Nothing gets me more excited then the NFL Draft and everything leading up to it. Whether it be the prospect of big time playmakers on the board or exciting backyard players ready to make an impact on their hometown teams, the draft is a great event. In the months leading up to the draft, expectations and predictions run wild for most people. It seems that every pick, even seventh rounders, can be pro bowl players as long as they are drafted by your favorite team. Can that sixth round receiver who never topped a 1000 yards in college really be expected to perennially post outstanding numbers at the next level? Forgotten by most in all this excitement, is the draft class of the year prior. It might be because they didn't live up to the astronomical expectations you tabbed on him, or the newness factor has just worn off. Hopefully us Panther fans don't forget the great contributions this past crop of rookies gave us, and what we can expect from them in the future. Having a former scout at GM has been a blessing thus far, and we have been among the most successful teams on draft day since he took over the helm. This past class shows just that, so lets take a few moments to forget all the mania over the ensuing draft and reflect on what last years class did for us, and a realistic opinion on what I expect them to provide in the future.
Round 1: Kelvin Benjamin. 84 receptions for 1116 yards and 11 touchdowns (Including Postseason)
Kelvin Benjamin was maddeningly inconsistent as a rookie and tied the league lead for dropped passes at 10 during the regular season. However, his drop percentage was a not-so-terrible 6.9%. To put that into perspective, Steve Smith who also had 10 drops, had a higher drop percentage of 7.5%. Other notable drop percentages were Reggie Wayne at 7.8%, Jimmy Graham at 6.5%, Victor Cruz at 14.6%, and Torrey Smith at 6.5%. Looking at those stats show that Kelvin Benjamin’s drop issues are somewhat overblown, being that he is just a rookie. I expect him to iron out these issues somewhat and become a great receiver for many years.
Prediction: I’m going to say his stats on average will be around the Muhsin Muhammed level during the 1998-2000 seasons for a good portion of his career, but may never reach the height of Moose’s 2004 season. Pro Bowl Potential.
Round 2: Kony Ealy. 16 tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 4 sacks (including Postseason)
I am excited about this player as much as any young player on the Panthers. When his name was called in the second round last year I was frustrated. I thought we had enough defensive lineman and I wanted a receiver, in hindsight I was completely wrong. Hardy is out, and Kony will be expected to be an anchor on the defensive line for years to come. History shows us that most defensive ends truly breakout their third year in the league. This can supported with Greg Hardy, he had 3 and 4 sacks in his first two years and blew up for 11 in his third. I expect Ealy to follow this trend, but I also believe he will post more than 4 sacks next year.
Prediction: I’m going to have to temper my expectations for next year and say he finishes anywhere from 5-9 sacks barring injury. Once he gets a better feel for the game I believe he will post several years of 10 plus sacks as long as a good defensive end plays opposite of him. A comparison of Charles Johnson’s stat line from 2010 to now would be a fair one, but he could exceed Big Money’s career high of 12.5 sacks within the next 5 seasons. The future is bright for Ealy, and along with Kuechly, could continue the dominance of out front seven for years to come. Pro Bowl Potential.
Round 3: Trai Turner, 0 sacks allowed in regular season
Turner’s ceiling is probably as high or higher than any player the Panther’s drafted last year. He will be 22 at the start of next season, more than a year younger than the next youngest 2014 draftee on this list. After coming off an injury during the season, he was one of the key pieces down the stretch that helped solidify the interior of the line. Coming out of college he was primarily know as a fearsome run blocker and raw in pass protection. He showed flashes of being dominate in both categories, and hopefully he stays healthy for the rest of his career.
Prediction: Anchors interior of offensive line for the next decade barring injury. Further polishes his game and becomes one of the more dominate run blockers in the league. If everything goes as planned, could be one of the best offensive guards in Panther’s history. This is high praise for a young player with a smaller sample size, but their is no reason he cant be capable of doing so. Pro Bowl Potential, maybe All Pro as well.
Round 4: Tre Boston. 31 tackles, 2 interceptions, one of them being a glorious 84 yard pick six compliments of Matt Ryan (Including Postseason)
The Browns broke my heart when they drafted Pierre Desir one pick before we were set to be the clock, but I’m sure glad they did. Little did I know at the time, we would pick up a good young safety and one of the biggest steals of the draft at cornerback in the next round, as Cam Newton would say, “Hindsight is 50/50.” Boston, who was one of my favorites at UNC (go heels) looked like a bust for much of the preseason and some of the regular season. When he came back he eventually supplanted Thomas Decoud, who was sent by the Falcons to sabotage our team and took off. He has a reputation for being a boom or bust playmaker, and this was evidenced during several games this season.
