The consensus of the 2014 Carolina Panthers draft seems to be that fans like parts of it and don't like others. That much is par for the course, but I think the one thing most of us have in common is that "need" positions on offense weren't addressed adequately.
Let's take a look at what an "alternative" draft might have looked like, with each of the following picks having been someone on the board AFTER the player we took was picked:
1 (28) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, FSU
1 (28) Joel Bitonio, OL, Nevada
Notes: The more I read about this kid, the more I think, with proper coaching, he could wind up a good (not great) left tackle down the road. His scouting report says he has "average" feet and carries his hands low, but the latter can be coached up and the former seems to be contradicted by his drills at the combine as he had the best 10 and 20-yard split on his 40 there, indicating he has outstanding acceleration for plays where he has to be on the move. It sounds like the "average" part is lateral agility, which could limit him on the left, but could be a placeholder at LT for a year or two. He's also known to be a tough player with a nasty streak. Highly durable, and would undoubtedly be a better pass-blocker than Byron "The Turnstile" Bell if he moves to the LT spot as is planned thus far. Then, when a top-notch LT presents himself, Bitonio could move to the RT spot and send Bell to the bench.
2 (60) Kony Early, DE, Missouri
2 (60) Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Notes: Robinson is a much more polished player than the raw Kelvin Benjamin and has a ridiculous vertical leap. Add that to his 6'2" frame, and his superior and more developed skill set at this point would give him about as big a "catch radius" as Benjamin and with a TON more college film to judge him on. Again, I don't like taking the raw 1-year wonders in the first round so with the tackle need being taken care of, Cam gets protection and a viable target with the top two picks. Robinson mixes nice red-zone skills with open-field awareness to make catches all over the field. Not a burner, but neither is Benjamin. Robinson has superior RAC ability to Benjamin's.
3 (92) Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina
Notes: At 5'9" and 197 pounds, Ellington has some thickness and strength to his stature. Although largely relegated to the slot, his strength might allow him to play some snaps on the outside, depending on his matchup. He's also a good return man, with his brother Andre Ellington being a speedster RB for the Arizona Cardinals. Clocked at "only" a 4.45, he has that extra gear that allows him to threaten the field vertically. His addition would be a welcome one for an anemically under-powered Carolina offense and completes the face-lift on that side of the ball to help give the defense something to root for...and hopefully stay on the field, letting that defense get some rest.
4 (128) Tre Boston, SS, UNC
4 (128) David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Notes: A hat-tip to David Gettleman and the Trai Turner reality pick the previous round, Yankey was projected by some to be a late first-round pick and the second best guard on the table. He has similar strengths and weaknesses as does Turner - at least for our purposes, enough to call the two equivalent. They had very near-equal grades and this pick gives Carolina a solid starter at RG and the extra value of being a 4th round pick instead of Trai's third rounder.
5 (148) (from Vikings) Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose State
5 (148) (from Vikings) Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton
Notes: Reid is a developmental prospect that could be a great rotational player initially for that interior defensive line - namely for Kawann Short. Built and runs like a prototype 3-technique, he's very quick and disruptive off the snap. However, he plays too high and needs to build a little more bulk in the upper-body but coaching and an NFL strength and conditioning program should take care of most of that over time. I really like this kid as he has a lot of the traits you want in an off-tackle in a 4-3 defense like Carolina's.
6 (204) Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
6 (204) Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
Notes: I liked this pick as both a value pick and as a sort of tertiary need-based pick. With James Stewart's chronic injuries, Kenjon Barner being injured his rookie season, and DeAngelo Williams getting older, Gaffney has good size (5'11" 220 lbs) and style to be an effective rusher between the tackles. In today's backfield by committee system, teams need a steady stream of runners that don't have to have a wide skill set, but if Gaffney can learn blitz and pass protection, he has the hands to be a 3-down back in the NFL. His 4.5-speed won't get him many breakaway runs, but is fast enough to be deceptive....as well as seemingly faster later in games after he's beaten up defenders for several quarters, making them a step slower in pursuit. He could develop into "the closer" that good ball clubs covet in their backfields and supplement Mike Tolbert in a form of an "elephant backfield."
