The Panthers went into the NFL Draft this season with a number of glaring, immediate needs — tackle, cornerback and wide receiver.
But general manager Dave Gettleman said he was not going to reach to fill any of those needs if he didn’t like the players available, or if there was a better player available. True to his word, he did not.
The Panthers finished with six new players (after trading their seventh-round pick) — one wide receiver (first-round choice Kelvin Benjamin), two defensive backs in the fourth and fifth rounds and zero offensive tackles.
How you grade this draft — and each pick individually — depends a lot on what you think the draft is for. If it’s for addressing immediate needs, then this particular draft would probably get a C-minus or even a D. Even that might be kind. Right now, the Panthers had better hope a team overstocked with viable offensive tackles has to cut one that and that they’re able to scoop him up.
But if it’s about building for the future and taking what the organization felt was the best player at that position, then we could get as high as the C-plus to solid B range.
Regardless of what the ultimate vision is or was, some of the picks were downright puzzling. Some intriguing. Some both.
The realistic options at this spot for the Panthers were Benjamin, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee (who went 39th) and Virginia tackle Morgan Moses (who went 66th). While there are legitimate question marks about Benjamin — just one really good year and his work ethic, to name a few — it seems that if he’s motivated properly, he can be a beast. And wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl is just the man for the job.
Plus, he’s a willing blocker and a great red-zone target for quarterback Cam Newton. This is the type of weapon Newton hasn’t had to work with, and it will be exciting to see what he and Benjamin can do once the 6-foot-5, 240-pound wideout gets adjusted to life in the NFL. Even if that takes a year or so — as it did for Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffrey, for example — it will be well worth the wait.
This could take not just the Panthers’ offense, but also Newton to the next level.
Ealy was supposed to be a surefire first-rounder, and was one of the invitees to the green room at Radio City Music Hall. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for the Panthers), he slipped into the second round. The Panthers had one of the best pass rushes in the NFL last year, and two of the best defensive ends in Greg Hardy (who will be franchised next season) and Charles Johnson.
Don’t forget about Gettleman’s roots with the New York Giants, though — he’s all about rushing the quarterback. It’s likely he just found Ealy’s value here too high to pass up on, but this isn’t a solid ‘A’ because there were offensive tackles available that could have been value picks as well, namely Moses.
Still, Ealy’s addition could turn what is likely the best defensive line into the league into the best line in the league. Is it worth the tradeoff of neglecting the offensive line? That remains to be seen.
Although tackle is a much more glaring hole (there are really only two viable tackles on the roster in Byron Bell and Nate Chandler), the Panthers were by no means set at guard either. Two of the top three guards on the roster (Amini Silatolu, Edmund Kugbila) are coming off of knee surgery, and another is Travelle Wharton, a veteran whose skills are on the decline.
Turner is what Gettleman affectionately likes to call a "hog molly"; at 6-3, 310-pound lineman who is one of the best run-blockers in the draft (and ran the third-fastest 40-yard dash among all offensive linemen). Why get a run-blocking offensive lineman when the league is so clearly trending away from running backs, and even the running game in general? Well, because that’s how Gettleman and the Panthers’ offense is going to continue to operate, and it’s worked so far, taking a lot of pressure off of Newton and letting him develop at his own pace (while carrying plenty of the rushing load himself).
Boston has the athleticism and physical skills to be an elite defensive back, and he’s a hard hitter and a high character guy. But he was never able to put it together in college. He will likely only be used on special teams and will probably see the field in special defensive packages. The Panthers do need defensive backs, but more as depth, so this sort of fills a need. The Panthers made some nice pickups in free agency (like Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper) in the secondary that should ensure the Panthers still have one of the best defenses in the league again next year.
So … why draft a special teams guy this high when there were probably better value picks available that filled other needs? Nothing wrong with getting depth in the secondary and a guy who can play special teams while he develops.
It’s one thing to take a chance on a corner like Benwikere, a smart cornerback without many of the physical skills necessary to play the position (according to scouts). It’s another, though, to trade up for yet another defensive back that likely won’t see the field much this year, if at all. The Panthers gave Minnesota their 168th and 225th picks, so it wasn’t like they gave up much value. A late seventh-round pick likely wouldn’t be useful in most drafts, but in one like this were there were plenty of wide receivers, it could have been. Clearly Gettleman felt strongly about Benwikere, though..
This is essentially a throwaway pick anyway, and Gettleman certainly could have pacified the fan base by going with a random offensive tackle or even a wide receiver. But this is, again, a long-term pick — the Panthers have three running backs, but one is 31-year-old DeAngelo Williams, another is oft-injured 27-year-old Jonathan Stewart and the third is late-round pick Kenjon Barner (who had six rushing attempts for seven yards in his rookie season last year).
Again, as referenced with the Turner pick, the Panthers are going to attempt to be a run-heavy team under Gettleman and Gaffney’s style — physical, tough between the tackles — suits what the vision for the team is, even if it’s not the direction the league in general is going.