Ikem Ekwonu - Carolina Panthers OT
It took almost a decade, but the Carolina Panthers finally have a worthy successor to Jordan Gross. Someone that looks capable of manning the blindside for many years to come.
Ikem Ekwonu was the best prospect on Carolina's board during the 2022 NFL Draft. After getting the biggest stroke of luck imaginable, the Panthers took him without hesitation at No. 6 overall and provided the offensive lineman with significant responsibilities right out of the gate.
Ekwonu was the starting left tackle in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns. He got a torrid time from All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett as expected, but the former North Carolina State star recovered well to accumulate a hugely encouraging rookie campaign.
This was better than many envisaged for Ekwonu considering how rookie edge protectors can struggle until they get more experience. Building on such a promising season is the next big challenge, but it's nothing he's not more than capable of with such a quality work ethic and elite athletic intangibles.
The Panthers are counting heavily on Ekwonu making strides next season now that they have a legitimate franchise quarterback to keep out of harm's way. He is a quiet, unassuming character, but don't let the beaming smile detract from what a ruthless individual the player becomes once he crosses the gridiron.