10 Cornerbacks the Carolina Panthers are Watching at the 2014 NFL Combine

“Not to call those guys [Carolina] out, but their secondary is probably their weakest link on their defense
                                                                                     --Santonio Holmes          

Holmes caught more flack than footballs for his comments while in Carolina, not because they were disrespectful, but because he was right.  

Crazy talk huh? The #2 overall defense, supported by the #6 pass defense, could only be so weak you would think. The truth though is that Carolina’s secondary played better than they really are in 2013. It’s foolish to expect this caliber of play regularly going into 2014 from a piecemeal squad of war-weary veteran journeymen, thought to be bust and cuts, an undrafted free agent, and a tenacious miniature man. Sorry, the truth hurts.

The secondary is the weak link.  I can’t remember any game where I wasn’t nervous that Carolina’s pass rush may be bottled up, leaving the secondary to fend for themselves. The chance of being torched was all too real.  Remember Seattle. Buffalo. Arizona. New Orleans. Oh and San Francisco?

Fan chatter to this point has mostly harped on signing Greg Hardy to establish potentially one of the best defensive lines ever, getting Cam more protection, and adding a potent wide receiver to the mix.  Fans have seesawed consistently between offensive tackle and wide receiver when speculating about Carolina’s 1st Rd pick.  Speculation concerning Carolina strengthening the secondary in the draft has been sparse.

Here’s a peek at 10 cornerbacks the Panthers will surely have their eyes on at this weekend’s combine.

1st Rd Stunners: Not many fans believe that Carolina will pick a CB at #28 given Gettleman’s professed love for hogmollies and the glaring need for a WR. There’s more depth at offensive tackle and wide receiver than at defensive back, however.  If strengthening the secondary turns out to be Dave Gettleman's top priority, he may have to look to the 1st Rd for a sure impact.

Marcus Roberson, FSU- (6’0, 195 lbs) The Florida cornerback, who was courted by Auburn, chose to stay close to home, playing a significant role in Florida’s resurgence over the past two years. He’s a big, physical corner, who has the tendency to get a bit handsy.  He has quick feet and hip movement.  He isn’t the greatest tackler, and durability will be a concern for the Panthers while evaluating Roberson.  He missed five games in 2013 with knee and foot injuries. The combine will be important for Roberson. There are some minor character concerns, so Roberson will have to interview well and check out well with the doctors. He doesn’t have the fanfare of other corners, but there is a big upside to him if he can stay healthy.

Bradley Roby, OSU (5’11, 192 lbs) Has good size and amazing speed.  Word around Ohio is that Roby once ran a 4.26/40yd and consistently runs 4.3 speed in practice. This is the type of speed can’t be taught and would allow Roby compete with speedy wideouts like Mike Wallace, who torched the Panthers secondary in 2013. He has great ball skills and instincts, and isn’t afraid to jump a route, step up in rush coverage, or layout a big boy. The great news is that Roby has a lot of room to improve, but demonstrates the talent to become a top NFL corner. He had a humbling last year in Ohio that I think will pay dividends in the NFL. Roby has seen how the hype can dissipate quickly.  He has already been introduced to the idea that people’s views of a player’s potential and value hinges only on what they did in the last game.  Expect Roby’s stock to rise after the combine.  His sheer athleticism will impress and #28 may even be a stretch.

2nd Rd Realities: Not many fans believe Gettleman will go after a corner in the 2nd Rd. Cornerback is one of the harder positions to fill at the pro level. Generally, the drop off is distinct from the 1-2 round prospects and round 3-4 players. Often if you are going to grab a corner that will make a difference quickly, it happens by the 2nd round. This may be the factor that forces Gettleman to consider a defensive back ahead of a wide receiver or offensive tackle.

Kyle Fuller, VT (6’0, 194 lbs)- He may just be the hidden gem of the draft.  Fuller is a hard worker, has a solid game, and has been predicted by some to be the #3 overall corner in the draft.  He’s tough, fast, big, and has the chops to make it in the pros.  He isn’t graded as a first round talent, but he has the upside of one. He predicts routes well, plays the ball, and has the speed to keep up downfield. Fuller did have a serious groin tear that ended his senior season early.  He doesn’t always have the best tackling technique, but he is tough and aggressive. Durability will be the concern for NFL GMs evaluating Fuller. His season ending injury may depress his stock enough for the Panthers to make a move in the 2nd Rd.

Louchiez Purifoy, FL (6’0 190)- Here’s a guy that could legitimately be on the board at  #60 who probably shouldn’t.  He has an NFL physique, Bradley Roby like speed, and good football instincts. Purifoy had a standout sophomore season in 2012, registering 51 tackles, 3 INTs, and 5 PDs. His junior year wasn’t as impressive, notching only 27 tackles, 0 INTs, but he did force three fumbles.  His pass breakups also went down significantly...to zero. Purifoy’s performance is somewhat puzzling and there are some questions surrounding him that GMs will be trying to answer in combine interviews.  Purifoy was suspended a game to start the season after being arrested for marijuana possession. The charges were eventually dropped, so the offense appears rather minor, but it won’t help his draft status in light of diminished production. Purifoy also left a year early under some bewildering circumstances. Some have suggested that both he and Florida were ready to part ways, causing him to enter the draft early, despite a less than stellar junior season.  Purifoy has some real potential and, with 4.37 40yd speed, he will be hard to pass up in the 2nd.  

