In my mock draft last week, I sent Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers to the Panthers at No. 25. That decision came after three months worth of talks with sources and trips to the Senior Bowl, combine and a handful of pro days.
But Flowers being the guy at 25 is hardly a sure thing. I feel good about the pick, but not as good as I felt when I mocked Kelvin Benjamin to Carolina at No. 28 last year.
There are other options worth exploring with more than a week before the first round of the draft on April 30, and it’s not just at offensive tackle.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has done a good job this offseason in signing back key players and strengthening the team’s weaknesses in free agency. Carolina has a bevy of receivers – though still no clear No. 2 – along with upgraded offensive tackles and a better special teams unit.
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Because of this, Gettleman’s best player available mantra may be truer than previous years.
Indeed, Star Lotulelei was at the top of Carolina’s board two years ago, just like Benjamin was last year. But conveniently the Panthers needed to fill those positions, so the BPA motto worked.
BPA also comes with a caveat. If the best player available at No. 25 is a quarterback, the Panthers would pass.
Gettleman has plugged holes at tackle, but is there a long-term option there? Michael Oher struggled through injuries last year but he’s the Week 1 starter at left tackle. Jonathan Martin hasn’t done much since he was at Stanford. And Mike Remmers, as promising as he was late last year, saw his production taper off into January – though I’m certainly willing to give him more than seven games from last year to prove himself.
The top tackles in last year’s draft class were gone hours before the Panthers selected that night. But this year’s class has them throughout.
Along with Flowers, there’s Stanford’s Andrus Peat, Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi, Florida’s D.J. Humphries, Oregon’s Jake Fisher and LSU’s La’el Collins. They all come with some warning.
Flowers needs to be a better pass protector. Peat could be gone by pick No. 10. Ogbuehi is coming off a torn ACL. Humphries has never played offensive tackle while weighing more than 285 pounds. Fisher didn’t show great strength in college. And Collins may not even be a tackle in the NFL and could slide inside to guard.
“When you look at players,” Gettleman told me in January at the Senior Bowl, “one of the things you have to say to yourself is, if a guy doesn’t have all the physical qualities, what is he missing? Let’s say he doesn’t have the pretty left tackle feet. What’s going to allow him to overcome? Is he especially powerful? Is he meaner than a rattlesnake? Is he really instinctive?
“There are plenty of guys who are playing in our league at a pretty high level who aren’t classic left tackles and don’t have all the classic physical qualities. But they have something that allows them to overcome.”
If Georgia running back Todd Gurley is somehow sitting there at 25, I believe the Panthers have to jump, with Jonathan Stewart’s history with injuries. Before he tore his ACL Gurley was one of the most dynamic players in college football, and at 20 years old he should be able to bounce back from the injury. But I believe he’ll be scooped up by a team before the Panthers ever get a shot.
But that’s the only running back I see Carolina taking at 25. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, though very good, only caught 22 passes in his college career, and Cam Newton likes to find his running backs when a pass play breaks down.
Could the Panthers go for a receiver at 25? Of course they could. Look at the talent. There’s Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong, Miami’s Phillip Dorsett, Southern Cal’s Nelson Agholor and Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman all likely to be there at 25, and any of those players could be plugged into the No. 2 role beside Benjamin in Week 1.
Just like last year, this draft is deep at receiver. The Panthers could decide to spend the first round pick on a position where they can’t find that kind of talent in the second or third round like they’ll be able to at wideout.
This isn’t a good year for safeties. Alabama’s Landon Collins is the only one worth considering at 25, but there’s a good chance a safety-needy team grabs him before Carolina. Washington’s Shaq Thompson, who could play outside linebacker as well as safety, would be a slight reach at 25.
And when you look at the Panthers’ philosophy in the defensive backfield, it doesn’t boast first-round picks. Gettleman has pieced together the back end of Carolina’s defense through relatively cheap free agents and later-round draft picks.
The Panthers could look to the future at outside linebacker and get UCLA’s Eric Kendricks, but he’s the only one I see Carolina grabbing there.
And up front, after solidifying the tackles inn the 2013 draft, the Panthers still need to find Greg Hardy’s replacement at defensive end. Despite a failed drug test, I don’t see Nebraska’s Randy Gregory falling to 25. And even if he did, his failed drug test would probably keep him off Jerry Richardson’s team.
The other high-production defensive ends should be gone early – like offensive tackles last year – and someone like UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa would likely be another slight reach at 25.
I listed more cons than pros with the players I’ve mentioned here, and there are two reasons for that. These guys are first-round NFL talent, so of course they’re good. But two, their individual weaknesses go to show how difficult this process is for teams.
Along with Flowers, keep a close eye on Ogbuehi, Humphries, Gurley, Landon Collins and Kendricks for the Panthers at No. 25.
People remember when you miss on a first-round pick. So far Gettleman has hit on his first two, and he has his eye on going 3-for-3.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9