2017 NFL Draft: Carolina Panthers Midseason 7-Round Mock
A full 7-round mock of the 2017 NFL Draft for the Carolina Panthers as they look to remedy some of their biggest issues.
The 2016 NFL season hasn’t gone quite as the Carolina Panthers had imagined. After winning the NFC and making it to Super Bowl 50, they’ll now be fortunate if they can scramble and recover to make the playoffs this season. Where that does leave them, regardless, is with plenty of areas that they need to address in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention when talking about the Panthers in the 2017 draft is at cornerback. Their young corners have struggled in the wake of Josh Norman’s departure. Subsequently, many might be calling for a top-corner in the 2017 class. That would be a mistake, though, for reasons we’ll touch on later. Instead, they have a number of other needs that should be of higher priority.
What’s good for the Panthers considering their needs and struggles in 2016 is that they have a great deal of draft capital to work with. Carolina has a selection in all seven rounds, including two picks in both the third and seventh rounds. Looking at their needs, that’s a big opportunity for this team to move forward. They’ll be able to address needs on the offensive line, running back, on the edge of their defensive line, and more.
This mock draft was compiled using the FanSpeak On the Clock simulator using the FanSpeak draft board.
Now, the Panthers are on the clock with the No. 7 pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Round 1, Pick 7: Leonard Fournette, RB – LSU
Quite frankly, this was a no-brainer with him being left on the board. Yes, there are those that would say the Carolina Panthers need a top-level cornerback. Moreover, there might be some that say they should be looking at offensive tackle Cam Robinson. However, there is also a need to add new life to their running game. Frankly, Jonathan Stewart hasn’t proven he can stay healthy for 16 games recently (and for much of his career). And with little faith in those behind him, it’s time to address that need with a high draft pick.
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And Leonard Fournette is worth the price of admission. With the success of Ezekiel Elliott in his rookie season in Dallas, the stigma of taking a running back in the top-10 has seemingly subsided a bit. That’s a good thing because Fournette is good enough to warrant as high as a top-3 selection by my estimation. He’s the complete package and a once-in-a-lifetime type of back.
Running backs who have the size, vision, power, lateral quickness, cutting ability, and top-end speed that Fournette has all wrapped into one package simply don’t exist—and they’re rare if they do. He can make plays independent of having a quality overall offense around him at LSU. So just imagine the damage he could cause in an offense playing with Cam Newton. This could be a ringer for the Panthers moving forward that truly revolutionizes their offense for the future.
Round 2, Pick 7: Ryan Ramczyk, OT – Wisconsin
There’s no denying the fact that offensive tackle is a major problem for this Panthers team. Even when healthy, the combination of Michael Oher and Mike Remmers could best be described as “survivors” on their way to their 2015 Super Bowl run and one-loss regular season. What’s more concerning, though, has been in 2016 with injuries at tackle and the glaring lack of depth on the edge of the offensive line. Subsequently, this has to be one of the first things they address in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Luckily for them, the bulk of the tackle prospects in this draft are graded in the second round and Ryan Ramczyk is one of the best of the bunch. He’s been rapidly on the rise in terms of his draft pedigree, helping lead the Badgers offensive line throughout a successful 2016. While he’s been solid enough and not a problem as a run-blocker, he’s been a phenom in pass blocking. He started off the season not allowing a pressure on 100 pass-blocking downs—and that wasn’t against just cupcakes.
The run-heavy Panthers would certainly like to see him improve a bit as a run-blocker, but he’s already above-adequate in that regard. With the right coaching and physical development to adjust to the NFL game, Ramczyk could ultimately wind up being the 2017 draft class’ best offensive tackle. That’s just what Carolina needs to keep Cam Newton from taking those infamous hits and to drastically improve.