3rd Rd Reaches: Most fans believe the Panthers will draft an offensive lineman or wide receiver in the 1st. If Carolina does draft a hogmolly first, the likelihood of drafting a corner in the 3rd increases significantly. No matter how deep this receiver class may be, once you get to the 3rd round it becomes exponentially more difficult to land a receiver that can be an immediate contributor. In this case, Carolina will likely look to add a receiver in the 2nd to avoid taking on a developmental offensive prospect in the 3rd. Here are a few guys that could be helpful 3rd round additions if a secondary need has yet to be addressed. .

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, NU (6-3, 215 lbs) Seattle’s success will make guys like Jean-Baptiste even more attractive in 2014. Most likely, he will creep into the second round because of his size alone. He’s big, has long arms, and can play off the line, showing speed and athleticism for his size. Converting from wide receiver, Jean-Baptiste surprisingly isn’t a big hitter or overly physical. His lack of experience may contribute to his lack of physicality. Rivera and the boys can surely toughen him up and teach him to tackle. The Seattle phenomenon will only encourage GMs to build bigger secondaries, possibly pushing Jean-Baptiste ahead of more polished corners. If he is still on the board at #92, the Panthers could just pounce on a guy that once played junior college ball in NC.

LeMarcus Joyner, FSU (5-8, 195) Here’s another Captain Munnerlyn. He may not be tall, but he plays like a giant. There’s really not a question about Joyner’s ability.  He has good coverage skills, anticipates the ball, hits hard, and tackles better.  The problem is that he’s 5’8.  At 195 lbs, you really can’t expect or want him to bulk up that much more, and he’s not going to get taller. It’s going to be difficult for Joyner to match up against the 6’3”-6’6” receivers that are becoming the standard. This physical limitation may cause his draft stock to drop significantly. He will likely play more safety or nickel corner than be a guy asked to man up all the time. It’s doubtful that Carolina would use its 2nd Rd pick on Joyner, but there are a lot of question marks about the safety position in Charlotte.

E.J. Gaines, MU (5’10, 195)- He’s one of the more refined corners of the draft.  He is tough, athletic, a isn’t afraid to put his head in the fan (a term I just ran across on a Steelers fan site describing players willing to step up and stop the run).  Gaines has held his own against top SEC talents, most notably Mike Evans, who he held to 4 catches for 8 yds.  Everything suggest that Gaines should go higher than the 4th Rd.  Oddly, he has flown under the scouting radar and is projected late 3rd or early in the 4th.  According to CBS sports, Gaines runs a 4.44-40.  If he runs this or better at the combine, I think he “Gaines” ground and moves into the 3rd round.  His height isn’t a sexy as some of the 6’1 guys, but he looks to have the chops to play at the pro level.  Oh and being willing to stick your head in the fan is a trait highly coveted in Carolina.

4th Round Hopefuls: Hopeful is the key word here.  There’s a good chance each of the following players makes the top 100.  There is also the chance that one of them slips through the cracks. 

Keith McGill, U (6’3, 215) McGill’s physique alone may help him creep into the 3rd Rd.  Currently, he’s projected as a 4th Rd pick and could still be around while the Panthers are on the board.  McGill is a mixed bag exemplified by his near bipolar performance in the senior bowl.  For much of the game, he was matchup against Jordan Matthews (a Panther fan favorite already). McGill held his own for the most part when he wasn’t icing up.  Strangely, McGill pulled up lame the times Matthews got the best of him. His Senior Bowl performance nicely symbolized the McGill paradox. McGill’s physical stature alone allows him to be competitive in most matchups. He can move pretty well for his size, but he lacks experience at corner and can be exposed by receivers who are strong route runners like Matthews. The biggest gamble with McGill is durability. He missed his entire junior season and part of his sophomore campaign because of injury. He has a lot of the physical tools to compete in the NFL, but he remains a working project.

Pierre Desir, Linwood (6’1, 195 lbs) - His size and speed alone are “Desir-ed” by NFL GMs.  What makes him even more tempting is that he is athletic and seems to be pretty goo too! Desir had a great showing at the Senior Bowl, causing problems for Clemson’s Tahj Boyd.  As a Division II player, Desir hasn’t played against top-tier athletes while at Linwood (wherever that is...Missouri .  His athleticism alone has been enough to become a Division II standout.  Nevertheless, there is still something left to be “Desir-ed” about his actual technique.  Desir has a lot of potential, but is a project player.  Honestly though, is there any 4th Rd player who isn’t a project?  He may just be a gamble worth taking.   

Jaylen Watkins, FL (6’0, 194 lbs)-cornerbacks must grow on orange trees because Watkins is another Florida defensive back that will certainly peek interest at the combine.  Overshadowed by Roberson, Purifoy, and his younger brother (Sammy Watkins), Jaylen has done everything asked from him to this point. He’s looked good in practice drills, played well when his number was called, and even confidently  predicted a sub 4.4 40 yd time at the combine. So why is it that his name is so far down on the list?  SBNations’ Mike Kaye seems to have zeroed in on the problem, Watkins has never consistently started.  He’s been more of a rotational player. It’s just kind of bizarre and leaves one scratching their head.

Carolina's secondary played remarkably well last season given limited personnel. Captain Munnerlyn statistically had a strong season. Mike Mitchell established himself as a NFL starter once again. The problem is that the unit can’t be expected to perform that well with the current personnel. Simply put, when you’re undersized and outmatched, you have to play the game of a lifetime every week.  

There’s little question that Carolina needs more talent behind Kuechly and Davis.  The question remains though when and who will the Panthers draft to round out Carolina’s league leading defense.