Prediction: I think Boston will develop into a solid and vocal player in the secondary. His coverage skills may never be there, but his big play ability may make up for it. I’m not going to say he’ll be a Pro Bowl player, but I’m also not going to say he couldn't be one.
Round 5: Bené Benwikere. 35 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble (Including Postseason)
Panther fans regard him as Big Play Bené, but just like, “Calculated-Risk-Taker Ron” it may be more accurate to refer to him as Consistent Play Bené. To appropriately scale Benwikere’s game, lets look at ProFootball Focus’ yards per cover snap statistic, which by their definition is: YPCS measures the yardage conceded when a player is in primary coverage, on a per snap basis. This is supposed to measure how “shutdown” a corner actually is. Benwikere finished tied with Aqib Talib for eleventh at .98 yards per cover snap, this puts him ahead of corners Joe Haden and Patrick Peterson. It’s intriguing that Josh Norman finished third on the list with .77 YPCS, ahead of Darrelle Revis and just .01 behind Richard Sherman at #2. The only other team with two corners in the top 11 was Denver with Chris Harris at #1 and Talib at #11.
Prediction: Bené has the potential to be a good outside corner, but he could easily be one of the best slot corners in the league. Drafting or bringing in a corner to play opposite of Norman would not only benefit the team, but Benwikere’s potential also. If he plays a majority of his career in the slot, it wouldn't be surprising if he ended up being the best NFC South nickel back since Ronde Barber. Pro Bowl and All Pro potential.
Round 6: Tyler Gaffney. 0 rushing yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 Super Bowl ring.
If someone would have said after the draft, that at least one member of the Panther’s draft class would have a Super Bowl ring at the end of the year, I may have cried. It wasn't Gettleman’s proudest moment when the Patriots stole Gaffney away, but the addition of Fozzy Whittaker softened the blow. In hindsight, I really wish we would've drafted Seantrel Henderson in the sixth round, but that’s for another article.
UDFA #1: Andrew Norwell, 9 games started
A free agent gem in every sense of the saying. Norwell came in as an unknown about halfway through the season and played well. A gritty mauler with a little meanness in him, Andrew is another example of just how good Gettleman is at scouting undrafted talent. Even though he played well, his ceiling isn't nearly as high as Trai Turner’s, and we may not see much growth from here until the end of his career. Even so, he played well enough to go in as one of the favorites to start next year.
Prediction: Norwell improves just like you'd expect every rookie to do, even if it’s not to the amount Trai Turner does. I’m going to be bold right here and say Turner and Norwell will start together and provide a fierce run blocking duo for years to come. That is the best case scenario obviously, it is also entirely possible that the Panthers find a better player with a higher ceiling in the draft the next few years, and Norwell becomes a steady backup.
UDFA #2: Philly Brown, 41 receptions for 357 yards and 2 touchdowns (Including Postseason)
When we needed speed, Philly Brown was able to provide it. When we needed fresh legs at wide receiver, Philly Brown was able to provide it. When we needed a score vs Chicago and Atlanta, Philly Brown was able to provide it. We all know what Philly Brown did pretty well, so I did a little math to see what he could've done. Based on per target ratios, if Philly was targeted the 146 times Kelvin Benjamin was during the regular season, and the stats he put up with his 36 targets stayed true; Philly would have put up 1200 yards and 8 touchdowns. Even though I highly doubt he would've put up those stats, it’s interesting to consider given his small sample size.
Prediction: Philly might be able to keep a spot as the starting slot receiver when we draft or bring in a receiver to play opposite of Benjamin. It is entirely possible that a couple receivers we bring in knock him out of the lineup and relegate him to the fourth or fifth WR. On the other side of the coin, he could put up 500-600 yards and 5 touchdowns as a starter. It is unknown what the future holds for Philly Brown and his spot in the offense.
UDFA #3: Adarius Glanton, 13 tackles, 1 forced fumble (Including Postseason)
I thought I’d throw him in here because I like him. Glanton was a guy the front office liked and wanted to bring him in during UDFA. He played well when AJ Klein was down with injury, possibly creating a small controversy on who wins that third LB spot next year. He’ll be a guy to keep your eye on, at the least, he pushes Klein to play harder to win his spot.
By Grant Hughes
Follow Grant on Twitter @KenjonVander