The 2016 NFL Draft is just over a month away for the Carolina Panthers, as they look to add some difference makers to an already stacked roster.
The reigning NFC Champions select 30th overall in this year’s draft.
Though they are picking at the tail-end of the first round, this draft class is a deep and very talented group.
If you’ve glanced around the web, you’ve certainly come across lots of draft analyses, mock drafts and projections for the Panthers. Many of these make sense based on our current roster needs. Defensive ends like Kevin Dodd and Emmanuel Ogbah are tossed around. I see some Eli Apple and Mackenzie Alexander love at cornerback. Occasionally, I’ll see TCU wide receiver Josh Doctson or Notre Dame wideout Will Fuller.
Any of the above-mentioned names make a lot of sense for the Panthers, and I think most of Panther Nation would be happy adding any one of these stud players.
What I’m going to address here are five players that may not be on your radar.
These are players that fit Carolina’s schemes and systems, and may not have been in all of those first round mocks that are out there. We all know General Manager Dave Gettleman believes in a BPA approach - with the future in mind, rather than immediate need.
This list is not meant to rank players over other players necessarily. Rather, it’s just some names to add to your database in case the more popular names are gone when Carolina steps to the podium late Thursday night.
A lot can change between now and the end of April, but keep an eye on these standouts that are rising up draft boards.
Hunter Henry TE Arkansas
6’5” 250 lbs.
I know…. I know. The Panthers already have All-Pro Greg Olsen in the fold, so why spend a top pick on the same position?
Well, Carolina has evolved their approach to pass-catchers, by adding a lot of height and bulk as their top-three options, rather than trying to run a track team all over the field.
The Panthers boast a 6’5” Kelvin Benjamin on one side, and the 6’4” Devin Funchess is penciled in opposite Benjamin. Toss in the 6’5” Greg Olsen as your top receiving option and what you have is a match-up nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
Adding the 6’5” Hunter Henry gives Cam Newton another big target to exploit the seam and keep the chains moving.
Henry is the top-rated tight end in this draft class, and is very balanced between pass-catching and blocking. He would help add support in our run game, as his physical and powerful first step helped facilitate the Razorbacks’ productive rushing attack.
Where he really shines is as a receiver.
The 21-year old Arkansas alum runs a strong route tree and catches just about everything thrown his way. He will demand zone coverage or safety help, because there aren’t many linebackers in the league that are capable of keeping up with him in man coverage.
Carolina loves to run the 12 personnel system, utilizing two tight ends, so Henry would immediately replace the mediocre-at-best Ed Dickson. Newton would be salivating at staring down a receiving set of Benjamin-Funchess-Olsen-Henry.
Who do you focus on?
The Panthers were eyeing tight end Tyler Eifert in the 2013 draft, so it’s not out of the realm of Gettleman’s logic.
Ryan Kelly C Alabama
6’4” 311 lbs.
Another head scratcher for some since the Panthers already have veteran Ryan Kalil onboard, but Alabama’s Ryan Kelly could pose too much value to pass up at 30.
Let’s work backward, and start with Kalil first.
The 30-year old starting center is one of the best centers in the league, a captain and natural leader on this Panthers squad. However, the Panthers’ have some upcoming contracts that will need sorting out in order to keep the talent strong in Carolina.
Kalil has a team-option in 2017, after his 2016 cap number of $10.3MM. The Panthers could keep him moving forward, or he could be restructured. If Carolina does have to trim fat in order to lock up younger guys like Kurt Coleman, Star Lotulelei, Josh Norman, and Kawann Short, the veteran center could find himself on the outside, looking in. Further down the road will be deals for Benjamin, Bene Benwikere, and Trai Turner.
If Kalil were to be cut, it would be purely business, and not personal.
Kelly would provide that insurance, and also reflect the value/BPA model that a forward-thinking GM like Gettleman possesses.
Kelly was a beast for the Crimson Tide during his tenure in Tuscaloosa. A very technically sound and intelligent player, Kelly is an anchor in the middle. He could take over for Kalil seamlessly as he fills both the mold of a strong, sound player, as well as a natural leader.
Kelly opened holes for Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon and comes from a pro-style spread offense at Alabama. His head is always on a swivel, and demonstrates a calm ease while taking on defenders. Kelly has a wide base and fluid on his feet to move around and kick out in Carolina’s flexible offensive attack. He also has the potential to slide over to guard, which offers the Panthers options if Andrew Norwell is not the answer, or for injuries at that position.
