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Panthers get a RB, LB and at least one dawg on a trade-filled second night

Written by on April 27, 2024

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On a night that featured three Panthers’ trades, a second-round selection of a running back whose All-American-caliber season was cut short by injury and another playmaker for Bryce Young, we start with a third-round linebacker who mostly flew under the pre-draft, hype radar.

On the day Dan Morgan and Dave Canales were introduced as the new general manager and head coach, respectively, Morgan famously said he was looking for “dawgs” who could help restore pride in the Panthers’ logo.

Morgan, a former linebacker who’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, found one in the 6-1, 237-pound person of Kentucky linebacker Trevin Wallace, who grew up playing in the mud of rural south Georgia and worked a part-time job at McDonald’s in high school while starring in football, winning a state title as a weightlifter and setting a school record in the long jump.

“Athletic freak,” Morgan said. “A guy that can run sideline to sideline, strike ballcarriers. I think his ceiling’s really high. I think he’s a guy that’s gonna develop, keep developing and turn into a good linebacker for us.”

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He also should help establish a physical, aggressive tone on a defense that lost some of its swagger with the offseason departures of Brian Burns, Frankie Luvu and Donte Jackson.

“It might sound crazy, but dawg mentality to me is you don’t care if you go in and hurt somebody. It’s part of the game,” Wallace said when asked for his description of a dawg. “You go in there and hurt somebody — hey, I did this and I’m gonna do it again. That’s what dawg mentality is. You don’t go in there being soft. You go in there like, ‘I’m gonna hurt you every play. I want you to be scared.’”

Other linebackers like Texas A&M’s Edgerrin Cooper, who went to Green Bay just before the Panthers picked in the second, might have had more college production than Wallace. But it’s hard to believe there were many guys on the Panthers’ board with Wallace’s combination of traits and spunk.

Wallace racked up 80 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks — a nice number for an off-the-ball linebacker — in his final season at Kentucky. Then he ran 4.51-second 40 and jumped 37 1/2 inches at the combine before impressing the Panthers during his pre-draft visit to Charlotte.

Wallace would seem to be the eventual successor to Shaq Thompson. But listening him on a Zoom call Friday night, he sounded like he could be a capable replacement for the revved-up and versatile Luvu.

“I’m determined to get to the ballcarrier, no matter what it is,” he said. “The play can go on for like 12 seconds, I’m still determined to get to the ballcarrier.”

Wallace said he developed his take-no-prisoners approach from his dad, who was his coach while he was growing up. His mother helped instill a work ethic by requiring Wallace to be at work at 5 a.m. the day after football games at a McDonald’s in Jesup, Ga., where she was the general manager.

While Wallace was the third linebacker to be drafted when the Panthers took him at 72, they were the first team to grab a running back when they snagged Texas’ Jonathon Brooks with the 46th pick after trading back, and then moving back up in the second round.

The maneuvers were among three trades made Friday by Morgan, whose biggest coup was getting a 2025 second-round pick from the Los Angeles Rams to replace the one the Panthers sent to Chicago as part of the massive collection of picks (and DJ Moore) they dealt to Chicago last spring for the No. 1 pick.

The Panthers traded No. 39, which they’d received from the New York Giants as part of the Burns trade, to Los Angeles for 52 and 155 (in the fifth round) and the Rams’ second next year. So in an indirect way, the Panthers finally consummated a trade with the Rams involving Burns.

The Panthers then sent 52, 142 and 155 to the Colts to move up six spots to 46 and take Brooks, whose perseverance was as impressive as his statistics for the Longhorns. Brooks sat behind Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson for two years, using the time to transform his 6-foot frame from a lean 185 pounds to a muscled 216. After becoming a starter last fall, Brooks ranked in the top five in the country in rushing before tearing his ACL and missing the final three games.


Jonathon Brooks had six 100-yard rushing games — and two others with 98 and 99 yards — last season with Texas before tearing his ACL. (Austin American-Statesman)

“When I got injured, I’d be lying if I said my mind didn’t go everywhere. I didn’t know exactly what was gonna happen instantly. But about a day or two after, my mind got right,” Brooks said. “It’s truly just a blessing for me to still be in this position with my knee.”

Canales said the Panthers researched Brooks’ health and were convinced he’s progressing at the expected pace. Brooks said he recently began running and cutting and expects to be ready for the start of training camp in July.

Once healthy, Canales has a lot in mind for him.

“Our system calls for a back that can be used in a traditional way — hand it to him. And then how can we get this player in space?” Canales said. “Being able to get him in perimeter screen, checkdowns. We’ve gotta really cool empty package where we use the backs, flex them out to get matchups. He’s a bigger back. He’s got range. There’s so much that he brings from a versatility standpoint.”

That the first running back didn’t come off the board until 46 — the second-longest wait for a back in draft history behind Bishop Sankey’s selection at 54 in 2014 — is another sign of how the position has been devalued in recent years.

But the Panthers didn’t let that influence their decision to draft Brooks, who joins Chuba Hubbard and Miles Sanders in a suddenly crowded running backs room.

“We value the running back. We value the run game. To have a guy like Jonathan Brooks there, he was a guy that we loved and identified,” Morgan said. “Listen, as long as we’re happy with who we’re picking value-wise, they’re valuable to us. Because we’re going to be running the ball. We’re going to be a physical team.”

And a team that added at least one dawg on the draft’s second night.

(Top photo: Jordan Prather / USA Today)

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