Round 3, Pick 7: Solomon Thomas, EDGE – Stanford
There’s no question that the Panthers continually have a breadth of talent on their defensive line. However, they’ve continuously focused on a revolving door of highly drafted defensive tackles in recent years. One area that’s been somewhat neglected is adding youth and depth on the edge in the form of a rusher. That’s something that they can no longer afford to do moving forward and Solomon Thomas is a player that could potentially be the answer.
Thomas doesn’t have the the frame of your typical edge rusher, measuring in at just 6-2, but at 275 pounds. However, you’ll notice that he has that frame filled out in a way that makes him a crazy athlete and effective rusher coming off of the edge. He has tremendous control of his body and the strength/flexibility to get up under tackles off his spot and control the action to get into the pocket and make plays.
When it comes to shortcomings, Thomas is a bit of a raw prospect still, despite seeing the field a great deal. He makes his presence known throughout games for the Cardinal, but not as consistently as you’d like from an NFL scouting perspective. The key here, though, is that all he needs is coaching on his technique to stay low off the line and not stand up and allow tackles to control his body. With that guidance, he could be a real force for Carolina.
Round 3, Pick 35: Budda Baker, S – Washington
Though the masses may start to sour on some of the Washington Huskies after their first loss of the season, this is still a unit ripe with talent on both sides of the ball. For their defense, they have big playmakers up front and in the secondary. But the leader of the latter and the unit as a whole has time and again proven to be safety Budda Baker.
Playing in the Pac-12, Baker has time and again proven to be simply a playmaker over the top for the Huskies. Though Washington has allowed their share of points at times in 2016, you rarely see them getting beat over the top. That’s in large part due to Baker when he’s covering the middle of the field deep or picking up wideouts in man coverage. Certainly defending the pass is where Baker excels the most when it comes to his prospects at the next level.
While Baker needs to desperately get bigger to improve tackling in the open field—especially against NFL athletes on a weekly basis—he still has tremendous potential because of his instincts, leadership, and playmaking against the pass. Though the Panthers need to let youth develop throughout their secondary, they also need to start developing a replacement for the aging and inconsistent Kurt Coleman. Baker could be that guy with great value in the late third round.
Round 4, Pick 7: Dede Westbrook, WR – Oklahoma
If there’s one thing (besides taking a defensive tackle in the early rounds) that the Panthers have become (in)famous for in the draft, it’s taking big-bodied receivers. However, their reliance on that strategy that landed them Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess has left them at least lacking in some areas of the receiving game. Sure, they have Ted Ginn Jr., an aging player that must be nearing the end of his run as a meaningful contributor, but Carolina doesn’t have the smaller slot guy that can both burn with speed and make plays across the middle of the field.
There aren’t many players who have been quite as productive in the 2016 college football season that wideout Dede Westbrook out of Oklahoma. It feels like every time that you’ve thrown on the Sooners games this season, Westbrook is running a gorgeous route, burning someone deep, or making a crazy catch for a bit play. Baker Mayfield has relied on him heavily and he’s delivered time and again.
Westbrook, to me, stands out as the perfect complement playing in between Benjamin and Funchess spread out wide for the Panthers. Not only does he have the ability to take the top off of a defense with his speed, but also the solid route-tree and hands to be a possession receiver in the middle of the field. He may need to add some weight and muscle to avoid injuries, but what he does well is clear and fits perfectly with the Panthers as they may look to add another talented young receiver to the offense and Cam Newton’s arsenal.
Round 5, Pick 7: Johnny Caspers, G – Stanford
Yes, the Panthers have major issues at offensive tackle when it comes to the top of the depth chart and the immediate depth behind those players. That’s not totally an issue with the interior of their line as Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner are solid far more often than not. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have the need to put more depth behind those players and potentially groom a top-level replacement on either side.
Johnny Caspers out of Stanford could potentially be that player for them. When it comes to guards, you can’t let being available in the fifth round fool you. There’s simply not as high of a premium placed on the interior of the line as there is on the edge at tackle. That is to say, Caspers still has a ton of upside at the position when you consider what he could develop into, despite being there for the Panthers to take in the fifth.
