Panther fans and “draftnicks” alike have asked me where I see this draft in terms of depth. “What positions are deep this year?” is a common question and a really important one when it comes to figuring out what a team may do. Two areas that we’ll look at in this article is overall strategy and what past drafts may tell us about this year’s draft.
First, let’s look at strategy at a macro-level. A sound draft strategy is to rank your team needs and then look at how many players there are to chose from. For example, if your position of greatest need has 20 quality players in the top 100 eligible players and your position with the second greatest need only has only two, it stands to reason that you go after your second biggest need first. Doing so increases your chances of getting the highest quality player at that position and you still will get a quality player to fill your greatest need later on.
Panther Needs By Position
Let’s run through this with our Panthers. I’m ranking the Panthers needs as follows: 1- Offensive Tackle 2- Wide Receiver 3- Safety 4- Corner Back 5- Linebacker. These positions and the order can certainly be debated, but they are my top five rankings based on last year’s performances and the age or contract situation of certain players. As some point out, what the Panthers do (or don't do) in Free Agency ties in with the draft as well.
After ranking the Panthers needs and staying focused on the draft, I took a look at the players most likely to be selected in the first four rounds. I used four rounds because these are the rounds that are most likely able to provide you with a player that can come in and start. There certainly are a ton of exceptions to that rule, but for the sake of coming up with a general idea of what to expect, I picked the first four rounds, or 128 selections.
I used our friends at DraftTek.com’s big board as the list of top 128 players. Here are the number of players that play the top five positions of need for the Panthers in the top 128 projected players:
WR - 18 players
CB- 15 players
OT- 13 players
LB- 11 players
RB- 10 players
S- 7 players
That is a total of 74 players of need for the Panthers in the top 128 projected players. That means that 58% of the projected top players, play a position of prioritized need for the Panthers. If you followed my logic in picking a player from a position of scarcity that also fits a need over a player of even greater need that is more plentiful, then you can see where the Panthers may focus their attention early on in this draft. Based on that strategy and the empirical data above, I contend that it makes sense to expect the Panthers to look to target either a Safety, a Running Back or a Linebacker in the first round.
With 18 WRs, 15 CBs and 13 OTs available, there will certainly be good options for the Panthers in Rounds 2-4. Looking at things from this perspective, we should not expect an OT, WR or CB in Round 1. Fans are on board so long as that player is a game-changer.
Not convinced that the Panthers won’t take a Tackle in the first round yet? I wasn’t either until I had this revelation: The NFL is a league of copycats and one that seldom takes risks. The first question GMs ask scouts about a prospect is “Who does this player remind you of?.” They also prioritize prospects by not necessarily what they do on the field, but by their measurables. For example, a QB needs to be 6’2 or taller, an Offensive Or Defensive Lineman has to weigh 300 lbs., a CB needs to be 6’0 to be one of the new-age Corners and so on. Anyone that doesn’t meet these measurables tend to be drafted in later rounds.
Conversely, run a 4.35 40 yard-dash, and you go from a projected fourth-rounder to a second-rounder or better (see Phillip Dorsett). Run a 4.9 as a LB and the previously thought of best LB looks to fall into the third round or later (see Paul Dawson). So if you want to be a sure-fire first round selection, you first need to fit the measurables of what a first-rounder looks like and then you must show you can play football. Yes, there are exceptions, but anytime you don’t fit the measurables, you have to make up for it somewhere. If you are two inches too short at WR, you’d better be extra quick and extra fast. If you are a 5’9 CB, you’d better run a 4.3 40 and have a 39-inch vertical-leap, etc. Some say the NFL stands for the Not Fair League.
How Does this Relate to the Draft
NFL teams tend to draft more similarly than may think. You can look at the history of the draft and get an idea of what positions are drafted when, and what those players measurables look like. I took a look at the last five drafts. No Offensive Tackles were taken in four of the last five drafts between picks 25 and 32. And the only three that were drafted in that range were all taken in in the same year.
Let’s look at the three Offensive Tackles that were taken in the 2011 draft between picks 25 and 32. James Carpenter (25th to Seattle), Gabe Carimi (Pick 29 to Chicago) and Derek Sherrod (32nd to Green Bay). James Carpenter is clearly the best of these three, but he was moved to Guard where he excels and just signed a lucrative FA contract with the Jets for $5M per year. Gabe Carimi bounced around and played last year for the Falcons where he split time between Guard and Right Tackle. And Derek Sherrod was cut by the Packers in November. Not a good track record for drafting Tackles in that range. That explains why no OT was drafted in that range since then.
Does this mean there is no chance the Panthers select a Tackle at Pick 25? Certainly not. La’el Collins, DJ Humphries, Ereck Flowers, TJ Clemmings and Jake Fisher are all possibilities at 25. But looking at the depth of the Tackle class and the needs of the team, I put forth that the highest likelihood is that the Panthers will draft a Safety, a Running Back or a Linebacker. Want names? Todd Gurley is visiting the Panthers and if Landon Collins or Shaq Thompson are there at 25, they will be in play, and Panther fans will tweet me asking why. I will refer them back to this article.