Last year, the Carolina Panthers’ biggest draft need synced up with the player they thought was the best available when they picked 28th, and Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin came to Charlotte.
The Panthers could wind up with another wideout late in the first round this year, even though their most pressing need would seem to be offensive tackle.
At least that’s one scenario laid out by NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, who made a compelling argument for the Panthers – if they’re not interested in the available tackles – to take a speed receiver with the 25th pick to pair with the big-bodied Benjamin.
“There are going to be a couple of wide receivers sitting there. And even though they took one last year, I’d have no problem if they took another best-available type wide receiver at that point,” Mayock said Monday during a conference call with reporters.
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“They could really want a speed guy to complement Benjamin. One of the potential best availables could be a wide receiver at that particular point. I think that matches up with a need for them.”
After the Panthers cleaned house at receiver last offseason, many observers correctly predicted they would go after a wideout with the 28th pick. And while Benjamin had a terrific rookie season – 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns – the Panthers’ free-agent receivers didn’t fare as well.
Tiquan Underwood was cut before the season, and Jason Avant made it to November before he was waived. Jerricho Cotchery was a dependable possession receiver, but he caught one touchdown pass a year after scoring 10 times for Pittsburgh.
The Panthers turned to undrafted rookie Philly Brown late in the season to inject some speed. Mayock believes the Panthers would have their pick from a number of fast wideouts near the end of the first round if they don’t go after a tackle.
Mayock expects Ohio State’s Devin Smith, Miami’s Phillip Dorsett and Auburn’s Sammie Coates to run 40-yard dash times of 4.35 seconds or faster this week at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Mayock also is a fan of Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman, whose father, Brett, was an NFL receiver for 11 seasons.
Two other potential late-first round receivers do not appear to be good fits for the Panthers. Michigan’s Devin Funchess (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) could end up playing tight end in the NFL, and Dorial Green-Beckham was kicked out of Missouri for disciplinary reasons, including a domestic violence allegation.
Mayock mentioned three other positions – safety, cornerback and defensive line – the Panthers could target if they don’t believe they can find a dependable tackle late in the first round.
The Panthers drafted a pair of defensive backs last year who ended the 2014 season as starters – cornerback Bené Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston.
There is some thought Benwikere would be more effective at the nickel spot if the Panthers had another reliable corner opposite Josh Norman. And while Boston was effective after he got healthy, strong safety Roman Harper is 32 and entering the last year of his contract.
Mayock believes Alabama safety Landon Collins and Washington safety Shaq Thompson would be intriguing first-round picks for the Panthers. Mayock pointed to Florida State’s P.J. Williams and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson as corners who could be available at 25.
“And I haven’t even gotten into the defensive linemen that could be available,” Mayock said.
Mayock rattled off the names of three interior linemen – Oregon’s Arik Armstead, Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips and Florida State’s Eddie Goldman.
But if the Panthers chose not to re-sign Greg Hardy, finding an edge rusher would seem to be a higher priority than a defensive tackle, particularly given general manager Dave Gettleman’s affinity for pass rushers.
Mayock believes the offensive tackle group is solid. But many draft experts question whether teams can find long-term solutions at tackle late in the first round.
There were five tackles taken among the first 19 picks last year, including three in the first 11 selections.
The Panthers did not address the tackle position in the draft or free agency last year after the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross. Even after an inconsistent season and pending free agency for Gross’ replacement, Byron Bell, Mayock sees no reason for the Panthers to reach at 25.
“There’s some good football players down there,” he said. “I think they’re going to be fine even if there’s not a tackle they like available.”
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