The Carolina Panthers have the first pick in the NFL Draft, which is both a good and bad thing.
Good: You should get a franchise-type player.
Bad: It means your team was the worst in the NFL in 2010.
Good: You have the choice of any player in the draft, which has to be a nice feeling.
Bad: There's a ton of pressure making that pick, not to mention maybe a ton of money that could be a wasted investment.
The Panthers are a team in transition. They have a new coach with Ron Rivera taking over for John Fox, so do they get the new quarterback to go with him?
The Panthers used a second-round pick to draft Jimmy Clausen last year. They like Clausen, even though he struggled as a rookie who made nine starts.
But do they like him enough to pass on another?
I don't think so.
The Panthers will almost certainly take Cam Newton at the top of the draft. Newton, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Auburn, is a player the Panthers really like.
Newton could also help liven up a city that has seemingly gone from Panthers-crazy to having half-empty stadiums.
Rivera is a defensive-minded coach, coming from San Diego where he was the coordinator, but he isn't making this call. General manager Marty Hurney will make the decision, which is why I think they go quarterback with the first pick, and that pick will be Newton.
|Five possibilities: Panthers|
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: It's almost a certainty that the Panthers will take him with the first overall pick. He better be what they think he can be.
Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama: If they don't take Newton, they could take Dareus to improve the interior of the defensive line.
Jurell Casey, DT, Mississippi: If they go quarterback in Round 1, they have to get a defensive tackle somewhere.
Lance Kendricks, TE, Wisconsin: They have to get an upgrade at tight end, and this kid might be as a mid-round pick.
Johnny Patrick, CB, Louisville: This would be a need pick as a mid-round choice. They have issues on the corner.
Defensive tackle is also a major position of need, which is why Alabama's Marcell Dareus would make some sense, but they need only borrow from the St. Louis Rams' philosophy from 2010 to help them make their decision. The Rams took quarterback Sam Bradford and passed on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Bradford started 16 games as a rookie and Suh went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Both are good players.
But like I said last year before the draft: When was the last time you came away from a Super Bowl and said that team won because of the great defensive tackle play?
It's a quarterback league. If the Panthers think Newton can be a franchise passer, they need to take him.
I think they do.
QB: Clausen looked unsteady at times, but he was a rookie. And he didn't have much help. That doesn't mean it can't change. He was a good decision maker at Notre Dame, but didn't do a good job of that last season. Even so, he has potential. After Clausen, there are a group of journeymen. Matt Moore opened last season as the starter but he suffered a torn labrum. The team did tender him as a restricted free agent. Keith Null and Brian St. Pierre can be capable backups, and Tony Pike didn't show much as a rookie.
RB: The question here is whether the Panthers will bring back DeAngelo Williams. He is coming off a foot injury and he is expected to be a free agent. Plus, the Panthers have Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson behind him. If the price gets too high, I imagine the Panthers would allow Williams to walk. Stewart is more than capable of being a 20-carry runner each game and Goodson flashed late when he played last season. They also have Tyrell Sutton, who has ability.
WR: Whoever starts at quarterback will be getting a decent group of receivers. It starts with Steve Smith. The veteran had a down season in 2010 with 46 catches. At 31, you have to wonder if he's starting to slow down. The Panthers like second-year players Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, two players who showed promise as rookies. Gettis, a sixth-round pick, was the surprise of the season with his 13 starts and 37 catches. LaFell caught 38 passes. Armanti Edwards is a former college quarterback who was taken in the third round last year. He was the one rookie receiver who struggled. But the Panthers like his potential.
TE: Tight end wasn't a big part of the offense under Fox, but Rivera wants to change that. The three tight ends on the roster are Dante Rosario, Jeff King and Gary Barnidge. Rosario is a pass-catching tight end who might be better off in an up-tempo offense. King might be the best blocker of the three, while Barnidge can do a little of both, but is more of a receiver. They need help here.
OL: The big problem last season was not having right tackle Jeff Otah on the field. He missed the season with a knee injury from 2009. The Panthers put Geoff Schwartz in as the tackle and he played well. But he was moved to guard late in the season and Garry Williams stepped in at right tackle. The Panthers have options there if Otah can't play. Jordan Gross went to another Pro Bowl on the left side and Ryan Kalil is one of the better centers in the NFC. Schwartz played well at guard and might stay there. Travelle Wharton played nine games at left guard, but he ended the season on IR with a toe injury. Mackenzy Bernadeau filled in.
DL: When the Panthers let Julius Peppers leave via free agency, it meant they needed someone to step up as a pass rusher. That someone was Charles Johnson. He had 11½ sacks, but he might be a free agent this year. They have to bring him back if he is. Look for Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick last year, to be the starter opposite Johnson. Hardy flashed as a rookie and was a big-time pass rusher in college. The tackle position isn't good. Derek Landri, a try-hard player, was their best defensive tackle last season. He's a nice rotation player, but he shouldn't be the top guy. Nick Hayden is a young player with some ability. Ed Johnson was a decent pickup before the season and showed well when he played, but he fought through a knee injury that limited him some and forced him to miss games. Landri, Hayden and Johnson were all tendered as possible restricted free agents. They also have Corvey Irvin and Andre Neblett.
LB: Injuries hurt this group. Jon Beason had to move from the middle to the weak side when Thomas Davis went down with a torn ACL last summer. Beason is better in the middle, although he played well in 2010 outside. Dan Connor took over in the middle and did a nice job, but he suffered a broken hip midway through the season. If those three players could be on the field together, the Panthers would be fine. James Anderson did play well as a strong-side 'backer, but he is expected to be a free agent. Eric Norwood didn't do much as a rookie, but the Panthers like him. Nic Harris is also in reserve.
DB: Chris Gamble got a big contract from the team in 2008, but he was benched last season. Gamble was considered a rising player at the cornerback position, but he didn't play well. Do they keep him or let him walk? I say they keep him. Richard Marshall, the other corner, is a free agent and he is giving indications that he won't return. Captain Munnerlyn is a solid replacement, but he looks like more of a nickel corner. They also have young corners in Robert McClain, who saw time in the nickel, and R.J. Sanford. The safeties are better. Charles Godfrey is a converted college corner who led the team in picks. Sherrod Martin is the other starter. They do like Jordan Pugh.