This is the 14th of a team-by-team series, analyzing five prospects that each team should consider in the 2013 NFL Draft.
New general manager Dave Gettleman has spent the better part of the past three months evaluating the Carolina Panthers' roster.
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His first goal was to identify solutions to holes that may have already been on the roster of a team that closed the 2012 season strongly. His second task was to prepare for free agency, which the Panthers approached delicately -- targeting veterans such as linebacker Chase Blackburn, safety Mike Mitchell and wide receivers Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon.
Gettleman brought a measured approach to free agency, and it's questionable whether the Panthers have adequately filled needs at wide receiver and safety, among others. The long-time Giants personnel man shares the "best available" approach his previous franchise has ridden to so much draft success, and Gettleman isn't likely to "reach" to fill perceived holes on Carolina's roster.
"The way I look at the whole picture is, free agency is the opportunity to set your draft up. You want to be in a position where you can take the best player," Gettleman said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "Nine times out of 10 you get in trouble when you draft for need. It's a problem. You can have a top-10 pick and make up your mind you're going to draft for need, and if he's not there, then what do you do. It's all part of it.
"You want as much competition at every position as possible. With the Giants, people thought we were crazy for drafting defensive ends. We drafted (Mathias) Kiwanuka and we drafted JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) and everyone's saying, 'My God, when's it going to stop?' If that's the best player available, you take him. Nothing like competition."
Translation: while Gettleman added competition during free agency, that doesn't mean the Panthers won't hit the same positions for more talent if their draft board dictates the talent warrants the selection.
The Panthers won five of their final six games last season, so the front office is looking to complement what it believes is already a strong operation. That begins on offense, where big changes aren't expected despite coordinator Rob Chudzinki leaving for the Cleveland Browns' head coaching job.
"I don't think you'll see a lot of change. I think the offense you saw at the end of the year is gonna be where we're at," Gettleman said. "I think once they get back to the downhill run game and throwing vertical, play-action, that's what you're going to see. It's basically going to be similar to what we did in New York, and I think that worked out pretty well."
Carolina Panthers 2013 draft picks: 14, 44, 108, 148, 182
Primary Needs: RT, CB, SS, DT
General Manager: David Gettleman, first year
Five draft picks that clicked:
--LB Luke Kuechly, 9th overall, 2012
--QB Cam Newton, 1st overall, 2011
--DE Greg Hardy, 175th overall, 2010
--LB Jon Beason, 25th overall, 2007
--C Ryan Kalil, 59th overall, 2007
Five players who should be on the Carolina Panthers' draft radar:
Player, school (overall rating, position rating)
CB Xavier Rhodes, Florida State (14th overall, 2nd)
The Panthers benched struggling rookie Josh Norman down the stretch last season and veteran Chris Gamble was a cap casualty. They did re-sign Captain Munnerlyn and signed D.J. Moore in free agency, but this is a defense lacking a true No. 1 cornerback in a division that features prolific quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Josh Freeman.
All 32 teams visited Rhodes' pro day for good reason. He has excellent height at 6-feet-2 and 210 pounds -- especially considering he runs in the 4.40-second range in the 40-yard dash. The former high school wide receiver and running back is an excellent overall athlete, including good hands (eight interceptions over the past three seasons).
DE Cornellius Carradine, Florida State (31st, 5th)
Gettleman was instrumental in helping Giants GM Jerry Reese identify the likes of Kiwanuka and Pierre-Paul when no one else expected them to draft yet another defensive end. So while pointing out the Panthers have Hardy and Charles Johnson is extremely valid, so, too, is taking heed of Gettleman's background.
Would he take a stab at someone like Carradine, whose recovery from a major knee injury could scare off teams with Top 40 picks? If so, Carradine's impressive flexibility around the edge, lateral quickness and closing speed on the quarterback could prove too tempting for Gettleman to pass on.
SS Matt Elam, Florida (34th, 1st)
Did we mention the prolific passers in the NFC South? The Panthers finished a respectable 13th in pass defense in 2012, but much of that was due to their strong pass rush. Opposing passers sported a 91.7 rating, tied for 23rd in the league, and when they had time to look downfield, Norman and safety Haruki Nakamura were popular targets. Raiders backup Mike Mitchell was brought in to improve competition, but Elam would fall in that "best available" category should he be available at No. 44.
Elam showed good athleticism and instincts last season, a combination Carolina could stand to add to its secondary.
WR Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech (82nd, 11th)
The former Tennessee Volunteer appears to have matured. What is unquestioned is his physical attributes at 6-3, 217 pounds. Rogers failed to stand out in agility testing at the combine but has drawn favorable comparisons to Julio Jones in the past. Rogers has good hands, has the strength to easily separate and can explode in the open field.
Brandon LaFell is a decent complement to Steve Smith, but Hixon has a long injury history and Ginn is just a guy at this point in his career. Rogers is a low-risk, big-reward candidate who could be available in the third round.
OT David Bakhtiari, Colorado (84th, 9th)
The Panthers have a suitable right tackle in Byron Bell, a former undrafted rookie who stepped up when injuries derailed Jeff Otah's career. Although Bell has started 27 games over two seasons, he remains a weak spot on the offensive line. Bakhtiari began his Colorado career at right tackle in 2010 before making the switch to left tackle the following season.
An underclassman who has some development ahead of him, Bakhtiari would be a good candidate to again learn the ropes on the right side while competing with Bell. And if he progresses as expected, Bakhtiari is a potential blind-side protector option as Jordan Gross ages.