Following a disappointing 6-10 season, the Carolina Panthers could use some help in the 2017 NFL Draft. Ranking their five biggest needs.
Expectations were sky-high in the 2016 season for the Carolina Panthers. Though they were man-handled in Super Bowl 50 by the Denver Broncos, they were still armed with the reigning MVP, his returning No. 1 wideout (Kelvin Benjamin) and a defense that appeared solid even without Josh Norman in the fold any longer.
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Instead, the Panthers came out and put forth a wholly disappointing effort. With inconsistency and injuries ravaging both their offensive line and defense in addition to relying upon young, developing players at cornerback, they limped to a 6-10 record. After falling well short of the playoffs, they’re looking towards the 2017 NFL Draft with hopeful eyes.
Armed with the No. 8 pick overall and a solid arsenal of selections, they can make noise in the draft. What’s important, though, is that they are sure to address the areas where they need substantial help immediately and moving forward. With that in mind, here are the five biggest needs for the Carolina Panthers entering the 2017 NFL Draft.
Sep 30, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies wide receiver John Ross (1) warms-up before the start of a game against the Stanford Cardinal at Husky Stadium. Washington won 44-6. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
5. Wide Receiver
This position group may come as a surprise to some, but the Panthers have already made early hints at adding talent to a group in need of some new blood. With the recent visit of Victor Cruz and mentions of needing to evolve as an offense, it’s evident that a new target for Cam Newton should be expected.
If they opt to take this route through the draft, they’ll have a diverse and deep group of prospects to select from. With the impending free agency of soon to be 32-year-old Ted Ginn Jr., the team will have to anticipate replacing the rare speed that has been so effective in their offense. While he won’t be in play at pick No. 8, if John Ross from Washington were available early in the second round it would be a difficult pass for the Panthers.
Beyond adding a speedster like Ross, the Panthers are in desperate need of underneath receivers with refined route running and separation ability. Seeing them select a player on day two like Zay Jones of East Carolina or Carlos Henderson out of Louisiana Tech would not come as a surprise.
The most commonly projected first-round selection for the Panthers is a running back, coming in the form of LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. With long-time Panther Jonathan Stewart likely entering the last year with the team, the reasoning is simple and easy to understand. It’s very likely that the Panthers will have their shot at one of the two, and dependent on what the Jaguars and Jets do, there’s a chance that both will be on the board at eight.
Adding a player of Fournette’s caliber almost makes too much sense, as his violent and downhill running style would fit the power scheme of the Panthers almost perfectly. He would serve to fill the role of an every down running back, taking some of the pressure off Newton and carrying the rock 20-25 times per game. Cook would offer the team more versatility, and would immediately complement Stewart in a more fitting fashion. A capable receiver out the backfield, he’d provide a valuable check down option and add a new wrinkle to a stagnant offense.
Even if the Panthers decide to go a different direction in round one, the running back class is exceptionally deep and will offer great value on days two and three of the draft. While not possessing the ceiling of the previous two, power runners like D’Onta Foreman out of Texas, Wayne Gallman of Clemson, and Samaje Perine from Oklahoma will all be available in the middle rounds.
Dec 31, 2016; Orlando , FL, USA; LSU Tigers safety Jamal Adams (33) against the Louisville Cardinals during the first half at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
After the departure of Roman Harper following the 2015 season, the Panthers opted to move ball-hawking free safety Kurt Coleman to strong safety, in an effort to make room for 2014 fourth-rounder Tre Boston out of North Carolina. With a full year of starts under his belt, Boston is at best a serviceable option that is often a liability against the run. However, Coleman showed the quality to play at either spot, giving the Panthers the flexibility to find a replacement at either position.
Between Malik Hooker of Ohio State, and Jamal Adams out of LSU, the draft will have a rare combination of elite safety talents. When one considers that Mark Barron was the last top-10 safety (taken in 2012), the value and rarity of these two enhances even further. Adams is an alpha dog and a force against the run, with the versatility to kick out and cover receivers from the slot. Meanwhile, Hooker has truly rare ground-covering ability and will take away large chunks of space at the next level.
Picking at eight, it seems like a pipe dream that either of these players will make it to the Panthers. Luckily for the team, this draft boasts talented but less refined options throughout the middle rounds. If they opt for a more traditional center field type player, Marcus Williams of Utah or perhaps a free safety converted Desmond King from Iowa could be options. At strong safety, UConn’s lengthy Obi Melifonwu, or the raw but talented Justin Evans of Texas A&M could hear their name called.
Oct 15, 2015; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal defensive tackle Solomon Thomas (90) celebrates after a tackle in the second quarter against the UCLA Bruins in a NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
2. Defensive End
With the news breaking on Monday of a new deal for defensive end Mario Addison, the Panthers ensure the return of their leading pass rusher from 2016. Don’t let this fool you, however, as the team is still in need of more consistent pressure from their edge positions. It’s time for the team to restock and retool at the position, as Kony Ealy hasn’t developed as hoped, and long-time Panthers great Charles Johnson’s days are likely numbered.
Enter Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, a player that has risen dramatically up draft boards after his utterly dominant performance against UNC in the Sun Bowl. At 270 pounds, Thomas is seen currently as a tweener, a player that can kick outside on run downs and then return to the interior against the pass. While an outstanding prospect, there are questions regarding his bend off the edge, and with 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler still waiting in the wings the team may opt to look elsewhere.
If not Thomas, the reliable Derek Barnett of Tennessee is an option, although his recent slide down draft boards may make him a slight reach at eight. Outside of the first round, a raw but highly athletic Tanoh Kpassagnon of Villanova should be in play, as well as guys like Dawuane Smoot of Illinois and Derek Rivers from Youngstown State.
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
1. Offensive Tackle
A position that has seemed consistently under-addressed since the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers will again be on the search for long term solutions at either end of the offensive line. After suffering a severe concussion in week three last season, the return of left tackle Michael Oher is still completely up in the air. Right tackle Mike Remmers was forced to fill the void and was simply overwhelmed. Compounded with his impending free agency, it seems his return is unlikely.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they didn’t pick the right year for elite offensive tackle prospects. Unlike the other positions on this list, the draft as it currently stands doesn’t boast any options that seem worthy of the eighth overall selection. Cam Robinson of Alabama, while talented, has questions regarding his foot speed and lateral agility to become a true left tackle. While Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin will be coming off hip surgery, his one year of Division-I starts will also make him a major gamble in the top ten.
It seems likely that the Panthers will use a mid-round pick on a more developmental prospect, while addressing their stop-gap needs with free agency. Antonio Garcia of Troy would be an excellent selection, while rough around the edges he possesses the size and “left tackle feet” that general manager Dave Gettleman so often mentions. If they feel confident in the return of Oher, they could opt for a more sure thing prospect at right tackle. Taylor Moton of Western Michigan possesses outstanding size and arm length, and could become a road grader early on in his career.