CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers wanted to add size at the cornerback position to keep up with the NFC South’s big wide receivers, including those from the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
So the Panthers selected 6-foot-1, 205-pound cornerback Jaycee Horn from South Carolina with the No. 8 pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night, passing on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to help upgrade their defense instead.
Horn was the first defensive player selected in the draft.
“When you look at the NFC South, the big receivers we have to face week in and week out — you have Mike Evans, you have Chris Godwin, you have Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and now Kyle Pitts — it’s going to take a lot of guys who can cover, and who can cover really big men,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “There is a size matchup in the NFC South that really matters. And Jaycee checks that box for us.”
Horn said he’s up to the task.
“I definitely feel like that is one of my strengths being able to matchup with big receivers because of my size,” Horn said. “Also I got the speed to match with those receivers in (the division). I can definitely understand their thought process (in drafting me) and I’m ready to go prove them right.”
Carolina spent all seven picks on defensive players last year and stayed on that side of the ball in round one.
Horn appeared in 30 games during his career for the Gamecocks and had 101 tackles and two interceptions while playing mostly in bump-and-run coverage. He is known for being an aggressive, attacking cornerback and fills an immediate need for the Panthers, who struggled in pass defense a year ago.
General manager Scott Fitterer said Horn is expected to start right away opposite Donte Jackson, the team’s No. 1 cornerback. Carolina added veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye from Denver free agency, giving them the added depth at that position that Rhule covets.
“If you go back to last year, there were times we just couldn’t get off the field,” Rhule said.
Fitterer said Horn’s athleticism “jumped off the tape” playing against Southeastern Conference foes, particularly in a game against Auburn.
“We saw someone who can come in and make an immediate impact as a starter,” Fitterer said. “His potential is unlimited.”
Rhule also likes that Horn has been around the game; his father Joe Horn was a wide receiver who played 12 seasons in the NFL, including seven for the New Orleans Saints.
“He understands what he means to be an NFL player — he has seen it his whole life,” Rhule said.
The pick wasn’t popular with all Carolina fans, with many taking to social media to express their frustration over the decision to pass on Fields.
Although the Panthers traded away a sixth round pick this year and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 to get Sam Darnold from the New York Jets, there was still plenty of speculation they would select a quarterback.
But the Panthers passed on Fields, and he was taken three picks later by the Chicago Bears.
“We brought Sam here for a reason and we are excited to see what he can do,” Rhule said. “We traded for him because we believe in his potential.”
Before the draft Fitterer said the team was ready to entertain all trade options for the No. 8 pick and did field some calls while on the clock. But Fitterer said the team didn’t want to pass on Horn, saying he plays with an edge.
“That’s who I am,” Horn said. “I always played with it. I don’t ever see myself losing that edge. I think its part of my game.”
The Panthers were also intrigued by Oregon’s 6-foot-6, 339-pound tackle Penei Sewell to fill a major need, but the Lions took him at No. 7.
It marks the first time the Panthers have selected a cornerback in the first round since taking Chris Gamble in 2004.
The Panthers have one pick each in the second (39th overall) and third round (73rd overall) on Friday night.
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