Around this time of year, many fans have their eyes set on the NFL Combine, free agency, and then in about two months, the NFL Annual Selection Meeting, better known as the NFL Draft. The more casual fans tend to go into hibernation right after the Super Bowl, only to re-emerge in August for pre-season ball games, college football's kickoff, and finally the NFL opening week.
The truth is the hibernating ones are missing out. A good portion of the teams make roster moves in free agency even if they don't have much salary cap space. Without getting into the "dead money" and nuts and bolts of things, the reasons are vast.
Carolina Panthers and their Offensive Needs
Certainly, the biggest two factors are cost of keeping the player and the player's performance, and in Carolina's particular case, two huge contracts looming for the team's two biggest young stars...Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly.
There has been a lot of talk and speculation about what shiny new toy Cam might get in the first couple of rounds as well as pretty much every other position on the roster save for punter and kicker. The usual for fans of whatever team this time of year, but what does the reality of the big picture say?
To me, it says David Gettleman is going to have to concentrate on making the offensive line as solid as he possibly can while nabbing at least one new toy for Cam.
Whether it's through free agency, the draft, or probably both, the outsides of the line - the two tackle positions - need big upgrades, and they need them now. Whatever people think of Byron Bell and Mike Remmers, they aren't the best pair of bookends in the NFL. Far from it.
While both guys are relatively young, Remmers has the higher "upside" to him but I'm not sold that it's high enough to depend on him to hold up for the entire season, and I think everyone knows Byron Bell belongs as either a career back-up or kicked inside to play guard, and that's even assuming the team is set at the left guard position.
This brings us back to money, in point of fact. The reason isn't that the Panthers are overpaying their linemen (except for Kalil possibly but he's also one of the best centers around), but are about to plunk down a massive wad o' cash for both Cam and Keek.
When you're doing that, you want to make sure Cam's not being hit hundreds of times more often than the next-most-hit NFL starting QB. I have yet to see any QB absorb the punishment Cam has while passing and become a star, and I'm not talking about the added hits he takes when running. Those hits, he can usually see coming and with his size and strength he often wins those, anyway.
It's the unexpected hits he takes as a passer that really take their toll, and the thing is you really cannot develop a signal caller very far when he's worried if his head will still be physically attached to his body after any given pass play-call. I mean, think about it. It's not that hard to see.
A distracted, footstep-hearing QB? Oh, the Panthers can find BAGS of guys like that without having to pay them north of $100 million and when you pay that kind of money without protecting him, well, what's that popular definition of "insanity" again?
Last season put the stamp on Gettleman's mind to bring in some new hog mollies to inject some life and more athleticism to the o-line, and if it didn't it should have. He need look no further than the average per carry with runs up the middle last year, on this power-run-first team: 3rd-worst in the NFL in yards per carry on those runs at 3.13.
That just won't cut it.
If the consensus comes to pass (no pun intended), the Panthers are going to be drafting heavily on the offensive side of the ball. I see at least five of seven picks going that direction with the two on defense being (hopefully) a safety and a corner who happen to be the "BPA."
Offensively, if I had my choice of five I would likely go offense in the top two rounds. Since this draft is fairly deep in talent at tackle, the Panthers should be able to draft a very good upgrade athletically over Byron Bell.
Potential Draft Targets for Carolina
You want a name? Jake Fisher, OT from Oregon.
Fisher ran well and led all at his position in the drills. He's not quite as polished as the likes of La'el Collins perhaps, but Collins is projected as a RT plug-and-play guy. Fisher is actually a former TE who bulked up, so the kid can move quite well for a LT. His downside is lack of strength, which one might imagine for a converted TE, and his run-blocking needs work. I think the strength issue will take care of itself once he's in an NFL strength and conditioning program, but he's going to have to work on his craft. He has great feet, which makes him a good candidate to be a late-first-round selection by the Panthers.
Fisher's raw talent, quick feet, and overall athletic nature should be just what the doctor ordered for the Panthers' o-line woes and he's a guy that should be at LEAST as effective as Byron Bell from day one. I realize that's not saying much, but Bell does have four years of NFL starting experience, and that's not something a rookie can get without work on the field and comes with the territory for young guys entering the league.
The hope would be that, by the time the stretch run comes up, he'll have had time to get stronger and hopefully will have learned enough in games and practice through absorbing good coaching on his skills that he'll become an effective blind-side protector by the end of the season. With offensive tackles being shunted-up the draft board due to "positional value," it isn't out of the question to pick him near the end of the first round even if he's probably going to be a bit of a liability until he really climbs the learning curve hard. At this point, anything is an upgrade over Byron Bell, and you can't coach up Bell's slow feet.
