NCAA football players had until January 15th to declare their eligibility for the draft and speculations runs rampant until Mr. Incognito is chosen at the end of round seven. It's these next four or so months where most of the people like Mel Kiper make their living.
Certainly, we've got our own improved version of him in-house here with Mel Mayock, but let's face it. We all engage in the speculation. I really hate "mock drafts" because there never has been one anywhere close to the mark. There are too many variables and 32 different ways of looking at an issue to predict with much certainty beyond #3 in a good year plus hit on one or two more before the end of the first round.
However, it does force us to think about where each team needs improvement the most. All 32 teams go through this self-analysis each year. I can only say the picture has changed considerably since midseason...and for the better.
Rookie corner Bene Benwikere came on and played as well as anyone did down the stretch while fellow rookie DB Tre' Boston was a surprising find at safety after being injured much of the season. Trai Turner played well the last month or so and into the playoffs at RG and of course Kelvin Benjamin has one of the WR spots nailed down.
The bad news, in my opinion, is we could still use upgrades at both the tackle positions and at left guard along that offensive line.
I had said all along that moving RT Byron Bell to the left side was a bad idea and it was, despite one very visible open-field block on a staggering Patrick Peterson. That's what a lot of people remember. I remember guys like Jarvis Jones getting around him very nearly untouched all season long. Cam really needs a steadier hand on his blind side if he's going to further develop as a pocket passer and Bell never was the guy to do it.
Necessity being the mother of invention is why Bell resides at left tackle. It's not that he's so good; it's that the talent at the position on this roster is so bad. Mike Remmers played better than expected at RT, but not much was expected. Both would make for good depth but ideally would be riding the aluminum behind upgrades in 2015. The only reason it's not a complete disaster is Bell's knowledge of the blocking schemes used.
Amini Silatolu was a college left tackle who is not cutting it as a guard. Talk about irony. We don't have a drafted tackle on the team playing tackle, but we have one playing poorly at guard. Thanks, got it.
He looks like an apparent whiff to the Gettleman regime and nobody gets 'em all right. Still, an early second-round miss doesn't look good. With this year's apparent draft haul of solid rookies, he more than made up for it. Editor's note: Silatolu was in Marty Hurney's final draft class.
An upgrade over veteran WR Jerricho Cotchery is certainly on tap, and preferably a receiver with sub-4.4 speed. Gettleman and Ron Rivera both stressed speed when asked about the future, so they'll be looking for that in the draft. Mel Mayock could say a lot more than I can about fast WRs, but I have seen some blazers still hanging around in the middle rounds in past drafts so talent on that front should be there.
The final position of need on offense is at running back. The crew isn't getting any younger, although Jonathan Stewart proved he still has quite a bit of tread on the tire. One injury, and we're back to Fozzy Whitaker if DeAngelo Williams is indeed let go. If not, he's still past his prime and the team has tried (and failed) to hit the mark late in the draft the past two seasons in drafting two who are no longer with the team.
I really think the team wants some youth at the position despite Whitaker's contribution last season. It would possibly be a bit of a luxury pick, but then again this crew has proven they really do walk the walk when they say they hit on the best player available (or BPA) when they draft. They knew they needed the LT last year but smartly refused to reach for one so we wound up with two solid kids in Benjamin and DE Kony Ealy.
Ealy brings me around to have a look at the defensive side, where I see another group of gaping holes. It's obvious that we won't fix it all in a single draft but a key free agent in the middle price range could seriously get things started.
With DE Greg Hardy's future in question but with Ealy's continued improvement and emergence, the team lost a producing guy that they paid for, but I think (and thought at the time) that Gettleman was smart to "franchise tag" the Kraken. Why put yourself under a long-term obligation when you don't really HAVE to? Gettleman didn't, Hardy is probably being politically punished more than he will wind up being legally punished, and now has lost the support of many fans. The easier thing for the team to do would be to let him just walk and not take on a high salary with a high risk attached.
Charles "Big Money" Johnson has peaked but should hold down the position for this year. However, I think Gettleman would be wise to think about a grooming someone behind him. Wes Horton and Mario Addison bring seemingly quite different skill sets that don't overlap much, so an improvement there would make sense at the end but is not a pressing need right now.
What's most pressing is one of the cornerback positions and Roman Harper's starting job. Stiki Wiki needs help on the other side and Josh Norman could use being pushed by a teammate for the starting spot. Norman has the athletic ability but has yet to demonstrate ability to "put it all together" for a meaningful length of time as his emotions can often get the better of him and draw a penalty. Then he'll get burned or something and just when you're ready to swear off him, he makes a spectacular play. If you recall his interception and runback late in the season, you'll recall the play ended in a fumble and giving it right back. In "Madden-speak," he has low "awareness."
I saved the biggest name "worst" for last. Roman Harper is the best known name Gettleman signed last off-season. He was a relative bargain, we had a need, and he played like a bargain player. Rumor has it that he was signed as much for his "locker-room" presence as anything to guide the younger players of the defensive backfield.
