After waiting through an extra two weeks of buildup, Carolina Panthers fans will have to wait a while longer before finding out who the team’s first pick is.
The NFL draft, pushed back because of a scheduling conflict at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, begins in prime time Thursday. Barring a trade, the late local news will be on by the time the Panthers pick.
After three years of drafting among the top 14 picks, including back-to-back years in the top 10, the Panthers will select 28th overall Thursday by virtue of their 12-4 regular-season finish in 2013.
Unless the Panthers trade up, which they’re not expected to do, second-year general manager Dave Gettleman will sit through 27 picks over three hours before calling in his selection.
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The Panthers’ positioning late in the first round means Gettleman will have to react to what happens in front of him – any trades, players rising or falling – and adjust accordingly.
It also means speculation on the Panthers’ first-round pick has been all over the board.
In 20 mock drafts done by CBS Sports, NFL.com, ESPN and NBC Sports’ Rotoworld, experts projected 11 different players for the Panthers in the first round, the majority coming at the high-need positions of wide receiver and offensive tackle.
Virginia tackle Morgan Moses was the most popular first-round pick for the Panthers, getting selected in seven of the 20 mock drafts.
The Panthers are looking for a successor for left tackle Jordan Gross, who retired in February after 11 seasons. Moses (6-6, 314) has good size, although some question whether he has the foot speed to handle elite pass-rushers.
“At first I didn’t like him because he’s got very average feet,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said last week. “What I’ve learned is sometimes those really big, huge, long right tackles with average feet end up being pretty good football players. The Vikings have one at right tackle named Phil Loadholt. That’s a little bit what this kid is like. He’s so darn long, he’s difficult to get around.”
Oregon State wideout Brandin Cooks was the Panthers’ first-round choice in three mock drafts, followed by Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio (picked twice).
Eight other players were chosen in one mock: Nevada offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, LSU wideout Odell Beckham, Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin, USC receiver Marqise Lee, TCU cornerback Jason Verrett, Louisville safety Calvin Pryor, Tennessee tackle Ja’Wuan James and Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy.
While Gettleman has said he’d like to draft a left tackle, a wide receiver and a cornerback, he also pointed out he would not reach to fill a positional need.
Mayock said the “best player available” philosophy becomes more critical for teams picking late.
“I think when you get to the bottom end of the first round, it’s really important to take good football players and not reach too deeply for need,” Mayock said. “Keeping an open mind and making sure you’re drafting (a) good football player, it’s important all the time, but it’s especially important at the bottom end of the first round.”
Most experts believe the quality of the offensive tackles drops considerably after the top four, all of whom are expected to be gone when the Panthers pick. Mayock believes Carolina would do well by taking Lee or Benjamin – assuming they’re still available.
In the scenario in which none of the Panthers’ top-rated tackles or receivers remains on the board, Gettleman could go with a corner such as Verrett, a first-round prospect despite his 5-9 frame.
The Panthers have hit on their past three first-rounders, two of whom were drafted by former general manager Marty Hurney: quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, both of whom won Associated Press Rookie of the Year awards.
Gettleman took defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the first two picks last year, and both had solid rookie seasons.
Gettleman will try to make it four successful first-round picks in a row Thursday, albeit from a more challenging position in the draft order.
“Picking good football players at the end of the round is paramount,” Mayock said, “rather than trying to catch lightning in a bottle and taking less talent with great production.”