The main concern and why Caspers isn’t a higher selection, though, comes down to his size. At 6-3, 296 pounds and with short arms, he’s not exactly the prototypical size you want for a potentially elite guard. However, the technique of the Stanford product is quite consistent and he’s found ways to keep the middle clean from his end for Christian McCaffrey throughout his career. With work on his quickness at the snap and his explosion, Caspers could easily learn to compensate and become the next in a long line of players undervalued for being short-armed at guard and still succeeding at the next level.
Round 6, Pick 7: T.J. Watt, LB – Wisconsin
Let’s get this out of the way before anyone starts thinking like this—T.J. Watt is not his brother. Yes, you see the name Watt coming out of Wisconsin and you get a bit jumpy. However, the younger T.J. is not the same player, sized human, and many other things as arguably the best defensive player in the NFL. That said, he’s another interesting project piece for the Carolina Panthers moving forward.
What first makes Watt a project is simply the scheme that he’s coming out of in relation to the Panthers. At Wisconsin, Watt plays at outside linebacker in the 3-4, which is not what the Panthers run. While that might seemingly make Watt near untouchable because of the lack of “fit,” Watt is a player who has shown enough strength, growth, and progression to believe that he could develop into a solid edge-rusher down in a 4-3.
This is where his last name comes into play at least a bit. When you hear the stories about J.J. Watt coming into the league and throughout his career, his work-ethic and diligence to become great is unmatched. At least some of that has to be present with T.J. Watt and he at least has a role model in his brother to help guide him. Though he has his shortcomings as a player in terms of speed and some technique getting around the edge, he’s worth the late-round flyer to see if he’ll put in that same work to become something much more at the next level.
Round 7, Pick 14: Erik Magnuson, OT – Michigan
Once again, we re-visit the issue at the tackle position in Carolina. As previously stated, this team currently suffers from both a lack of top-end talent and depth at the position. With the hope that Ramczyk can cure the first problem, the Panthers should then be looking to add projects that can develop into quality depth when they get into the later rounds. In that light, someone like Erik Magnuson out of Michigan could fit the bill.
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Measuring in at 6-6, 296 pounds, you see immediately where you’d want Magnuson to first start developing at the NFL level. That’s a nice frame, but it needs to be filled out a bit more with functional muscle and size. When you think of the premiere edge-rushers in the league, many of them have the ability to bull-rush tackles much bigger and stronger than Magnuson. Thus, he needs to get that remedied sooner rather than later.
What’s more is that Magnuson needs definite coaching on his technique. While he has great instincts and solid form up top most of the time, he needs to get his footwork off the blocks improved moving forward. What’s more, he needs to get better explosion with his hands to better combat rushers coming off of the edge. However, the baseline tools and frame are there when it comes to the Wolverine. Subsequently, he’d make a nice addition for O-line depth.
Round 7, Pick 33: Justis Nelson, CB – Texas Tech
Considering the shortcomings of the Panthers secondary this season, there are plenty of people calling for help at cornerback in this draft, particularly by taking one of the early rounds. However, that would be a definite mistake for Carolina. The biggest issue that they’re having with the secondary right now is youth and inexperience at cornerback. Thus, taking these young players out of their roles by adding more early-round talents is only going to further issues with their development.
That said, the Panthers have the picks that they can take late-round flyers on cornerbacks and try to develop them. Carolina has shown a propensity for both being able to identify late-round talent at corner and develop those players (a la Josh Norman, a fifth-round pick). Subsequently, targeting that position group with their final selection makes sense. And Justis Nelson would be an interesting prospect to develop.
At 6-2, you have to love the length of Nelson and the potential it represents at corner. However, he is just 173 pounds, which obviously necessitates him building up muscle and his frame. That would improve upon one of his greatest weaknesses, which is tackling in the open field. Moreover, adding weight would help him in his stamina and finishing games as the game currently takes its toll on him. With the Panthers ability to develop, though, he has enough length and athleticism to be turned into a nice project.