The Carolina Panthers can’t afford to mess this one up.
The No. 8 pick should be a godsend to a team that really isn’t as bad as last year’s 6-10 record – the one that made this pick possible in the first place – would suggest.
I have two words for them: Take offense.
I have three players for them: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey or O.J. Howard, in that order of preference.
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Like every other NFL team, the Panthers have studied their draft board and talked about their potential picks for so long these days that they are seeing double. The danger at this point is that you could talk yourself into something you really shouldn’t be doing.
You don’t try to outsmart everyone at No. 8. You keep it simple.
Although the Panthers have always publicly subscribed to the “Best Player Available” theory under general manager Dave Gettleman, there are hidden limits within that theory. Last season, for instance, the Panthers knew they had to draft at least a couple of cornerbacks to fortify a bereft position, and they ended up taking three.
This year they aren’t going to be taking a quarterback, even if a quarterback is actually the best player available at No. 8. And they shouldn’t take a defensive player at No. 8, either, even if defensive lineman Solomon Thomas or safety Jamal Adams drops down to them.
What they need to take with Thursday’s first-round pick is a dynamic playmaker who can help right away.
Six losses by three points or less
You don’t need all of those advanced analytics to tell you that the Panthers simply didn’t score enough points to win last season.
Everybody had a part in that failing – quarterback Cam Newton, the offensive line, the skill players, the coaches and Gettleman himself.
The easiest way to explain a drop from 15-1 in 2015 to 6-10 in 2016 is this: The Panthers led the NFL in scoring at 31.3 points per game in 2015. They ended up No. 15 in scoring, at 23.1 points per game, in 2016. One more touchdown per game would have made all the difference, as Carolina lost six games last season by three points or fewer.
But the offensive line should be getting close to fixed – at least it better be after that sticker shock of a $55.5-million investment in Matt Kalil – which will give Newton the time he craves, which will mean he needs somebody else to get the ball to. So here, in order, are the three guys I hope the Panthers take and why:
No. 1: Leonard Fournette.
The simplest and most logical pick for the Panthers, Fournette also is the most likely of these three to be long gone at No. 8. Jacksonville may pick him at No. 4, and if he gets past there, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone trades up to get him. I doubt the Panthers will, although Fournette is the only one of these three I would advocate a trade up to get him. I think he’s going to be special.
To me, Fournette is a younger version of Jonathan Stewart. An apprenticeship under Stewart, followed by a long run as the featured back is a plug-and-play scenario that fits directly into the Panthers’ strengths. In the fourth quarter, Fournette will have worn a lot of defenses down if he plays at all like he did at LSU.
Is Fournette as versatile as McCaffrey? No way. But he does one thing really well that running backs are supposed to do: He runs the ball.
No. 2: Christian McCaffrey.
I prefer McCaffrey over Florida State’s Dalvin Cook for a couple of reasons – Cook has character concerns and McCaffrey can line up in the slot or as a kick returner and help you right away.
The reason I don’t like McCaffrey quite as much as Fournette is I’m not sure his 202-pound body will hold up under the incessant pounding that a running back takes as well as the 228-pound Fournette. But McCaffrey is a difference-maker, he has grown up around the NFL and he shouldered a huge load at Stanford. It would be slightly easier for Newton to hand the ball to Fournette than throw it short to McCaffrey – touch passes are not Cam’s forte – but the Panthers would be able to figure out plenty of ways to utilize McCaffrey. As long as he doesn’t get hurt.
No. 3: O.J. Howard.
OK, let’s say both Fournette and McCaffrey are gone. In that case, I don’t want Gettleman going back to his roots and taking an edge rusher, a safety or even an offensive lineman. I want Howard.
Greg Olsen has been one of the best tight ends in the NFL for years, but he can’t do it forever. Howard has a lot of the same sort of skills and would give defenses another thing to think about when he lined up with Olsen in two-tight sets.
Listen, Gettleman can take all the defensive guys he wants with those other three picks in the top 100 that Carolina has.
But that No. 8 overall top pick has to be on the offensive side of the ball. If it is not, Panthers fans are ultimately going to take offense themselves – because their team didn’t take offense when it should have.