Even before the Carolina Panthers pulled the franchise tag from Josh Norman, they needed a cornerback.
Bené Benwikere, their top remaining cornerback, is shifting from nickel to the outside and has progressed only as far as running on an underwater treadmill in his rehab from a broken leg.
“I know he’s running pretty good in the tub right now,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last week.
We have stayed very, very true to our board.
Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman
The Panthers seem to be set at nickel after signing free agent Brandon Boykin. But their only other returning corners are a practice squad player (Lou Young), a special teams ace (Teddy Williams) and Robert McClain, who started Super Bowl 50 after being signed off the street last December following a rash of injuries.
There’s no mistaking it: Corner is the Panthers’ biggest position of need in the draft, which begins with Thursday night’s first round.
But will general manager Dave Gettleman take one with the Panthers pick at No. 30?
Gettleman – like every other GM – preaches the value of taking the best player available. But NFL scouts, GMs and player personnel directors tailor their boards to their needs.
When Gettleman was hired in 2013, he inherited a roster that was lacking impactful defensive tackles after Sione Fua and Terrell McClain flamed out. He drafted defensive tackles in the first two rounds in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
The following year the Panthers needed to replace their entire receiving corps after Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon all departed. Gettleman drafted Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick in the first round.
Last year, Gettleman didn’t use his first-round pick on a true need position, taking linebacker Shaq Thompson at 25. But that was only after the Arizona Cardinals picked Florida offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, a player the Panthers targeted, one spot before Carolina.
“We have stayed very, very true to our board,” Gettleman said last week.
Gettleman said there is a good group of cornerbacks this year. Most draft analysts believe the top four corners – Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves, Houston’s William Jackson and Ohio State’s Eli Apple – will be gone by the time the Panthers pick late in the first round.
The Panthers could have five or more corners with first-round grades.
But Gettleman’s history – both in the draft and in free agency – suggests that all things being equal, he prefers defensive linemen over defensive backs.
And as last year’s draft showed, teams picking near the end of the first round have to react to what the teams drafting ahead of them do.
“It all depends on how the draft falls to them at 30. And I think David Gettleman is a patient man and I think he’s good at what he does,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said. “My gut tells me that the top four corners are going to be gone. ... I don’t think David Gettleman would worry about dropping down into the second or third round to get a corner.”
The corners projected as second-round corners include Alabama’s Cyrus Jones, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Miami’s Artie Burns and Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller.
Defensive line options
If Gettleman decides he can find quality corners later in the draft, don’t be surprised if he goes for a defensive tackle or an edge-rusher in the first round.
But with defensive tackle the deepest position in the draft, its not farfetched to think Gettleman could grab an interior lineman, despite the presence of Short and Lotulelei, the addition of free agent Paul Soliai and the re-signing of Kyle Love.
Gettleman said as much last week.
“You can’t pass up a guy at a position just because you think you’re fine at that position. You want to create competition,” he said. “So if you’re heavy at a position and you bring in a first-round pick at that position, that’s going to up the ante for all of them. They’re gonna compete because that’s the way they’re built.”
Gettleman could be talking about several positions. The Panthers would like to draft a tight end relatively early to give Cam Newton another pass-catching threat at that position.
They also need a safety, and have visited with Alabama running back Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner who is expected to be available when the Panthers pick 30th.
And if the Panthers were interested in an offensive tackle last year, they could be again with starters Michael Oher and Mike Remmers both entering contract years.
Gettleman traces his love of big guys to the 15 years he spent with the New York Giants, who ran up a lot of wins behind a power running game and a tenacious pass rush.
“You’ve got to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and it takes big, stout people to do that,” said Tim Rooney, the Giants’ former pro personnel director whom Gettleman succeeded in 1999. “I think that’s how you begin to build a football team.”
That’s what Gettleman has done in Charlotte, particularly on the defensive side. In addition to the high picks he used on Lotulelei and Short, Gettleman took Ealy in the second round in 2014.
In Gettleman’s first three drafts with Carolina, Benwikere (fifth round, 2014) is the only cornerback the Panthers have taken.
Cost-conscious in secondary
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former scout and personnel director for the Philadelphia Eagles, says Gettleman’s Giants background is evident in the way he takes care of the defensive line while remaining cost-conscious at other positions.
“I think this year you’ll also see them make some investments in the secondary, which is a place where they need to really solidify that part of the program and that part of the roster,” Riddick said.
“I kind of like how Dave has done it. It doesn’t always look sexy. It doesn’t always grab a lot of headlines because he’s very methodical and he’s very much one of those guys who likes to build it front to back, inside out. ... I think the Carolina Panthers are in good hands.”
Players drafted by position, round in Dave Gettleman era
How Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has used his picks in three NFL drafts with the franchise:
Wide receivers (2): First round (1), second round (1).
Defensive tackles (2): First round (1), second round (1).
Defensive ends (1): Second round.
Guards (2): Third round (1), fourth round (1).
Running backs (3): Fifth round (1), sixth round (2).
Linebackers (3): First round (1), fifth round (2).
Cornerbacks (1): Fifth round.
Offensive tackles (1): Fourth round.
Safety (1): Fourth round.
NOTE: Under Gettleman, the Panthers have never drafted a quarterback, center, tight end or specialist.