In the best of all possible worlds, the Carolina Panthers just drafted themselves another Steve Smith and Josh Norman in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL draft.
More than likely, Maryland wide receiver D.J. Moore and LSU cornerback Donte Jackson won’t rise to those heights. But it’s hard to argue with the idea of Moore and Jackson as the Panthers’ first two selections, and I’m not going to try.
In fact, I believe both men represent exactly the right sort of risk, as the Panthers try to find unique playmakers in the NFC South — where you better be able to pass the ball and stop the pass to win.
Jackson is a speedster — he tied for the fastest 40 time at the Indianapolis scouting combine this year in 4.32 seconds — and also a talker.
“I want to be doing this for a long time,” he said Friday night. “I want to be a Hall of Famer.”
A Hall of Famer, huh? There’s nothing wrong with setting the bar high, which was exactly what Smith himself did on NFL Network Thursday night seconds after the Panthers announced they were picking Moore.
“They have never been able to replace me — until today,” Smith proclaimed of the Panthers.
Jackson thought he should have joined Moore as a first-round pick. Instead, he lasted until the No. 55 overall selection. How big was the chip on his shoulder after that?
“The size of this hotel I’m in,” said Jackson, who was speaking from New Orleans at a draft party at the time.
Jackson will be tried at both nickel corner and on the outside, where Carolina actually needs him worse due to recently trading starter Daryl Worley.
The Panthers drafted yet another defensive back in the third round, taking Tennessee's Rashaan Gaulden at No. 85 overall. While the Volunteers used Gaulden primarily as a nickel corner, Carolina will look at him as a safety first and will also allow him to compete for a starting role. (The Panthers then traded away their other third-round pick, picking up a fourth- and fifth-rounder in the process to close the NFL draft's second night).
Jackson said he “most definitely” sees himself as a starter in Week 1. Moore said the same thing — although he wasn’t quite as emphatic about it.
“If I put the work in and get it all down pat — yes, I do,” Moore said of the idea of him being a Week 1 starter in Carolina’s season opener against Dallas Sept. 9 at Bank of America Stadium.
Fast and sudden
What I particularly like about the pick of Moore at 24 is the different skill set he brings to the table. Last year’s original starters at wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, were near clones of one another. They were big receivers with a big catch radius but not a lot of breakaway speed. Benjamin got traded in part because he and Funchess duplicated each other.
Moore is smaller (6-0, 210 pounds) but should be better in the critical “yards after catch” category. He’s probably not the absolute burner that Curtis Samuel or Damiere Byrd is. But he can run and at Maryland he was extremely durable and productive, catching passes from eight different quarterbacks in his career.
“He’s fast,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. “He’s sudden.”
Can Moore beat press coverage against some of the NFL’s bigger corners? That will be an early question for him, and one he will have to answer over and over.
Teams were largely afraid to press Smith during his college career because he was strong enough to fight through the early bump and then fast enough to burn them deep. Moore — who runs a 4.42 in the 40 — will need to exhibit similar talents against better cornerbacks.
The Panthers are making over their receiving corps on the fly, trying to give Cam Newton another shot at the greatness he showed as the NFL Most Valuable Player in 2015. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner now gets to incorporate both Christian McCaffrey and Moore into his scheme, as well as free-agent receivers Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright and a number of other veterans.
Will iron sharpen iron?
As for Jackson, his speed is elite enough that he was also a track star at LSU — and the SEC is known for producing numerous Olympians.
“I think my speed is unique — it’s different,” Jackson said. “I can get out of bed every day and I can run fast. Not a lot of guys can honestly say that.”
Jackson’s hands, on the other hand, don’t always do him a lot of favors. He had only four interceptions in his three-year career at LSU. In his draft prospect scouting report on the NFL’s official website, the writer called Jackson’s hands “janky and unreliable.”
But Jackson will be able to run alongside — and catch up with, when necessary — most of the best receivers in the NFC South. At 5-11 and 175 pounds, he’s going to be tested in run support frequently if he does play on the outside (general Marty Hurney said it was Jackson's size that made him last until the 55th pick).
The Panthers already have a solid nickel cornerback in Captain Munnerlyn, though, so it’s not clear exactly where Jackson will fit in. The same goes for Gaulden, whose immediate value could be on special teams and who also has some of Jackson's swagger.
"I think I'm going to establish myself as a great player," Gaulden said late Friday night.
You can bet the Panthers will play Jackson, though, and Moore as well. They try hard to get their top picks on the field — something you have to do in today’s NFL, when your top draftees are relative bargains and need to contribute quickly before their price goes up.
Smith certainly believes Moore can do that, and as we all know he’s not always effusive about everyone. Smith labeled Moore his “spirit animal” and said: “He’s elusive. He’ll run through you, he’ll run around you and he’ll run away from you.”
Jackson will get a sampling of all that in Spartanburg, where the Panthers training camp will benefit from the teams' first-, second- and third-round draft picks competing against one another all summer.
I remember offensive tackle Jordan Gross (first round, 2003) talking about how defensive end Julius Peppers (first round, 2002) made him better every year in training camp.
If the Panthers do it right, that’s what will happen to Moore, Jackson and Gaulden, too, for years to come. Iron will sharpen iron. And in the ideal world, the Panthers will reap the benefits of being a faster, better team thanks to two nights in April 2018.