Carolina Panthers

Reading Dave Gettleman’s mind: We project Panthers’ round-by-round NFL draft picks

Stanford wide receiver Francis Owusu is not well-known, but he ran back-to-back 40s in the 4.4s with Panthers coach Ron Rivera watching this week.
Stanford wide receiver Francis Owusu is not well-known, but he ran back-to-back 40s in the 4.4s with Panthers coach Ron Rivera watching this week. AP

With the 2017 NFL draft steadily approaching and an arsenal of mock-draft rebuttals under my belt, I’m ready to stop talking the “Mock Talk” and start walking the mock walk. Say that five times fast.

Unlike many mocks, this particular set of picks will not select players for each team, round by round. More power to the people who are able to conceptualize that, but for me, creating a full team-by-team mock draft would feel similar to log-rolling down a hill of Legos.

Instead, I offer my first projections for each Carolina Panthers pick in the draft, plus a closer look as to why that pick (or trade) could be made, plus a “mock monologue” of what Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman might be thinking as he makes these decisions.

So here we go, Panthers picks, Version 1.0:

Round 1, Pick 8

O.J. Howard, tight end, Alabama.

I grow more committed to this pick as the days pass.

Many draft analysts project Howard as a top-10 pick, and I agree. I also think the idea of Howard, a fast, strong pass-catcher with the uncanny ability to create space against tight coverage, lining up opposite of Greg Olsen in a two-tight-end set would send a shiver through the NFC South.

Howard not only is a formidable presence as a receiver but also can really block in pass protection if needed. Quarterback Cam Newton certainly needs all the help he can get in that department, and weaponizing the offense is probably the biggest item left on the Panthers’ to-do list after some offensive line tasks were tidied up in free agency.

Gettleman’s inner monologue: “It’s very possible that Leonard Fournette, another sure top-10 pick, gets selected before the we pick at No. 8. We need explosive offensive playmakers, and Fournette has been projected often to go at No. 8. But while there are many backs that are similar to Fournette in this year’s draft, there are few all-around complete offensive packages like Howard. This is the ‘best player available’ mentality correlating with ‘most needed’ and ‘best fit.’ Ah, cohesion.”

Round 2, Pick 40

TRADE up to No. 27 with Kansas City with this pick and Carolina’s compensatory pick (No. 98).

With the 27th pick, the Panthers get their hog mollie edge rusher, Michigan’s Taco Charlton.

Charlton is projected by almost every major analyst as a first-round edge rusher, and at 6-foot-6 and 277 pounds with 34 1/4-inch arms, flexibility and explosiveness, he’s the perfect size to develop into a starting role as an NFL defensive end – worth a first-round pick, but not a Top-10.

Gettleman’s inner monologue: “We want an edge rusher who can not only be impactful immediately, but who can also rotate in with veterans Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers as well as situational rusher Mario Addison. Adding Charlton to the room gives a rookie spark of impressive athleticism, but without putting all the pressure on him. Plus, getting to adjust to the NFL under Peppers and Johnson? Taco-bout a great situation.

“We also knew we could throw in the compensatory pick as an option to Kansas City, which has a recent history of trading down. Because our defense is almost completely set, we felt good about adding the final key piece with this trade – especially by using that extra pick.”

Round 2, Pick 64 (from New England)

Samaje Perine, running back, Oklahoma.

Perine is a great option for the Panthers stylistically: Essentially a younger, fresher copy of Jonathan Stewart, with a softer set of hands. He has great potential and has operated under the “running back by committee” mentality with co-back Joe Mixon. This pick makes even more sense now that Carolina has extended Stewart’s contract through 2018 – they can afford to draft a back in later rounds, especially one who works well in a pair.

Gettleman’s inner monologue: “I need another Fournette-style back to take the pressure to pound the ball between the tackles away from my quarterback. I need a prolific runner who can tag-team with Jonathan Stewart, and who has a high enough ceiling to possibly take over the lead role when Stewart’s contract is up.”

Round 3, Pick 98

Compensatory pick. Traded to Kansas City along with No. 40 overall for No. 27 overall pick.

Round 4, Pick 115

Ardarius Stewart, wide receiver, Alabama.

Here is the versatile receiver Carolina is looking for, at a bargain price. At Alabama, Stewart was used in just about every spot on the field – yes, in the slot, too, and well. If he progresses well in the NFL, he could even take the place of Devin Funchess at some point in the next year or so.

Gettleman’s inner monologue: “I can’t waste my time this draft with big-and-tall, jump-up-and-grab-it guys like Kelvin Benjamin and Funchess, who I am giving at least another year to prove themselves. So I need guys who are fast, and can separate and create a big window for Newton – especially in the slot. I also jumped early on Howard, so I needed to spend the other needs other than receiver.”

Round 5, Pick 152

Corn Elder, defensive back, Miami.

Realistically, Elder is talented enough to be taken earlier – but he’s small for his position, and his arms are short. That will throw many teams off the scent. However, his spatial awareness in coverage and tenacity shown while playing multiple defensive positions at Miami are very appealing for a team looking to shore up its secondary. Elder would be a backup for the Panthers, but wouldn’t stay that way for long, I’d guess.

Gettleman’s inner monologue: “It’s tempting to pick up a project offensive lineman here – but ‘project’ is the key word. There is no use reaching on a tackle in earlier rounds, when other hugely impactful players are available, and by this time I would rather use a pick on a guy who can back up just about any spot in the secondary. Plus, I can’t believe this guy hasn’t been scooped up yet!”

Round 6, Pick 192

Zane Gonzalez, kicker, Arizona State.

Coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers would bring in some competition for kicker Graham Gano this year, after eight missed field goals. The team also lost six games by three points or fewer in 2016.

Gonzalez doesn’t miss.

Well, it’s rare. He was 8 of 9 on field goals of 50-plus yards last season (with a 59-yard long), and made 92 percent of his total field-goal attempts on his way to win the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker.

Gettleman’s Inner Monologue: “Let’s see us lose a close one this year, huh?”

Round 7, Pick 233 (from Indianapolis through Cleveland)

Francis Owusu, receiver, Stanford.

Owusu is hardly on any public radar, and is probably best known for making an insane touchdown catch around the back of a UCLA defender in 2015.

What people don’t know about him, Rivera saw in person this week while at Stanford’s pro day: At 6-3 and 221 pounds, Owusu ran back-to-back sub-4.4-second 40-yard dashes and posted a vertical of 40 1/2 inches, according to NFL reporter Jason Cole. Those are freakish numbers, and definitely worth testing out against NFL defensive backs – and worth a draft pick, too.

Gettleman’s inner monologue: “Owusu won’t be O-who?-su for long. He rounds out an offensive playmaker-heavy draft for us after we spent free agency shoring up the offensive line and solidifying our defense.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

The Carolina Panthers are not going away and will get the things that went wrong in the 2016 season corrected, Dave Gettleman said.