Who will the Carolina Panthers take in the first round of May’s NFL draft?
Wouldn’t they like to know? Visits with draft prospects will be complete in the coming weeks, and scouts will meet with the coaches and general manager Dave Gettleman at the end of the month to formulate their big board of players. From there, it depends on what happens with the 27 picks in front of them, but Carolina hopes to have a good idea what will happen before the first round on May 8.
Some common questions as the Panthers head toward the draft:
Q. What’s the top position of need for Carolina?
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A. Offensive tackle. After a free agency period where the top left tackles got big bucks, the team intends to find out how right tackle Byron Bell, a former undrafted free agent, will respond to being flipped to the left side following the retirement of Jordan Gross. But the Panthers need more depth at that position. There’s no clear starter at right tackle – Garry Williams is coming off an ACL injury and the Panthers like Nate Chandler at guard – and that could be the spot for the first-round pick. That could be Virginia’s Morgan Moses or Nevada’s Joel Bitonio, but neither is without his flaws. Moses has outstanding length at 6 foot 6 and 35 3/8-inch arms but he needs to play lower to have an impact on the edge. Bitonio is one of the fastest tackles in the class and has good arm length (33 7/8 inches) but needs to add weight to his 302-pound frame. A recent ACL tear to Clemson’s Brandon Thomas knocks him out of the conversation for the Panthers and down to a third- or fourth- round selection, and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio, a former first-team All-America, has many questions about the health of his knee to answer before risking a first-round selection.
Q. What about a No. 1 wide receiver, since they lost Steve Smith?
A. Coach Ron Rivera doesn’t believe the team necessarily needs one. He’s just looking to make up the 10 catches per game lost from Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., but at some point, the team needs to find a No. 1 receiver. The good news for a team needing a receiver is this year’s draft class is deep. Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. are the top receivers, and they won’t be around at No. 28. But there are a number of quality receivers who could be available when the Panthers pick – Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin and Southern Cal’s Marqise Lee. At 5-foot-10, Cooks plays taller than he is by showing a great ability to catch the ball at its highest point with a vertical of 36 inches. Benjamin has one of the highest ceilings in the draft if he can polish his skills at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. And Lee proved to be a consistent pass-catcher for the Trojans with a good 40 time of 4.52 seconds.
There are also strong receivers in the second round when the Panthers draft at No. 60, including Penn State’s Allen Robinson, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Colorado’s Paul Richardson. Robinson hauled in 97 passes as a senior and has a 39-inch vertical. Matthews is one of the smartest receivers in the draft and has big hands (10 3/8 inches) to secure the ball. Richardson could fall to the third round because of the depth of talent at the position, but he rebounded well from an ACL tear in 2012 to catch 10 touchdowns last season.
Q. What are the other needs?
A. Cornerback and defensive end. There are some quality corners who should be available in the second and third rounds, and despite the Panthers’ starting defensive ends counting nearly $30 million against the cap for 2014, the team could look to the future in case a long-term deal with franchise-tagged Greg Hardy doesn’t work out. TCU cornerback Jason Verrett (who has already met with the Panthers) and Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner could be second-round options for Carolina. Jackson Jeffcoat, at 6-foot-3 and the Big 12’s co-defensive player of the year at Texas, could be available in the third round.
Q. Will the Panthers trade up?
A. Draft-day trades add excitement to what otherwise would be the commissioner simply calling 32 names at Radio City Music Hall. But if a team trades up to get their guy, that team will have to give up later draft picks or future draft picks. The scenario the Panthers hope for is a run of quarterbacks – maybe five in the first round – or some other position Carolina doesn’t need to address, forcing top players down the list. The more other teams reach, the less likely it is the Panthers trade up.
Q. Will the Panthers take the best available player?
A. There’s never been a post-draft press conference in which the general manager and/or coach did not say, “This is our guy. He was at the top of our board.” Teams’ draft boards are state secrets, so often we never find out if the player was truly atop the team’s board. The term “best available” comes with an understood caveat that sometimes the best player left is at a position your team does not need at all (for example, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier being available at No. 28). In this draft, the talent drop between offensive tackles available at No. 28 and No. 60 is greater than that of wide receivers between those two picks. Because of that, the Panthers may be better served to get their tackle in the first round (even if he’s not their No. 1 guy), and wait until the second round for a talented receiver or cornerback. Gettleman has said the team will take the best available player, but we’ll probably never know just who that is.
Q. Will the Panthers look for a quarterback late in the draft?
A. At the start of free agency, it appeared Carolina would look for a solid young backup with a mid-round pick, someone who could learn as Cam Newton’s understudy. But the team signed Derek Anderson to a two-year deal, and also took a chance on Joe Webb, a former Vikings quarterback who has spent some time in the NFL as a receiver. The Panthers are more interested in Webb as a quarterback. With Newton in a walking boot following his ankle surgery, Carolina wants to make sure it has some insurance. Webb is a dual-threat quarterback like Newton, and though Anderson is the team’s No. 2, Newton’s offense would look more similar with Webb than Anderson.
Q. How much money do the Panthers need to sign their draft picks?
A. Carolina would need about $4.5 million to sign all seven draft picks at their current selection spots.
Q. What grade does Gettleman get for last year’s draft class?
A. It’s hard, and unfair, to grade draft classes until the players have played three seasons. With just five picks last year – tied for the fewest in the league – Gettleman hit it big with Star Lotulelei. Fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short proved last year to be a great find in the second round, and linebacker A.J. Klein, a fifth-rounder, stepped in for Chase Blackburn in a few games and played well. The Panthers are calling last year’s fourth-round pick, guard Edmund Kugbila, a 2014 draft pick after he missed the entire season with knee troubles, and rookie running back Kenjon Barner, a sixth-rounder, found it very difficult to get a crack in the loaded backfield. Kugbila is still an unknown at the NFL level, but the team hopes he can compete for the right guard position. Barner isn’t a threat to usurp DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart in the backfield because he needs to work on his pass-blocking, but with the loss of Ginn, the Panthers may turn to Barner for kick and punt return duties in 2014.