Regarded as the top center in this draft class, if he is available at 30, the incredible value he presents might be too hard to pass over.
Keanu Neal SAF Florida
6’1” 205 lbs.
Maybe it’s because I just finished watching Keanu Neal’s pro-day at the University of Florida, but he is, yet again, passing the eye test.
Neal checks off lots of boxes for what the Panthers look for from their safeties. Size, physical dominance, run supporter and a sound tackler just to name a few. He is also very fast for his position, and it truly jumps out on tape.
The ex-Gator safety is a thumper. He is a ballhawking safety, that has a nose for the ball, and loves to hit hard. His speed and ability to throttle up to that speed quickly is very impressive for a DB over 200-pounds.
Neal is great in coverage and has huge hands (10 5/8 inches). His 38”- vertical and 132” broad jump are eye-opening as well. He brings an NFL-ready physique to the table and an intimidating presence about himself that would solidify our backend.
The free agent market is pretty dried up for safeties, so the Panthers will definitely draft one at some point. They could also look to other team’s cuts over the summer and during the preseason as well. Kurt Coleman was a brilliant addition in 2015, but he will need a partner next to him. Tre Boston, Dean Marlowe and Trenton Robinson will compete for Roman Harper’s vacated spot, but the jury is out on all three.
Keanu Neal has been slotted everywhere from the late 20’s, through the third-round of the draft.
The safety draft class is pretty stacked, so it all depends on which type of safety fits your team the best. Neal’s balanced, intelligent and punishing play stands out for what I hope the Panthers are looking for.
Sterling Shepard WR Oklahoma
5’10” 191 lbs.
I really want Sterling Shepard in a Panthers uniform next year. It’s not so much that I don’t believe in Philly Brown, Stephen Hill or Kevin Norwood, but the latter three names mentioned are not on the level that Shepard is ascending towards.
The former Oklahoma Sooner WR is a pure slot receiver, but has potential to be a dominant WR2 as well. Some comparisons thrown around are to Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett, Broncos’ Emmanuel Sanders and Steelers’ Antonio Brown.
I recall when Odell Beckham, Jr. was entering the draft and his stock continued to rise and rise, and rise. We all know how that ended, and they both share similar skill sets.
Phenomenal route runners, precision masters of the wide receiver position, intelligent, fast, quick in small space, shifty after the catch, and great at high-pointing the ball. His ability in traffic is very reminiscent of Steve Smith (dare I toss that legendary name out there) in how he plays bigger and stronger than his listed size.
Shepard is quietly creeping up draft boards and I fully believe he will be drafted within the first 30-40 picks when it’s all said and done.
He has tremendous ball awareness and you could watch him exhibit his knowledge of the route tree all day. The kid is explosive in the open field, and quickly outruns defenders when he hits that extra gear. A quick-twitch athlete that often humiliates defenders and has insane hops.
The Lockett comparisons are very valid, but I do see a combo of OBJ/Santana Moss when watching the Sooner-phenom. His addition would give Newton a true homerun threat, and balance the towering Benjamin-Funchess duo. Shepard is a great student of the game and has very high character too.
Ginn is aging and might be playing his contract expires after this season. If the Panthers have an opportunity to draft this electrifying speedster, you sort out the depth chart later.
He is truly the complete package. You’re welcome, Cam.
Jason Spriggs OT Indiana
6’6” 301 lbs.
Of the offensive tackles in the Panthers’ range, Jason Spriggs looks like an ideal fit. He’s big, super-athletic and excels in run blocking. If Carolina is looking for a tackle that can pull and create opportunities at the second level, Spriggs is their man.
The ex-Hoosier had a great Senior Bowl, and an even better combine. The word is definitely out on Spriggs, and there’s a chance he might get swiped away before the 30th pick.
Very fluid hips and light on his feet, his athleticism is mind-blowing for a six-foot-six offensive tackle. His bulky lower body allows him to lock down and win battles at the point-of-attack. Quick out of his stance and has great vision to his next move.
He will need to hit the weight room and add a good twenty pounds to that upper body, and get stronger up top. Due to his gifted frame, the additional weight shouldn’t slow down or decrease his positive attributes.
Carolina is not in need of a tackle immediately, but they will surely monitor both sides throughout 2016.
Michael Oher, 29, was brilliant in 2015, but his contract is up after this season. Mike Remmers had a decent season, though he was exposed towards the end of the year. Sophomore Daryl Williams looks like the long-term solution on the right side, if he can stay healthy. Snagging a versatile tackle like Spriggs provides depth, and a future cornerstone on the offensive line.