In some ways Sunday, Carolina’s loss was probably for the best.
The Panthers avoided a logjam at 7-9 with the loss and instead became the only 6-10 team in the NFL this season, which places them at No. 8 in the draft order in late April. Cleveland, by virtue of its 1-15 record, will have the No. 1 choice and will at least consider North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky for that spot if he declares for the draft.
What player should the Panthers pick? I don’t pretend to know as of yet. But I will tell you which side of the ball they need to pick: Offense.
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The Panthers either need to take an offensive tackle or else a “difference-maker” at a skill position – perhaps Jonathan Stewart’s heir apparent at running back or else another wide receiver for Cam Newton to throw to. They’ve got to get more dynamic.
It was ultimately that offense that let down the Panthers time and again in 2016. It needs more weapons and more time for Newton. The No. 8 overall pick is a big-time opportunity to solve at least one of those issues.
▪ It was really cool watching Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans and Carolina cornerback James Bradberry duel one-on-one Sunday. Bradberry had a beautiful pass breakup on one deep ball, made an acrobatic interception (on a ball intended for someone else) and helped hold Evans to a modest 65 yards receiving.
“I was having a pretty good day until I got beat for the touchdown,” Bradberry said. And yes, the only Tampa Bay offensive score of the day was Winston’s fourth-quarter throw to Evans in front of Bradberry.
Evans is hard to stop on every play, and this was a battle that will continue for years. Bradberry and the Panthers did keep Evans from getting the Bucs single-season yardage receiving record. He finished with 1,321 yards. That record is still held by Mark Carrier, who had 1,422 yards receiving for Tampa Bay in 1989 and later went on to play and work for the Panthers.
▪ Just when I was about to write Kelvin Benjamin off for this game, he came through with three huge plays – a 47-yard catch, a fourth-down conversion and a 5-yard TD pass – on Carolina’s final drive of the game. It’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to catch the two-point conversion pass, too.