Carolina Panthers: Top 5 Draft Picks in Franchise History
Despite the relative youth of the Carolina Panthers they have a track record of finding talent in the draft. Here are the five best draft picks in team history.
Dating all the way back to 2001, it’s difficult to find a first-round selection by the Carolina Panthers that resulted as a complete bust. Since that draft, a possible nine of 15 first-rounders have made their way to Pro Bowls, making the Panthers philosophy of collecting core talent through draft picks a successful one.
With a solid mix of talent on both sides of the ball, the following five players stood as cornerstones of the team, either in previous years or currently still playing.
Let’s look at the five best draft selections in the Carolina Panthers 22-year history.
5. Julius Peppers, 2002 – No. 2 Overall
Entering the draft as a North Carolina native and a two-sport athlete at Chapel Hill, Peppers was a no-brainer pick for a team in desperate need of talent after a disastrous 1-15 season. He immediately burst onto the scene, posting double-digit sacks as a rookie and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Luckily for the Panthers, his dominance was only beginning, as Peppers would go on to become an All-Pro four times and a Pro-Bowler five times during his tenure in Carolina. His 81 sacks and 21 multi-sack games both rank first in franchise history. Eventually he would also go on to be named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.
This will naturally lead to the question, why does Peppers not rank higher? His unceremonious exit from the team and state he had represented his whole life leaves a sour taste in the mouths of Panthers fans to this day. On multiple occasions, he turned down contracts that would’ve made him the highest paid defensive player in the league. While he will surely be the first Panthers draft pick to enter Canton, at least half of his career will have been played elsewhere.
4. Thomas Davis, 2005 – No. 14 Overall
At this point, everyone knows Davis’ story. With his career set to take off after a fantastic 2008 season and opening seven games in 2009, he would go on to tear the ACL in his right knee in three consecutive seasons. After a series of events that had ended the careers of everyone before him, Davis would be the first to attempt a comeback after three ACL tears.
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To say he just made a “comeback” doesn’t seem to do him justice. Since 2012, Davis has ascended to becoming perhaps the finest 4-3 outside linebacker in the league, forming the fiercest linebacking duo in the NFL alongside Luke Kuechly. After his humanitarian work was recognized with the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, his overdue recognition for his play on the field soon followed with a first team All-Pro appearance and two Pro-Bowl selections.
While not as prolific as others on this list in terms of accolades, the legend of Davis will stand taller than all others. His unwavering dedication to the franchise and extensive charitable work off the field only enhances his legacy. When Davis decides to hang them up, he is sure to have his number retired and placed in the Panthers Ring of Honor.
3. Luke Kuechly, 2012 – No. 9 Overall
When selected, Kuechly was viewed largely as a luxury pick, as the Panthers already had an All-Pro in Jon Beason commanding the middle linebacker position. Starting his rookie season at outside linebacker, a Beason injury would allow Kuechly to move inside, a position he never relinquished.
That season he would go on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award while also leading the league in tackles. In 2013, Kuechly would join Lawrence Taylor as the only defensive players to follow a Rookie of the Year award with a Defensive Player of the Year honor. With four consecutive All-Pro appearances, Kuechly has established himself as the premier inside linebacker in the NFL.
Leading the league in tackles since being drafted, Kuechly combines this with elite range and pass coverage for a linebacker. He defines what teams desire in a modern linebacker, showing an uncanny ability to read gaps while also covering zones deep downfield. At 25 years of age, concussion issues seem to be the only thing standing in the way of him placing himself alongside names like Lewis, Butkus, and Singletary.
2. Steve Smith, 2001 – No. 74 Overall
Taken in the third round primarily for his electric return ability, nobody could have predicted the dominant force that would become of the diminutive Steve Smith. Told throughout the draft process that he was never to become a receiving threat, even the Panthers agreed with this notion early in his career by limiting his wide receiver reps. A chip was placed on Smith’s shoulder unlike anything before seen in the NFL, and ensured he would make everyone remember once given his chance.
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Going on to be one of the finest receivers of the 2000s, Smith would produce eight 1,000-yard seasons on his way to five Pro Bowl selections. Coming back from a broken leg suffered in the opener of the 2004 season, Smith would have a historical follow-up in 2005. Leading the league in catches, yards and touchdowns en route to only the third receiving triple crown since 1966. Nobody was doubting anymore, and in 2008 he would lead the league in receiving yards per game, despite the Panthers finishing dead last in pass attempts.
Retiring following the 2016 season as a Baltimore Raven, Smith finished seventh all time in receiving yards, and perhaps as the finest pound for pound receiver the game has seen. His competitive nature and longevity earned him league wide respect, and regardless of the current log-jam of receivers waiting for a call from Canton, Smith should one day find himself in the Hall of Fame.
1. Cam Newton, 2011 – No. 1 Overall
Following a horrendous 2-14 season in 2010, the Panthers faced a decision that makes or breaks franchises in the NFL—picking first overall. They gambled on the divisive Cam Newton, a prospect with overwhelming physical stature, but questions of his cerebral ability and off-field issues. To say the Panthers made the right pick is an understatement, as Newton has redefined what teams desire in modern quarterback play.
With a rare blend of size, arm strength, and running ability, Newton would become the first to truly bring effective read option concepts to the NFL level. By the end of his rookie season he already had a laundry list of records to his name, a list he has only added to throughout his career. He currently sits sandwiched between Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for most combined touchdowns through six seasons, and became the NFL record holder for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback last year.
Seen as immensely talented but rough around the edges with the finer aspects of his game, Newton put all the pieces together in his 2015 MVP season. Taking the league by storm with 45 touchdowns and a 15-1 record, everyone finally got a glimpse of the game changer he is when firing on all cylinders.
Perhaps even more important is the culture shifting effect he’s had on the franchise, one previously viewed as slightly boring and by the numbers. Newton brings an affectionate love to the game that has brought in millions of new fans, giving them an identity in a region historically known for being transplant fans.