As for the second round, a fast WR should be in the crosshairs. At this point, it's hard to say who exactly that might be, but Amari Cooper of Alabama won't be around - he's a top-ten projection and certainly won't fall to the mid-20's.
Two guys are going to get a good, long look by the Panthers in the second: Phillip Dorsett and Chris Conley.
Certainly, "better" candidates are out there, but they should be long gone by the end of the second round, and I'm simply trying to be realistic about who may still be on the board.
Of those two, I like Chris Conley. While Dorsett has blazing speed, he's a smaller (5'10") guy and probably would be relegated to slot duties, but we already have Philly Brown. We need a bigger guy for the outside, and that's Georgia's Chris Conley.
Conley actually nearly matched Dorsett's 4.33-40 combine time with a 4.35, so even he may be gone by Carolina's second-round pick, but there are still a few "outside" receivers ahead of him on the draft boards, I'm sure - guys like Ohio State's Devin Smith and West Virginia's Kevin White, so a nice value with size and speed could be hanging around when the second round draws to a close especially considering how many teams will be going after defensive talent.
It'll all depend upon whom Gettleman sees as a "value," something he has been known to pull. Recall, he nabbed DE Kony Ealy in the second round as he slid last year, but he's a first-round talent and Gettleman wisely took the BPA (best player available), even before the Greg Hardy "scandal" arose. I wouldn't go so far as to call that one a "prescient" pick, but it just happened to work out well due to future events.
Could they pick from the needs-list and grab a safety, corner, or other position with the second rounder? Again?
Absolutely they could. Again, remember last year. We needed help at tackle then, and didn't draft one. I understand the reasoning - none of a good "value" were around when we were picking - but not upgrading the tackle position then just pigeon-holes Gettleman into pretty much having to take one this year, and with a high pick, assuming one isn't available through free agency.
Truly, there may not be. The San Diego Chargers just re-signed my favorite off-season tackle prospect, King Dunlap, with a four-year deal worth around $9 million per season, so he would not have come cheap, and cheap is Gettleman's middle name.
That's not a knock on Dave at all; in fact, that's a big reason he was hired. Former GM Marty Hurney was too soft and gave out huge contracts for his favorite players, a bunch of running backs and where did Charles "Big Money" Johnson get that sobriquet?
However, we're coming very, very close to the end of these mega-contracts-from-hell and the salary cap should open a lot wider next season. Consensus is that DeAngelo Williams is going to be cut due to money issues, injuries, age, and poor production overall and Jonathan Stewart, who was the second-most productive RB in the NFL over the final six weeks of last season, looks to be the workhorse back with surprisingly-effective Fozzy Whittaker being in the mix.
Carolina Needs Youth in the Backfield
The Panthers still need a fresh young set of legs that they haven't been able to keep the past couple of years. Kenjon Barner never worked out, and 7th-round pick Tyler Gaffney was picked up by the New England Deflatriots when put on waivers, which was a nasty move on their part. Karma got 'em in the end, however, when they waived a promising young WR with the idea of putting him on the practice squad (just like Gaffney was supposed to for Carolina), but the Oakland Raiders picked up Kenbrell Thompkins. I thought it was poetic justice.
The point is, don't be shocked to see the team draft a RB in the middle rounds. Father Time is beginning to work against the Panthers here and an injury to the fragile Jonathan Stewart would really set the team's offense back a long way. Whittaker doesn't have the size to be a workhorse (205 lbs) and the team really needs that injection of youth at the position that it has failed to produce in the past couple of seasons.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see us pick up a free agent "3rd-down back" and still draft a strong pair of legs in the third or fourth round that can develop behind Stewie. I do think that's the plan, especially considering D-Will's tenuous future with the team.
If the Carolina Panthers and David Gettleman's crew can grab a starting left tackle, a good WR prospect that should start by early-to-mid-season, and a solid second-string RB with upside, as well as a RIGHT tackle candidate in the middle to late rounds for the bench/depth/insurance on Mike Remmers' play, the offense should become a much more potent weapon instead of the hit-or-miss machine it was last season.
With Cam's contract looming, the team should go out of their way to get help and some good set-pieces around him, and doing so would help make Cam and his agent a lot more happy when the time comes to talk hard numbers. Otherwise, if the offense doesn't get multiple upgrades this off-season, Cam could be a very, very unhappy franchise QB heading into contract talks and that would not be a good thing.
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