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Carolina Panthers’ best, worst NFL drafts

The secret to success in the NFL is really no secret at all. The teams with the best players usually win. And the league is structured in such a way that many of those players must come through the NFL draft and produce early while they are still at their most cost-effective.

So you must draft well. New Panther general manager Dave Gettleman knows this, just like former GM Marty Hurney did. As Gettleman said in his first press conference as a Panther: “You have to build through the draft… You’ve got to raise your own.”

As the Panthers prepare for the 19th draft in team history, it is worth looking back at the team’s first 18 tries at raising their own crops of young players. There have been a couple of bumper crops and far more mediocre ones – Hurney was well-known for making fine selections with his first-round picks and falling off dramatically from there.

As Gettleman prepares for his first draft as the Panther GM, here are thumbnail sketches of the five best and five worst drafts in Panther history.

THE FIVE BEST

1. 2001 -- Notable players: LB Dan Morgan, DT Kris Jenkins, WR Steve Smith, QB Chris Weinke. Smith is the best and most electric player in team history. Jenkins and Morgan were both Pro Bowlers as well while in their prime. Smith, Jenkins and Morgan all contributed in a major way to the Panthers’ Super Bowl run of 2003. This draft turned out to be George Seifert’s going-away present to the Panthers, and in No.89’s case it truly was the gift that has kept on giving.

2. 2002 -- Notable players: DE Julius Peppers, RB DeShaun Foster, LB Will Witherspoon, CB Dante Wesley. Not only was Peppers a beast right from the beginning and a possible future hall of famer, but the next three players in the draft also made big contributions for several years. This was Hurney’s first draft as the Panthers’ GM and, in retrospect, his best.

3. 2007 – Notable players: LB Jon Beason, C Ryan Kalil, DE Charles Johnson, WR Dwayne Jarrett. Kalil and Beason have both made multiple Pro Bowls, although each suffered a major injury in 2012. Johnson took a few years to develop but has worked his way up to become one of the NFL’s top 10-15 pass rushers. Jarrett (a second-rounder) was a huge bust who finished his Panther career with more DWI arrests (two) than touchdowns (one). He downgrades this otherwise stellar effort that helped Carolina earn its most recent playoff berth following the 2008 season.

4. 2006 – Notable players: RB DeAngelo Williams, CB Richard Marshall, LB James Anderson, TE Jeff King. Williams is the Panthers’ all-time leading rusher in numerous categories. Anderson and King both were solid starters and Marshall was a decent cornerback. This draft also helped shape the 2008 playoff run, with Williams as its crown jewel.

5. 2011 – Notable players: QB Cam Newton, DTs Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, WR Kealoha Pilares. Why rank the draft where the Panthers acquired their franchise quarterback as only their fifth-best overall? Because other than Newton, you can’t name another significant player that came from it. But because of the importance of his position, Newton alone carries this class into the top five.

Honorable mention: The 2012 draft class shows promise, given Luke Kuechly’s emergence as a star at middle linebacker and rookie contributions from OG Amini Silatolu, DE Frank Alexander and CB Josh Norman. It’s just too early to evaluate the class fully.

THE FIVE WORST

1998 – Notable players: DE Jason Peter, DE Chuck Wiley, DT Mitch Marrow, WR Donald Hayes. Peter was an undersized first-round bust at defensive end at No.14 overall – the same first-round pick that the Panthers hold for 2013. He also had embarrassing off-field issues. Wiley, a defensive end, once managed to start an entire season at Carolina without recording a single sack, which is difficult to do. Marrow was a third-round bust. Fourth-round wide receiver Donald Hayes had a few highlights. This awful draft, shepherded by Dom Capers, helped usher the Panthers’ first coach out the door.

1997 – Notable players: WR Rae Carruth, S Mike Minter, TE Kris Mangum. Carruth was quite simply the worst person to ever put on a Panther uniform -- and given his personal history the one pick the franchise most wishes it could take back. He was convicted in 2001 of conspiring to murder Cherica Adams, who was pregnant with his unborn son. He is still in jail, serving a sentence of nearly 19 years. As the first-round pick of this draft, Carruth brings the class way down by himself. Minter was a fine starter for a decade and Mangum a decent tight end. Misfires like Kinnon Tatum, Tarek Saleh and Matt Finkes were also costly.

2009 – Notable players: DE Everette Brown, S Sherrod Martin, DT Corvey Irvin, CB Captain Munnerlyn. Brown (2nd) and Irvin (3rd) were major busts. Martin and Munnerlyn have been decent defensive backfield starters. The Panthers didn’t have a first-round pick this year. Brown was a costly mistake.

2000 – Notable players: DB Rashard Anderson, S Deon Grant, OL Leander Jordan and DL Alvin McKinley. You probably don’t remember any of these guys but Grant, who was a good player at No.57 overall. The rest of the draft pretty much washed out, which helped lead to the 1-15 season of 2001.

2005 – Notable players: LB Thomas Davis, RB Eric Shelton, OG Evan Mathis, OL Geoff Hangartner. Davis was a gem and Hangartner is solid, but the Panthers got hardly anything else out of a draft in which they had four picks in the first 89 selections. Shelton, a second-round pick, was such a bad pick that Carolina was forced to use two No.1 picks in the next three years on running backs.

Dishonorable mention: 1995. When you at one point hold the No.1 overall pick and “double draft picks” because of your status as an NFL expansion team, how do you end up with QB Kerry Collins, CB Tyrone Poole and OT Blake Brockermeyer as the “best” of this very mediocre class selected by Bill Polian? Collins would later lead the New York Giants to the Super Bowl, but his self-induced flameout in 1998 in Charlotte was a remarkably early exit for a quarterback who was supposed to direct the franchise for a decade.

Some fans would argue that the 2010 draft (Jimmy Clausen and Armanti Edwards) was worse than this one, but it did at least produce DE Greg Hardy and WR Brandon LaFell, who both have bright futures.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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