Well, I think in that capacity, Harper was a bargain who helped the team improve like the veteran that he is. His contribution came more in the intangibles that we're seeing Benwikere and a bit more slowly in Tre' Boston, but both showed by season's end they are worthy starters.
So, where does that leave us?
I've got, in decreasing order (neediest being first):
LT, CB, RT, LG, WR, SS, and a defensive lineman to develop, whether inside or outside either will help.
Left Tackle - Cam MUST have a more stable pass protecting anchor. It's ridiculous how bad the left side of that line is, despite playing more cohesively down the stretch. I have been saying it since he was DRAFTED....Byron Bell does not have the feet to be a starting NFL left tackle. 1st-3rd rd
Cornerback - The team could use a more consistent, steady CB2 or a nickelback. The two positions combine to heighten the overall positional need to the second spot. We can't be ejecting veterans like Antione Cason midseason and expect to field a cohesive coverage unit. The either/or need gives Gettleman a wider window to use, so he could well push this "need" pick back. I think the team will grab one early or not until pretty late. Possibly both, especially if they don't like the selection of strong safeties. 1st-2nd/5th-7th rd
Right Tackle - Mike Remmers isn't the long-term answer here despite what some might wish. It's just wishing. Better OLBs and DEs and more game film will eventually expose him and with an athletic QB and our offensive coordinator....let's just say we need more athletic tackles. The RT tends to favor run-blocking while the LT tends to be a pass-blocker, or such is the idea. Much like the DBs, I think Gettleman will be forced to draft at least one starting offensive tackle, and at our draft position unless a nice LT falls, one of the best RTs should still be around when Carolina picks in the first. 1st-4th rd
Left Guard - This will be an interesting position to watch in that it should tell us a lot about how much they value Cam's Hog Mollies. A fairly early pick here along with an offensive tackle would show they're serious and very much so about improving the blocking and, secondarily, Cam's development in his crucial "option" year of his contract. He could either play into or out of a very big contract here and I don't think that is a consideration in Gettleman's strategy. He'll do what he feels is best depending on how the draft breaks. They got Trai Turner in the 3rd last year, and he was considered the second or third prospect (at worst) at guard in the draft, and that includes some college tackles kicked inside. Incumbent LG Andrew Norwell played surprisingly well but I still see him as a #3 guard. If the Panthers spend a lot of early draft capital on the offensive line, I think I will be happy with them. You build from the inside-out, and a very good guard can still be found in the middle rounds and injuries the past few years to the o-line has stretched our depth way too thin. 4th-7th rd
Wide Receiver - This and the offensive line are probably all going to be determined by how the draft goes and who is ranked where on the Panthers' big board. I know that sounds almost stupidly over-simplistic, but it might provide insight on just how bad the brass thinks they missed with the Silatolu pick. Quite possibly, they're thinking in an ideal draft, they'll get a LT first then a WR with some size, speed, and upside falls to them later in the second. Since Silatolu was a small-college tackle being kicked inside at the upper level, that's probably more neck than Gettleman wants to stick out after what happened to Hurney. Too much change at too many levels for an early second-rounder, I think. With Benjamin's emergence and TE Greg Olsen's steady presence, it won't be the end of the world not to get a good talent here and I think the guys are looking for "gems at positions, however they come" more than "best needs to be the left tackle, second best needs to be a corner" sort of rigidity. With the needs one the o-line and taking a WR in the first last season, I don't think Gettleman repeats Hurney's mistake. 2nd/4th-7th rd
Strong Safety - I think Gettleman will probably be thinking about what he got in the 4th and 5th rounds last year and won't be looking to fill this too early. Bigger needs are on offense and at corner and safeties generally don't have high "positional value" in drafts - much like RBs have become - but I don't think Gettleman will ignore it completely. 4th or 5th rd
Running Back - With D-Will getting long in the tooth, Stewies injuries, and lack of ability to acquire one that stuck from the last two drafts, Gettleman could well make a splash at this position and surprise everyone by grabbing a talented runner who might slide (not fall - slide) for whatever reason and consider it a nice value pick, but I don't see him doing it in the first round unless the seas part and things are just way too obvious somehow at the time. People are talking about Gurley from Georgia, but then again you hear more excited whispers about skill players like backs and receivers than you do about interior linemen. 1st-2nd or 6th/7th rd
With Kony Ealy being a surprise second-round "value" pick, you never do know what direction a particular year's draft will go. I think Gettleman and Andy Reid must be old buddies from someplace because I can easily see Gettleman spending maybe not another second-rounder but a third or fourth-rounder on maybe a DT to eventually and hopefully work his way up to maybe 3rd on the depth chart as a rookie and then to rotate in/use as contract leverage regarding Kawan and Star later. Lots of "maybes," but the depth along the defensive line could use a solid, all-around player...even if he's a good career back-up or spot-starter.
Don't forget, when you're thinking draft strategy, don't be playing checkers as a fan while the GMs ALL play chess....
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