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Next Steve Smith for Carolina Panthers? Could be Brandin Cooks

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. called diminutive, but explosive Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks the next Steve Smith, and believes the Carolina Panthers will take Cooks with the 28th pick in the draft.

Besides looking for a successor to Smith, 34, the Panthers also need to find the next Jordan Gross, the 33-year-old left tackle whose future remains up in the air.

The good news for the Panthers: Kiper said there is quality depth at receiver and offensive tackle if the Panthers choose to address either position late in the first round or later in the draft.

Kiper conducted his first media teleconference Thursday – more than three months before the May 8-10 draft, which was pushed from April to May because of a scheduling conflict at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Kiper is high on Cooks, who left Oregon State with a year of eligibility remaining after winning the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation’s top receiver. Cooks set a PAC-12 single-season record with 128 catches last season. His 1,730 receiving yards also set a PAC-12 record and were the most in the NCAA.

Cooks is listed at 5-10 and 186 pounds, although his official height might be an inch or so shorter when he’s measured at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis this month. Cooks’ speed and acceleration after the catch could make him a dangerous slot receiver in the NFL.

“I think Brandin Cooks is going to end up somewhere in Round 1,” Kiper said. “He doesn’t have tremendous size. But he’s a heck of a football player.”

The Panthers were among the NFL’s least explosive offenses in 2013. They had 23 pass plays of at least 25 yards, more than only Atlanta (22) and Tampa Bay (20).

Smith saw his yards-per-catch average drop nearly 5 yards from 2012, and he turns 35 in May. The Panthers’ other top three wideouts – Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon – all are free agents.

Kiper pointed to Oregon’s Josh Huff and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews as two receivers who improved their draft status with strong showings during the Senior Bowl practices. Kiper thinks Matthews could be available in the second round, and sees Huff as a third- or fourth-rounder.

With an influx of talented junior receivers, Kiper believes there will be value in the middle rounds.

“I think the receiving depth this year, because of the juniors, will take you into the third or fourth round,” Kiper said.

Penn State junior Allen Robinson is projected as a late first-, early-second-rounder. But Kiper mentioned several other juniors who could pay dividends in later rounds, including Colorado’s Paul Richardson, Indiana’s Cody Latimer and a pair of wideouts from the Carolinas – South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington and Clemson’s Martavis Bryant.

Kiper referred to the 6-4, 200-pound Bryant as “the other receiver at Clemson.” Bryant caught 42 passes for 828 yards and seven touchdowns last season playing alongside Sammy Watkins, Kiper’s top-ranked receiver.

Besides receiver, the Panthers also have a clear need at tackle.

Gross’ contract automatically voids Friday, making him a free agent. Gross has said he would only play for the Panthers, but is considering retirement.

If Gross decides to step down, the Panthers could move right tackle Byron Bell to the left side, draft a tackle, sign a couple of free agent tackles or some combination of all three.

Kiper believes six tackles will go in the first round, including three among the top 9-11 picks – Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan.

Kiper said Virginia’s Morgan Moses (6-6, 325 pounds) and Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson (6-6, 327) – both of whom could move from left to right tackle in the NFL – could be Panthers targets at No. 28.

“Whether it’s Moses, whether it’s Richardson, you have certainly players in the mix,” Kiper said. “Or you could wait until the second round and look at a right tackle like Jack Mewhort from Ohio State, who’s a prospect that figures to go at that point.”

Another intriguing right tackle prospect is Ja’Wuan James, the 6-6, 315-pounder who played opposite Richardson at Tennessee.

“Right tackle is as critical now in the whole process – it’s not as critical as left tackle – but it’s awful close,” Kiper said. “Because you’re throwing the football so, so much in the NFL.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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