third running back in NFL history to reach the one-thousand-yard mark in both rushing and receiving, joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig. Pretty good company.
That earned McCaffrey first-team All-Pro honors in just his third season with the team. An injury-riddled 2020 derailed his momentum, but he showed how important he is to the team, scoring six touchdowns in just three games played. The youngest on this list, McCaffrey has plenty of seasons to add to his legacy in Carolina, but he’s already established himself as one of the best draft selections in the team’s history.
#6 Ryan Kalil (2007 Round 2: 59th overall)
With the 59th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers selected center Ryan Kalil from the University of Southern California. At USC, Kalil excelled at center, but it was his performance at the NFL Combine that catapulted him up draft boards.
He saw limited time in only a few games as a rookie. But Kalil stepped into a full-time role in 2008, a title he would hold for the next decade as he ended up playing 148 games for the Panthers, ninth-most in the franchise’s history.
As the leader of the offensive line for eleven years at center, Kalil made the Pro Bowl five times and was twice named first-team All-Pro. He was called for holding just six times in his entire career. Kalil’s importance to the organization can be best explained by the team’s willingness to make him the highest paid center in league history as he signed a six-year, $49 million deal in 2011. And he was an important part of Cam Newton’s MVP season in 2015. Kalil goes down as not just the greatest center in team history, but one of the best offensive linemen to wear a Panthers uniform.
#5 Thomas Davis Sr. (2005 Round 1: 14th overall)
As a hybrid safety/linebacker out of the University of Georgia, Thomas Davis Sr. filled a huge need for the Carolina Panthers, and thus they selected him with the 14th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. At Georgia, Davis was a playmaker in every sense of the word and was named First-Team All-SEC his junior season. His versatility and rare athleticism proved to be a valuable asset, one that would become a commodity in the NFL years later, similar to current Panther safety Jeremy Chinn.
After a limited role in his rookie season, Davis became a full-time outside linebacker in 2006. His best season, though, came in the 2010s. From 2012 to 2016 Davis recorded at least 100 tackles in each season and had seven interceptions in a two-year span. He was selected to his only three Pro Bowls in succession (‘15-’17), all of which came after he recovered from three ACL tears in the same knee.
Over the course of his career, Davis formed one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL alongside Luke Kuechly. Davis is the franchise leader in solo tackles with 789 and recorded 18 forced fumbles as well as 13 interceptions. Not only was his impact felt on the field for 13 seasons in Charlotte, but he was beloved in the community as well. He created the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation (TDDDF) which promoted free programs to help thousands of underprivileged youth including back-to-school giveaways, among others. His efforts in giving back earned him the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
#4 Luke Kuechly (2012 Round 1: 9th overall)
Luke Kuechly was taken 9th overall by the Panthers in the 2012 NFL Draft. The highly touted all-purpose linebacker out of Boston College was a two-time consensus All-American and was awarded the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, recognizing the best defensive player in college football.
While the pick wasn’t necessarily anticipated among analysts, Kuechly became an instant fixture on the team’s defense in his rookie campaign. He was named the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year after posting a league-leading 164 combined tackles and two interceptions.and he continued on that track the following season as he was named the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. In ‘13, Kuechly recorded 156 total tackles, four interceptions, and two sacks. That season, the Panthers were the league’s second-best defense in points per game and total yards allowed with Kuechly serving as the anchor and leader of the unit.
In just eight seasons Kuechly made seven pro bowls, was a five-time first-team All-Pro selection, hauled in 18 interceptions and tallied over one thousand total tackles. Though his career was cut short due to an early retirement, Kuechly made an indelible mark on the franchise, was among the league’s greatest linebackers during his entire tenure, and ends his career with hall of fame credentials.
#3 Cam Newton (2011 Round 1: 1st overall)
Cam Newton was selected by the Panthers with the first overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. Reports indicated Carolina was deciding between the Auburn product or Missouri standout Blaine Gabbert. But Newton’s extremely rare skill set at the position set him apart, and he delivered on the expectation of becoming a franchise quarterback.
