The Panthers have needs all across the defense, and could realistically draft to nearly any position without complaint of duplication. They were 25th in the league in yards allowed.
Adding some pass rush from the front four is likely the biggest priority, and there’s a decent argument to be made whether that’s from inside or out. They could use another tackle to go with veteran Ron Edwards and 2010 third-rounders Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, or they could use a starting-caliber end to pair with Charles Johnson.
At linebacker, they have their two best players coming off major injuries (Jon Beason’s Achilles tear and Thomas Davis’s third ACL tear), so adding another starter there such as Luke Kuechly could be justified.
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Likewise, cornerback is a spot that needs fortifying, and plugging a player such as Stephon Gilmore would give them another top-shelf athlete to pair with Chris Gamble.
Of course, this is a firm “best player available” franchise, and if they can trade down a few spots from ninth and add a pick (after trading their third for tight end Greg Olsen last year), that’s likely their preference. There’s a broad range of players who could help shore up their defense, so moving down a few spots won’t change much.
Because they’re also a team that prefers not to roll the dice in the first round, they could easily draft an offensive player early. Wherever they end up picking, they could easily go for an offensive lineman such as David DeCastro or a receiver such as Kendall Wright, and it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Nice fits: Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive end Chandler Jones.
Defensive tackle: They were 25th in the league in run defense last year for a reason. Injuries and the rookie wall left a revolving door of castoffs in the middle. They’re hoping veteran Ron Edwards recovers from a torn triceps and young players develop, but a penetrating player here would fix many problems.
Defensive end: They still think Charles Johnson is worth the big money they gave him last year, but they didn’t get more than 4.0 sacks from any of the rest of their ends. Another pass-rusher who could play three downs would be a major plus.
Cornerback: Chris Gamble played at a Pro Bowl level, but the Panthers’ other corners last year were an odd collection of the undersized, overdrafted and unwanted, so putting another playmaker on the back side makes sense.
Linebacker: If you count on everyone returning to full health, they’re fine. That may not be a gamble they’re willing to make, however. Last year was spent playing special teamers on defense, and the results were predictable. The coaches love Kuechly, and he’d allow Beason to play outside if Davis wasn’t able to return to his old form.
Offensive line: It’s a solid group, but there are questions at both guard and tackle. If they could count on right tackle Jeff Otah playing more than the four games he combined for the last two years, they’d be fine. But his uncertainty makes them shaky at several spots.
-Panthers general manager Marty Hurney makes no secret of enjoying a good draft-day trade. At a press conference Thursday, he was discussing the process of evaluating the ninth pick in the draft, when he was asked if that precluded moving down.
“I didn’t say that,” Hurney said.
-The Panthers avoided a trap when the schedule was announced, drawing the Bounty-gate depleted Saints in Week 2 rather than the opener.
While being without their coach and possibly players seems a benefit, the Panthers have lost to short-handed teams before in Week 1.
In 2005, the Panthers lost to a Saints team that would go 3-13, the players inspired to make a statement in their first game after Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, Carolina lost badly to Philadelphia in the 2009 opener, against a team playing with fire after the passing of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson during training camp.
Both times, Panthers players acknowledged the emotional edge rested with their opponents.
-The Panthers will only make two prime-time appearances this year, fewer than some thought after last year’s offensive resurgence. They have a Week 3 Thursday nighter at home against the New York Giants, and go to Philadelphia for a Monday Night Football appearance in November.
-QB Cam Newton advanced to the final of the voting for next year’s Madden video game cover. He’ll face Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson for the honor. While some consider it a curse, Newton’s openly campaigning for it, unafraid of the superstition.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“It is a deep draft. If the right situation comes up to get more picks, we’ll do so.” — Panthers GM Marty Hurney, revealing his true nature when it comes to dealing.