Why Baylor's draft — not the Carolina Panthers' — hints Matt Rhule will succeed in the NFL

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

For a Carolina team in the middle of a wild, whirlwind reboot, perhaps the most encouraging sign that this all may work are two NFL draft picks who won’t even play for the Panthers next season. 

Denzel Mims. James Lynch.

Mims, a wide receiver, was drafted 59th overall by the New York Jets. Lynch, a defensive tackle, went 130th to Minnesota.

They are the only two Baylor players selected in the first four rounds of the 2020 NFL draft, the same Baylor team that was an overtime loss on the final weekend of the season from reaching the College Football Playoff. That’s it. No top-five picks, no blitz of first-rounders.

Their coach at Baylor, of course, was Matt Rhule, who the Panthers hired despite no NFL head coaching experience to replace Ron Rivera and oversee a strip down and rebuild of the franchise. 

It has been accomplished via moves as bold as hiring a college guy. Cam Newton was sent away. Teddy Bridgewater was brought in. Christian McCaffrey was kept around. A bunch of low-risk offensive free agents were signed. 

New Panthers head coach Matt Rhule drafted a defense to balance the bold moves he made on offense since taking over. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Then came this weekend’s draft, where Rhule and general manager Marty Hurney focused almost solely on constructing the core of the defense — each of the Panthers’ seven picks were defenders, including three pass rushers anchored by Auburn star Derrick Brown (seventh overall) and Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos (38th).

“We want to have great strengths,” Rhule said of the focus on the defensive line. “We want to have things that people know, ‘Hey, when you play Carolina this is what you have to deal with.’ We are trying to build a great defensive line that you have to be prepared for. With the guys we have on the roster and the additions, we are trying to continue to make that strength a strength.”

It sounds good. Of course, everything sounds good in the hours after the draft.

It’s Mims and Lynch who do more than sound good. 

In a strange way, the lack of Baylor names getting called out across three days of the draft suggested that Rhule is a better pure coach than even his biggest fans thought.

The Panthers can sign and draft all the good players they want, but if Rhule is overmatched as an actual coach then this isn’t going to work. 

That’s the gamble with hiring a college guy. Once they can’t just recruit superior talent, how do they do? Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz, Dennis Erickson, Bobby Petrino and Chip Kelly, among others, didn’t last in the NFL. Even Nick Saban went back to the NCAA.

Maybe Rhule will too, but Baylor was this close to the playoffs with nowhere near the roster of other playoff teams. LSU tied Ohio State’s record with 14 total draft picks over seven rounds, including five first-rounders. The Buckeyes had 10 total picks, including three first-rounders. Clemson had three first-rounders and Oklahoma two. Even other playoff contenders such as Alabama (nine), Utah (seven) and Oregon (four) had more talent.

Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims awaits a pass, one he caught for a 30-yard TD against Oklahoma in November. (AP Photo/Ray Carlin)

No one is suggesting Baylor was going to win the national title if it got into the playoff. The Bears likely would have been blown out by LSU the way Oklahoma was. They were in the mix, though. 

Two more Baylor players were taken in the later rounds, including Carolina grabbing defensive tackle Bravvion Roy in the sixth round. The Bears also have plenty of young players who might get their name called one day, but this roster didn’t compare to the other playoff contenders. 

There is no denying that Rhule did more with less. And that has to be a source of faith for the Panthers coming out of the draft. It’s certainly more like what he’ll face on Sundays.

Rhule took over a scandal-plagued Baylor program, not a blue-blood either stocked with talent or capable of immediately reloading. He had to actually coach, and scheme, and build. He sought what he calls “positionless players” — namely versatile athletes he can plug and play all over the field. He put a premium on character. He found ways to get guys to believe in the impossible. (Baylor went 1-11 in 2017, his first season.)

Now, here in a frenzied NFL offseason, it at least looks the same. 

Bold moves such as parting ways with Newton. Success in winning the derby for Bridgewater. A priority on finding reasonably priced weapons in free agency. Add to that a draft filled not with flashy receivers, but the core building blocks of a defense. 

“We have a vision for how we want to do this moving forward,” Rhule said. 

Will it work? No one ever knows until the games are played. There is a plan, though, and that plan is being implemented, by a coach who in a rather odd way saw his reputation improve by having so few of his former players drafted last weekend.

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