In his rookie season Newton was selected to the Pro Bowl and earned ‘Rookie of the Year’ honors, completing 60% of his passes for over 4,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. The Panthers finished just 6-10, but it was apparent they had an emerging talent under center. His most accomplished season came in 2015 as he led Carolina to a 15-1 record and an appearance in Super Bowl 50, the team’s second ever appearance in the big game and first since 2003. That year, Newton won the NFL MVP Award as he combined for 45 total touchdowns. The Panthers lost to Denver, however, 24-10.
From 2011-2019 Newton threw 182 touchdowns and ran for another 58 scores. He passed for over 29,000 yards and totaled nearly 5,000 yards rushing, establishing himself as one of the best dual threat quarterbacks of his generation. He holds several franchise records. The three-time Pro-Bowler went 68-55-1 during his time in Carolina before signing with the New England Patriots ahead of the 2020 season. Because of his individual accolades, his overall impact on the sport and the organization as well as his ability to lead the team to another Super Bowl, Newton goes down as one of the greatest draft picks in team history.
#2 Julius Peppers (2002 Round 1: 2nd overall)
A two-sport athlete at the University of North Carolina, Julius Peppers was a unique kind of athlete. His productivity with the Tar Heels made him one of the top prospects entering the 2002 NFL Draft. The Houston Texans, an expansion team, selected quarterback David Carr with its first ever draft pick, paving the way for the Panthers to take Peppers with the 2nd overall selection.
Peppers burst onto the scene immediately, recording 12 sacks, five forced fumbles and one interception in just twelve games played in his rookie season. It was good enough to earn him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Peppers went on to make the Pro Bowl five times in his final six seasons with the Panthers (‘04-’09) before signing with the Chicago Bears as a free agent prior to the 2010 season. After seven seasons with the Bears and Packers, he returnined to Carolina for the 2017-2018 seasons. In total he played 154 games in ten seasons with Carolina, recording 97 sacks, 107 tackles for loss, and 34 forced fumbles. He was a two-time first-team All-Pro during his time in Charlotte, and is the franchise leader in career sacks with 29.5 more than the next player on the list (Charles Johnson).
Given all of his accomplishments and years of dominance at the position, Peppers will undoubtedly have his bust in Canton. He’s a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Decade Team for both the 2000s and 2010s, and goes down as the 2nd best draft pick in team history.
#1 Steve Smith (2001 Round 3: 74th overall)
Steve Smith was taken in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft as the 74th overall selection by the Carolina Panthers, in what was arguably the steal of the draft. Smith was under the radar as a prospect coming out of the University of Utah, and he used that as motivation throughout his entire career.
He was seldom used as a receiver in his rookie season, but was utilized primarily as a return specialist and excelled in that area. He scored twice on kickoff returns, one of which was his first NFL touch, and once on a punt return earning him a spot on the 2001 All-Rookie Team and in the Pro Bowl.
After his rookie campaign he took on an expanded role as a receiver and never looked back. He had his first one-thousand-yard season in 2003 as the Panthers advanced all the way to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. After breaking his leg in the 2004 season-opener, Smith had his best statistical season the following year, rebounding with a stellar 103-1563-12 line and leading the NFL in all three categories.
After 13 seasons with the Panthers, Smith spent his final three years in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens before retiring after the 2016 season. He finished his career as the Panthers all-time leading receiver in catches, yards and touchdowns. As of 2021, he ranks 12th in NFL history with 1,031 receptions and 8th in receiving yards with 14,731. He is a five-time pro bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro.
Full List (Each player’s point total is out of 70 possible points)
|#1: Steve Smith (69)|
|#2: Julius Peppers (57)|
|#3: Cam Newton (56)|
|#4: Luke Kuechly (55)|
|#5: Thomas Davis (23)|
|#6: Ryan Kalil (25)|
|#7: Christian McCaffrey (21)|
|#8: Muhsin Muhammad (19)|
|#9: Jordan Gross (17)|
|#10: Kris Jenkins (9)|