Despite the 14-0 start with the Atlanta game outcome pending as I write this, let's just assume the team winds up 14-2. That's the worst possible record they could have at this point - far better than what anyone predicted, including Carolina Panthers homers.
The reason is largely due to Cam Newton's "coming of age" in 2015 and not the defense so much. For certain, there have been at least three or four games where the Panthers got a massive lead early, but only to see it vanish in the 4th quarter and have soon-to-be NFL MVP Cam Newton lead the offense on a game-winning drive.
35-7 became 35-35 despite the brawling between CB Josh Norman and the NFL's biggest ego, Odell Beckham, Jr. and the idiots making bat-excuses for his indefensible behavior. Yes, this whole episode peeled back the New York Giants' alleged organization's major issues...not the least of which is coddling their one great (non-QB) player and looking completely tone-deaf on the reality of his actions.
However, that game had wider ramifications. It also peeled back the onion skin on the Panthers and the fact that, despite an unblemished record, they have some holes to fill themselves.
Talk all season has been about not having a true replacement for the troubled defensive end they didn't re-sign, Greg Hardy, and "if" second-year player Kony Ealy could fill his shoes.
Clearly, Ealy hasn't done so...not yet, at least. Hardy took a few years to develop into one of the league's top pass-rushing defensive ends, so there's hope yet for Ealy. Meanwhile, the team has an aging Charles Johnson and a bunch of role-players who are good at either stopping the run (Wes Horton), the pass (Mario Addison), but not both - like the team hoped it was getting when they obtained veteran DE Jared Allen a month ago.
Allen's back is bad and he'll have to have surgery in the off-season for it so we don't even know he'll be in the NFL next year. You don't hear the same talk this year about "Carolina's dominant front-seven" because they are no longer dominant. In fact, I'd say the back-seven is a better group than the front-seven is...and that's mainly because of the humdrum play from that DE position.
With the 32nd pick in the draft at worst and perhaps the 25th or so at best, the Panthers won't be able to grab a plug-and-play guy at pretty much any position, let alone a coveted pass-rusher. So what can they do?
David Gettleman, the team's General Manager, has been a "draft the best available" type of GM in general and I can't think of anywhere he has obviously "reached" on a draft pick. Some say the Shaq Thompson pick was a reach, but he was drafted as a raw talent that wasn't needed to make an impact as a rookie but rather look to replace Thomas Davis in a year or two when he retires.
That said, I do think Gettleman is going to be seeking a defensive end first and foremost in the 2016 NFL draft, and a complete one at that. Sure, he may be raw as a late first-rounder, but if the team can acquire a guy who is similar in profile to Shaq Thompson was at his position entering the draft, I think the GM pulls the trigger on him.
I can't think of a position more in need of a complete player than the DE spot opposite CJ, and CJ himself isn't getting any younger. Before the start of this very season, I mused publicly about the wear and tear CJ has seen and was looking for his production to begin to drop as he has passed "over the hump" and is now, I believe, on the downside of a nice career. Although he's "only" 29 years old, he has already played eight full seasons with 2015 being the ninth.
Sure enough, he got injured and will only play in eight or nine games for 2015 and has but a single sack in the seven he HAS started. Whether it's age or injury, the result is the same. I think the team has been allowing these multiple-score comebacks because that D-Line isn't up to par when compared with recent years, despite DT Kawann Short's taking up some of that slack.
Perhaps our resident draft expert, Mel Mayock, can comment as to who may be available near the end of the first round that fits that profile, but we all know the draft grades are fluid and should change quite a bit as the draft comes more into focus. It's still four months away, and a lot can happen in that time.
In a perfect world, here's how I see the Carolina Panthers' draft playing out. No names, just positions and needs for the pick:
Rd 1: DE - a beastly pass-rusher with at least "average" ability to stop the run. The rub: Drafting late in the first, there is no free lunch. The Panthers will have to pay a price for such a kid, and won't go for someone with lots of off-field issues. Perhaps a 1-year wonder from a big school will be available, or they could go the route they have with several high picks in the past - getting a multi-year standout, but from a smaller school. Both carry risks.
Rd 2: CB - At the end of round two, there should be corners with good skills available. The rub: The cream of the crop will be gone, but signing Josh Norman to a long-term deal should be THE top priority for Gettleman contract-wise this offseason. He'll make at least $16 million - a mil per game - so they've gotta watch the long-term salary cap, which Gettleman is used to doing. If we wind up with a very solid CB2, the pick will have been worth it. Benwikere is best-suited as a nickelback.
Rd 3: DT - With Lotulelei and Short in the middle, this position is solid at the moment. The rub: Both guys will be entering their contract years in 2016, and Short is clearly the better player. Lotulelei has had injury issues off and on, and with Short looking for a fat contract of his own, DG could possibly try to ameliorate the upward salary pressures on his interior line by drafting another good player at the position, and in rd 3, there should be some good prospects left on the board. Even a "miss" of sorts would help make the back-ups younger than our current mid-30's crowd, so it's a win-win pick that could possibly help, as I said, keep a lid on the salary cap somewhat.
RD 4: SS - Yes, Roman Harper is playing better than he was last season, but he has hit his ceiling. The rub: It's difficult to nab good safeties out of college for some reason. It just seems like drafting the position is more hit-or-miss than many, but if there's a kid with "upside" on the board, I think it would be a good idea to draft him if for no other reasons than depth and making Harper stay honest. I still wish we were able to have kept Mike Mitchell, but such was the salary cap's hindrance at the time. Our loss was the Steelers' gain.
Rd 5: OT - With Oher playing well enough to do the job and having another year on his contract, and with Mike Remmers and Daryl Williams being available on the right side, this isn't as big a "need" as many people seem to think it is. The rub: Remmers' play is quite volatile as I've seen him have games where he seems to be outstanding at garnering holding penalties, and the rookie Williams has been injured for most of his first season. The team could get the "best available" in the fifth round, which would likely be a marginal NFL prospect. However, the team has the benefit of having three decent starters right now, so taking a chance on a late-round youngster for depth and possible high upside would make sense. Another small-school guy or perhaps a big-school guy with a history of unlucky injuries could be around and worth taking a shot at this late.
Rd 6: TE - This would be a TE3 out of the gate behind Olsen and Dickson, but perhaps DG can get a special teams contributor that can grow into learning the position. The rub: All picks have a "rub" this late, and a TE here would be a guy from the bench of a top school or the previously-thought "small school guy" - it just depends on what DG is looking for. I'm thinking a two-TE set offense would give OC Mike Shula even more to screw around opposing DC's minds with.
Rd 7: WR - A fast guy with questionable hands, but with speed to match that of Ted Ginn, Jr. The rub: He'd likely have Teddy Ten Thumbs' hands as well, but Ron Rivera has shown he has the knowledge and scheme to use Ginn in his most effective role - the deep over-the-top threat on a power running team. Ginn isn't getting any younger, and pure speed might be the biggest list-item for this position at this draft pick. The rest can be dealt with, but with Kelvin Benjamin returning and Devin Funchess maturing, the team would only be looking for a WR4-type guy in the first place.
If the Carolina Panthers can pick up a pass-rusher, it would go a long way to helping their defense close-out games unlike they've been able to do thus far in 2015. Everyone entered the 2015 campaign thinking the defense would be the team's strong point, but are pleasantly surprised that it's in fact the league's highest-scoring offense that has carried the team on the surface. What you may not know, however, is this team still leads the NFL in points off of takeaways...and that can't be done without having a very fine defense already. A pass rusher would make the defense a truly devastating unit.
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