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Panthers’ draftees must grow up fast

The third day of the Carolina Panthers’ draft was filled with players whose names won’t jump out of headlines. But those three guys – and, more especially, the three guys the Panthers drafted on the first two days – better make waves quickly.

Because the Panthers look a little vulnerable to me.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera guided Carolina to a 12-4 regular-season record last season, winning the NFC South championship and getting Carolina to the playoffs for the first time in five years.

I asked Rivera Saturday after the draft concluded if he thought the Panthers were better today than they were in January, when San Francisco blitzed Carolina, 23-10, in the playoffs and ended what had otherwise been a dream season.

“I think we can be better than we were,” Rivera said.

Certainly, that’s what Rivera should say. I’m sure he believes it.

But right now, I don’t see it.

To me, what the Panthers have lost in the offseason – Jordan Gross, Steve Smith, Captain Munnerlyn, Ted Ginn and Mike Mitchell – still outweighs what they have gained.

Maybe I’m completely off. It would be fun to be wrong and to watch the Panthers win 13 or more games this season. That’s a huge number of wins in the NFL, and 13-plus would mean Carolina was going deep in the playoffs.

For that to happen, though, the Panthers are going to have to find a couple of immediate standouts among this draft class.

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin won’t be afforded a whole lot of time to make an impact. The No.1 pick must be good from Day One. And Trai Turner better be a starter right away at right guard.

But it’s not just that. The Panthers’ secondary and offensive line, on paper, look very problematic. Byron Bell is your starting left tackle? Really? It sure looks like it after the Panthers didn’t take an offensive tackle among their six picks in the 2014 draft.

Whether general manager Dave Gettleman was making picks from Charlotte or from Massachusetts – he made his final three picks from Worcester, Mass., Saturday so he could go to his son’s graduation, and I applaud him for doing that – he still didn’t see any tackles he liked.

Carolina has thoroughly reshuffled its secondary, with Charles Godfrey trying to keep a job by moving from safety to nickel cornerback and new-to-Carolina veterans like Antoine Cason, Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud all possible starters.

The Panthers’ offensive line will count heavily on Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil getting a whole lot of young guys into the right spots, or else Cam Newton is going to be running away from pressure all year.

I am not as worried about wide receiver as I once was. Benjamin has serious potential and looks like he could be another Muhsin Muhammad to me, if he solves that occasional case of the drops that he had in college. The Panthers now have a speed receiver (Tiquan Underwood) and some crafty receivers (Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant) who can help immediately. Benjamin will have no shortage of tutelage.

The biggest positives: The Panthers have a franchise quarterback in Newton and the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Luke Kuechly to build around. Those two will both need to be great once more in 2014. With Rivera, I believe they have one of the league’s top-10 head coaches.

The Panthers’ pass rush, which led the NFL with 60 sacks in 2013, will need to be even more explosive to protect yet another pieced-together secondary.

It’s certainly possible for Carolina to win 13 or more games in 2014, but I don’t think it’s probable at the moment.

With Newton and Kuechly, the Panthers have enough to have another winning season. And that’s no small thing, since they have never had back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. But I’m not sure how far they can go beyond that.

That secondary? That offensive line? It all feels a little too fragile. One major injury or one early misstep and the house of cards could start tumbling.

“Status quo is not good enough,” Rivera said Saturday. “We’re not going to stand around and be just as good. We want to be better.”

OK, here’s your chance, coach. Ultimately, I don’t think you will be better in 2014. Not with this roster.

Prove me wrong.

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