Wherever you get, you give up something as well. While the re-draft here has no help in the defensive backfield, Carolina's defense was #2 in almost every category as it was last season and been supplemented with several low-end free agent signings like Antoine Cason, Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper for the short-term. They'll have to be replaced sooner rather than later so not taking DB help is admittedly "kicking the can down the road," but I've addressed more pressing needs.
Where we've really gained is immediate impact and explosiveness in the passing game as well as better help for the tackle position. While Bitonio might be a bit of a reach in the first round for need, it would appear that he has the intangibles to become at the very least, a serviceable left tackle late in his rookie season with good upside potential in his second year and beyond. At worst, he could always be kicked inside to guard, stacking us two-deep at BOTH guard spots, which would have been an incredible feat of luck the past two years as we'd have little to no drop-off if both starters get injured again. The Yankey pick helps solidify that interior just as the "real draft" Trai Turner pick did.
However, instead of Turner, we get "Backyard Baller" Bruce Ellington from the REAL USC in Columbia, S.C. who can hold down the slot, take the top off the defense, and replace Ted Ginn, Jr. in the return game and a second toy for Cam to play with.
The passing game should instantly improve with Bitonio's growth over the year as he learns NFL coaching style and is a road-grading TACKLE in the run game - something that actually is a bit of a luxury on the weak side. In effect, he'd be learning pass-protection schemes while top-tier guards other than second overall pick Greg Robinson from Auburn usually come in better pass-protectors than mauling run blockers, but not always.
Allen Robinson should almost certainly be more polished and productive on the field from day one over giant WR Kelvin Benjamin and has a higher floor than Benjamin while having a roughly equivalent ceiling, with Benjamin possibly having a slight edge there, but a much riskier pick in the first round than Robinson would have been.
That's two additions to the offensive line along with two new receivers with widely different skill sets to add that dynamic element to the offense that was SO lacking in 2013.
So, what you see here is a mesh of "best player available" mixed in with "...in a position of need."
What I see here is offensive production going from dead-last in explosive plays to somewhere close to the middle of the pack in 2014, and with the stifling defense Carolina already has in place, it would seem to give opposing teams a lot more to worry about and game-plan for than what we saw in the current draft. Gettleman doubled-down on defense and depth there and added the guard for help on the inside, but this draft provides a much more dynamic element while not risking the top pick on a guy who could turn out to be another Stephen Hill - freak athlete, no NFL production because of the massive learning curve from inexperience.
As the real draft stands, I think our chances of repeating as division champions are rather bleak, given the moves others in the NFC South made. Carolina's offense has actually taken a step backwards for 2014 while the post-draft "fantasy" draft actually addresses the weakest parts of the team while still making an arguable case for taking the "BPA" at nearly every position other than the first-round tackle that was, again, a bit of a "need" reach but fixable in time. Benjamin may be too raw to completely "fix" in the NFL and almost certainly won't reach his full potential for a couple of years, assuming he hasn't lost his confidence in the process going up against guy after guy each weak who knows what they're doing in defending him and capitalizing on his lack of experience and weaknesses that will continue to be revealed as his NFL tape grows. He'll win the "jump balls" but Cam's accuracy still isn't there consistently. Passes too low could be picked off, so there's a downside.
Remember, all this is 20/20 hindsight with the benefit of knowing which players will be available for the next pick. Gettleman didn't have that and neither did anyone else. That being said, the above re-draft is but one possibility of "what might have been" had Gettleman taken a different path and tried to maximize immediate improvement with good players instead of using picks like Kony Ealy in part as contract leverage against future salary cap busters like Greg Hardy's upcoming contract after being franchised for 2014.
As "shrewd" as Gettleman is or may seem, at some point he has to realize that the Panthers aren't going to be winning any Super Bowls with "six or seven" good players on offense and with nothing to scare defensive coordinators in the passing game. They'll load up against the run and we'll see a repeat performance of a sluggish offensive unit from 2013 into 2014.
I wrote a good bit more than I had planned on, but I wanted to compare and contrast what Gettleman did with a scenario that he could have gone with. Both scenarios have question marks in the first round for different reasons, but in the "what if?" case, a "miss" on the tackle turns into a top-ten guard pro someday and depth for the oft-injured interior line.
It sure is food for thought if nothing else, isn't it?
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