2017 NFL Draft: 5 First-Round Options for the Carolina Panthers

After limping to a 7-8-1 record, the Carolina Panthers hope the 2017 NFL Draft will change their fortunes. Here are five first-round options who could help.

A lot of what went wrong for the Carolina Panthers during their NFC title defense in 2016 revolved around their offense. With wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin healthy after missing the previous year, that wasn’t supposed to be the case. They should have taken another step forward, but instead they finished middle of the pack in points per game and were 21st in passing yardage. The good news for them is that they own the eighth overall pick in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft.

With such a premium selection, the Panthers will have their fair share of playmakers to choose from. That should make them happy because whoever they choose will be joining a roster that still has a ton of talent leftover from their 15-1 season just two years ago. They still have former MVP Cam Newton, one of the best tight ends ever in Greg Olsen, linebacker Luke Kuechly, and Benjamin at wideout.

The question will be which way do they go? Do they get another weapon for Newton to employ, or maybe an offensive lineman to help keep him upright? Maybe they avoid offense and add another pass rushing defense end. Whatever they decide, here are five different players they might consider with their first round selection.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams (7) runs with the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams (7) runs with the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

5. Mike Williams, WR — Clemson

Carolina may feel like they have a legitimate No. 1 in Kelvin Benjamin. They may also be very high on Devin Funchess and his prospects for improving in his upcoming third season. That doesn’t mean there’s never room for improvement and Clemson’s Mike Williams would be an improvement over most players.

The 6-3, 225-pound receiver suffered a broken neck in 2015 after a breakout sophomore year. The injury happened on his first, and only, catch of the season. He was able to get on the field by the start of the 2016 season and showed no ill affects from the injury.

He was an offensive force for the National Champion Tigers this season. He caught 98 passes for 1,361 yards and had 11 touchdowns as well. He would give the Panthers an incredibly scary collection of route runners should they line him up with Olsen and Benjamin.

Some might say wide receiver isn’t a strong enough area of need for the Panthers to use their eighth overall pick on one. To counter that, it’s fair to say that after years of forcing Newton to make magic happen with subpar wide outs, it would be the great to finally give him an abundance of weapons.

Oct 1, 2016; Athens, GA, USA; Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett (9) hits Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason (10) causing a fumble recovered by Tennessee for a touchdown during the fourth quarter at Sanford Stadium. Tennessee defeated Georgia 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 1, 2016; Athens, GA, USA; Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett (9) hits Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason (10) causing a fumble recovered by Tennessee for a touchdown during the fourth quarter at Sanford Stadium. Tennessee defeated Georgia 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

4. Derek Barnett, DE — Tennesse

Defensive end Charles Johnson didn’t look like he used to in 2016. That’s to be expected though when a player enters their 30s. Alongside him was Kony Ealy, who isn’t explosive, but is very solid as he has recorded five sacks in each of the past two seasons. To try and generate a little more pass rush on the edges the Panthers could look to add some playmakers there. One of the more decorated defensive ends that can provide such a rush is Tennessee Volunteers junior Derek Barnett.

Barnett is a beast at 6-3 and 265 pounds and plays with immense power. He has been compared favorably to the great Reggie White, another Tennessee defensive end. The stats Barnett posted were on par with the late White, which speaks highly of his future in the NFL.

As a freshman Barnett recorded 10 sacks, followed up with another 10 in his sophomore season and 13 last year. The scary part of all that is he is sometimes a slow starter, which was seen in how he began the 2016 season. He would be even more dangerous could he find a way to get out of the gates quicker each season. While offense seems like it would make more sense for the Panthers, Barnett is one player who who would make waiting for an offensive playmaker seem just fine.

Nov 5, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) carries the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 5, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) carries the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

3. Leonard Fournette, RB — LSU

Heading into 2016, Leonard Fournette was the name to watch. Many believed he could have played in the NFL after his sophomore season had it not been for league rules that prohibit players from joining until three years after they have graduated high school. From there the talk turned into wether the LSU running back should play in 2016 at all, or if it would have been wiser to sit out and prepare for the big time while avoiding injury.

He wound up playing, and the injuries did happen. An ankle issue bothered him all season long and he played in just seven games. He was still explosive in those games posting 843 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns. Fournette averaged 6.5 yards per rush in his final season as well, which moved him to 6.2 per carry for his career.

The 230-pound power back has great size for his position and has been compared favorably to former Auburn Tiger and Los Angeles Raiders running back Bo Jackson. Of course, knocks will come and the detractors will point to Fournette’s missed games last season, as well as him sitting out the team’s bowl game to focus on his future. They may also say he has fumbling problems due to having eight fumbles in three seasons.

None of that will stop him from being a top pick because he is a great player and will succeed in the NFL.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide offensive lineman Cam Robinson (74) against Clemson Tigers defensive end Austin Bryant (91) in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide offensive lineman Cam Robinson (74) against Clemson Tigers defensive end Austin Bryant (91) in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2. Cam Robinson, OT — Alabama

With left tackle Michael Oher struggling with injuries throughout the 2016 season, Carolina may need to look elsewhere for a tackle. One school known for producing top players along the line is Alabama, and their top tackle this season is Cam Robinson.

Robinson (6-foot-6, 326 pounds) was a consensus All-American and was an integral part of the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack. He started every game of his career on the left side and looks like he will stay there at the next level as well.

There are some questions about him however as Robinson struggles with maintaining his blocks and often finds himself off-balance while attempting to pass block. NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein says teams should beware and avoid over-drafting Robinson due to his position:

The tape shows a player with the traits and physical ability to be a good NFL tackle, but his balance issues and inconsistencies as a pass rusher are a concern. Robinson is a candidate to be overdrafted due to the position he plays and his size, but buyer beware as some of his deficiencies might not be easily correctable.

Even with his flaws, Robinson is a consideration if for nothing more than sheer need by Carolina. It does feel like the Panthers could get better value by taking a playmaker and waiting on a tackle.

Dalvin Cook 2017 NFL Draft

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

1. Dalvin Cook, RB — Florida State

This is the player who makes the most sense, at least on the field. The Carolina Panthers have to get better at running back. It feels like they drafted Jonathan Stewart in the first round nearly twenty years ago. They have gotten some good production out of the former Oregon Duck who turns 30 years old this season.

The problem is Stewart is like a set of tires that has gone 50,000 miles over their recommended use. Injuries have hampered him and he had an average of just 3.8 yards per attempt in 2016. While LSU running back Leonard Fournette is a good candidate to replace Stewart, Dalvin Cook could be an even better one.

Cook isn’t as big as Fournette, but has more speed. He rushed for more than 1,000-yards in all three of his seasons at Florida State and ended up with 4,464 yards. On top of that he recorded 46 touchdowns, with 19 coming in each of his final two seasons. He was also a viable option receiving the ball too, catching 79 passes for 935 yards.

Of course, questions come about Cook’s issues off the field. He was accused of, but eventually found not guilty of, battery. Still, Carolina may be hesitant to consider him for that reason despite him being an on-field match for the team in need of an explosive player to pair with Cam Newton.

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