The Carolina Panthers were the worst team in the league in 2023, but they will not pick first in the 2024 NFL Draft. That’s because they traded that pick away to the Chicago Bears last season for the honor of drafting Bryce Young No. 1 overall. That means the only way to improve this offseason through the draft is by hitting on sneaky good picks like Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey or Kansas edge rusher Austin Booker.

New Panthers head coach Dave Canales and general manager Dan Morgan could take pretty much any position in the draft outside of quarterback, and it would be a possible upgrade over the player they have there. However, a go-to WR and an edge rusher opposite (or to replace) Brian Burns are two of the top priorities in 2024.

With those two positions as the top needs, Carolina could spend its No. 33 pick (the first of Round 2) and No. 65 on these spots. That said, No. 33 is the most tradeable pick of every NFL draft.

Team executives stew on the first round and have 20 hours or so to look at their draft boards and stare at the prospects they want who are still on the board. With just six picks in this year’s draft, the Panthers should deal this pick and grab at least another Day 2 and two Day 3 selections for their trouble.

If that’s what happens, here are the two sneaky good players the Panthers must take in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Ladd McConkey, WR, Georgia

Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver Ladd McConkey (84) makes a catch and runs for touchdown against the Florida State Seminoles during the first half in the 2023 Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium.
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest tactical error the Panthers may have made last offseason may not have been mortgaging the future to go up and pick Bryce Young No. 1 overall. It may have been including star wide receiver DJ Moore in the deal.

Moore helped Justin Fields improve this season with an excellent 96-catch, 1,364-yard, eight-touchdown season for the Bears. Back in Carolina, Young was left with Adam Thielen, DJ Chark, Jonathan Mingo, and Terrace Marshall Jr.

Together, Thielen and Chark barely combined to surpass Moore’s receiving yardage this season. That’s why Young desperately needs a promising young WR in this NFL draft. With no first-round pick, the Panthers won’t get one of the big names to help their young QB out, but there will be some intriguing names on the board when the team finally picks at No. 33 or beyond.

Turning 34 in August, Thielen is in the last days of his NFL career. However, his success this season should show the Panthers that Young is most comfortable throwing to a sure-handed precise route-runner like the former Minnesota Vikings pass-catcher.

In the 2024 NFL Draft, there is a player like that who will be available in the second round in Georgia wideout Ladd McConkey. The 5-foot-11, 186-pound pass-catcher looks like a traditional slot receiver, but he has the speed and route-running to be an all-around WR for whichever team drafts him.

While he doesn’t have the 6-foot-2 frame that Thielen does, McConkey has a lot of the same skills, and he can become Young’s safety blanket — as Thielen was this season — for years to come.

Austin Booker, EDGE, Kansas

The Panthers need help on defense, too, and the best way to build a winning D is by beefing up the pass rush. Brian Burns is a great player, but the Panthers have mismanaged his contract situation from the beginning, and it seems like he’ll walk in free agency this offseason.

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Either way, Carolina needs to add pass rushers, and Kansas EDGE Austin Booker is a boom-or-bust prospect who could change his NFL team’s fortunes.

Booker is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, and when he’s on the field rushing the passer, he looks like a potential double-digit sack guy at the next level with his athleticism and pass-rush moves. However, he’s not on the field all that much, which is a little strange at Kansas and Minnesota before that.

The Indiana native only played 505 career snaps, per NFL.com, in three collegiate seasons, so he is incredibly inexperienced. However, he should be a combine wonder, so his draft stock may improve dramatically soon.

This is a big potential pick here for the Panthers, which is what they have to do. They have the time, both in terms of time until good and playing time to give Booker that he needs, which is why he would be an ideal fit for the team.

And if he becomes the player he looks like he could become (NFL scouts see Maxx Crosby-like potential), then this will be an incredible steal somewhere on Day 2 of the 2024 NFL Draft.