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ACC Stars Stay Home in Wild First Round

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dave Holcomb writes about NC State offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu and Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett being drafted by local teams.

The NFL Draft marks a new chapter in the football life of 250-plus young men every year. All those new beginnings are different, but one common theme is relocation.

That’s not the case this year, though, for the ACC stars drafted in the first round.

NC State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu didn’t make Wolfpack draft history Thursday night, but by slipping outside the top five, he landed with the local Carolina Panthers at No. 6.

Ekwonu is one of four players Thursday who was drafted by a team in the same state as his college. He will relocate two and a half hours down the road to Charlotte.

One of the others was Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, who is probably calling Ekwonu’s relocation plans a far trip. Pickett will just switch locker rooms at Heinz Field, as he will play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While the experts don’t all necessarily agree the Panthers and Steelers made the right choices, both Ekwonu and Pickett are prepared to provide one of the better feel-good rookie stories this fall.

Before Ekwonu and Pickett heard their names called, the 2022 NFL Draft started on defense.  The first five picks came from that side of the ball. It was the first time that happened since 1991.

The Panthers offense finished 29th in points and 30 in yards last season, so the early defensive run wasn’t likely to continue beyond No. 6. And with the run on defensive players, Carolina had its pick of whatever offense player it wanted.

Some mock drafts this offseason predicted Pickett to stay a Panther and move to Carolina. It’s been five years since the Panthers ended a season ranked better than 16th in passing yards. Projected starting quarterback Sam Darnold gives Carolina very little confidence that the streak will end in 2022.

Furthermore, Carolina won’t draft again until Day 3. The quarterbacks that dropped out of the first round won’t be an option for the Panthers unless they work a trade into the second round and further sacrifice future draft capital.

But Carolina went with the “best overall player” method rather than reaching for a quarterback. Despite the mock drafts, no NFL expert had Pickett or any other signal caller ranked as one of the 10 best players in this class.

The quarterback Ekwonu will be blocking over the long term isn’t on the roster. Draft analysts have also stated Ekwonu must improve his pass protection. But he’s already a great run blocker and is an instant upgrade for Carolina.

“There’s no denying his upside,” NFL draft analyst Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic wrote. “Ekwonu should have the versatility to play guard or tackle.

“This doesn’t solve the Panthers’ quarterback problem, but left tackle has been a disaster for them for years. Ekwonu is a tone-setter, and he plays a premium position.”

While Ekwonu has more developing to do, Pickett entered the draft regarded as the most pro-ready quarterback of the class.

That’s not to say the Pitt quarterback is ready to step on the field and compete with the elite quarterbacks in the AFC. But there are draft experts that are predicting he will be the best signal caller in the draft class.

“I love this pick. [The Steelers] take the local kid to play quarterback, and he will prove to be the best quarterback in this class,” analyst Pete Prisco of CBS Sports wrote. “Give him a few games, and he will have the job.”

The biggest criticism of Pickett has been his physical traits. He has small hands, doesn’t possess a great arm and isn’t the most athletic while scrambling.

Most experts consider the ceiling for Liberty quarterback Malik Willis to be higher than Pickett’s, and with the Steelers signing Mitch Trubisky this offseason, it was interesting they chose the rookie quarterback more ready to start immediately.

The selection, though, is certainly popular with the fans of both the Pitt Panthers and Steelers.

 

Drafting Pickett also “rights a wrong” for the Steelers from nearly 40 years ago.

The Steelers had the opportunity to draft a Pitt quarterback – Dan Marino – a year before future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw retired. The Steelers passed on Marino. Instead, he set NFL records with the Miami Dolphins.

Three months after losing another future Hall of Fame quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers weren’t going to pass on another legendary Pitt signal caller.

Whether he becomes legendary in the NFL remains to be seen. But the commute for both Pickett and Ekwonu from their college campuses will be a short one.