Carolina Panthers

Mock Talk: Free agency shifts Panthers projections, but not to potential ‘perfect fit’

New Panthers WR Charles Johnson on Panthers DE Charles Johnson

New Carolina Panthers wide receiver Charles Johnson talks about his teammate, defensive end Charles Johnson.
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New Carolina Panthers wide receiver Charles Johnson talks about his teammate, defensive end Charles Johnson.

We’re really cookin’ now, folks. The Carolina Panthers’ moves in free agency have provided some some clarity for the draft.

For example, losing Ted Ginn Jr. to a three-year deal with New Orleans means the Panthers need speed, like, yesterday.

Speedy Charles Johnson (the receiver) from Minnesota, signed by Carolina last week, won’t quite cut it the way Ginn did as the Panthers’ No. 2 target. Neither will special teams gunner and up-and-coming receiver Russell Shepard. Instead, a receiver – and specifically, a fast one who can win at the line – is key for Carolina, which will likely want a player who can operate both inside and out on the route tree.

And continuing to check off to-do items on the defensive line (re-signing Charles Johnson, Mario Addison and Kyle Love, signing Julius Peppers and trading Kony Ealy) opened up some flexibility in regards to when the Panthers draft a defensive end.

After seven years away from the Carolina Panthers, Peppers is returning home.

So when analysts made their latest mocks, some new names popped up at No. 8.

What Steve Palazzolo (lead analyst, Pro Football Focus) thinks: Mike Williams, wide receiver, Clemson.

“The Panthers love to surround QB Cam Newton with big-bodied receivers, and Williams adds another weapon to the mix,” Palazzolo wrote in his Mock Draft 5.0 this week. “He can win in the possession game, where he uses his 6-foot-3 frame to win on slants and posts, but he also has the body control to make contested downfield catches to bring a big-play element to the offense, as well.”

What I think: Almost, but maybe not quite. See, the Panthers still think they have two downfield threats in big-bodied Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, and despite the fact that both saw their production dip in 2016, the team will try at least one more year with both on the outside. What they need now is someone with a different skill set, and Williams is too similar. The Panthers should draft a player who makes devastating cuts, is a technician on the line of scrimmage and a versatile inside-out threat who could return kicks if needed. That player exists in this draft.

Same position, alternate pick: Corey Davis, wide receiver, Western Michigan.

Versatile and meticulous on his routes with size and a pair of very reliable hands, Davis’ draft stock has done nothing but rise (notably, in his latest mock draft, NBC Sports/Rotoworld analyst Josh Norris also believes the Panthers should pick Davis at No. 8).

I’d also argue that tight end O.J. Howard could be selected here, because he is a tremendous talent who fits all of the roles the Panthers need in a pass-catcher – even on inside routes – and can block. While skeptics and traditionalists think about linemen at No. 8, or even running back Leonard Fournette, no player fills the amount of Panthers’ immediate needs – and matches it with absolute next-level skill – the way Howard does.

With the added assumption that Fournette may not be around by No. 8, Howard is a perfect fit.

What Brent Sobleski (Bleacher Report) thinks: Marlon Humphrey, cornerback, Alabama.

“For the Carolina Panthers, the team needs to continue its secondary overhaul this offseason after augmenting the team’s defensive front in free agency,” Sobleski writes in his latest mock draft.

“Humphrey is an ideal fit for the Panthers’ defensive scheme. The Alabama product excels in zone coverage, where he can be aggressive with the ball in front of him. Carolina relies heavily on a zone scheme behind its talented defensive linemen and linebackers. Humphrey’s potential fit can fill the void left by Josh Norman.”

What I think: (Unprintable exclamation.)

OK, I joke a lot about the headache I get when I see the Panthers are projected to draft a corner at No. 8, but I understand where it comes from. “Best player available” is a Dave Gettleman tagline, and this draft class is loaded with talented corners.

But the way I see it, there’s a better shot of Panthers coach (and Cal grad) Ron Rivera wearing a Stanford T-shirt for a week straight than the Panthers drafting a corner at No. 8, “best-player-available” mentality be damned. Oh, and filling the void left by Josh Norman didn’t prove to be that tall of a task (as talented as Norman is), once rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley were actually healthy. (Bradberry had a turf toe injury and Worley had two concussions.)

And the Panthers will probably draft a corner. But even last year, when they desperately needed one (or two), they still didn’t pick up Bradberry until the second round (after a defensive tackle). With a class this deep, Carolina can wait, and absolutely cannot afford to waste the No. 8 pick on a corner when so much work is needed on the offensive side.

In fact, the Panthers took even further steps in free agency that point to their top pick being an offensive player, with the additions of Mike Adams at safety and Captain Munnerlyn at nickel corner. Heck, they could even draft a pass-rusher before they pick up another corner, as SBNation’s mock draft suggests with the selection of Stanford’s Solomon Thomas.

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Same position, alternate pick: I like the idea of young nickel corners learning from Munnerlyn, especially if they are versatile. So, I will double down on my pick (and again, not at No. 8) from previous weeks, Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie.

Switching gears to a later-round safety, I also really like the 4.4-forty speed and spatial awareness of Washington’s Budda Baker and while he’s a little undersized, that kind of quickness in the secondary can be dangerous.

But seriously, folks. Not at No. 8. Please.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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