DJ Moore, Donte Jackson give Panthers above-average draft class

Rookie wide receiver DJ Moore caught 55 passes on 82 targets for 788 yards in 16 games played this season. Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports

When your first-round NFL draft pick plays your No. 1 wide receiver out of a job and the second-round pick becomes a starter on Day 1, you have to deem the class a success.

That's what former Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore and cornerback Donte Jackson did for the Carolina Panthers. Here's a look at the Panthers' entire 2018 draft class:

Grade: Above average

Best rookie: Jackson would have won this award in a landslide had it been selected at midseason. The second-round pick out of LSU had a team-leading four interceptions and was a big reason the Panthers started out 6-2, but rookie mistakes during the season's second half contributed to a seven-game losing streak. During this time, Moore's reps and contributions increased to the point No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess became inconsequential (and is now highly unlikely to be re-signed). Moore had 36 of his 55 receptions over the final eight games and clearly established himself as the top receiver. For the season, he played 69.28 percent of the snaps, 89.5 percent over the final eight games. Funchess played 18.8 percent of the snaps over the final five games, and he was a healthy scratch for the regular-season finale.

Most improved rookie: Easy choice here. Fourth-round pick Ian Thomas. The former Indiana tight end played 82.6 percent of the snaps over the final give games after Pro Bowler Greg Olsen was placed on injured reserve. He showed the smooth route-running and catching traits that caught eyes during training camp, particularly in a Dec. 9 loss at Cleveland when he caught 9 of 11 targets for 77 yards. Thomas had 25 of his 36 catches over the final five games to establish himself as a potential long-term replacement for Olsen.

Jury is still out on ...: Safety Rashaan Gaulden. The third-round pick out of Tennessee clearly is a player the Panthers need to develop for the future with strong safety Mike Adams, 37, and free safety Eric Reid set to become unrestricted free agents. It's unlikely Adams will return because of his age, and, as much as the Panthers would like to re-sign Reid, the price could be too high. Gaulden is a big hitter with potential once he cuts out the rookie mistakes. He and Reid would make a nice combination to start the 2019 season.

Undrafted rookie evaluation: There wasn't much to talk about here until the last game, when quarterback Kyle Allen got his first start with Cam Newton sidelined with a shoulder injury. The former Texas A&M and University of Houston player was on and off the practice squad for much of the season. He was promoted to the 53-man roster Dec. 23 to back up Taylor Heinicke, who got his first NFL start when Newton was shut down. Allen became the starter for the finale at New Orleans after Heinicke suffered a season-ending elbow injury. He had two passing touchdowns and one rushing TD to help Carolina end its losing streak and put himself in the mix to be Newton's backup in 2019.