Carolina Panthers Draft Grade

I'll just give you a hint to start with: When the draft was over with and Carolina's picks were in, my reaction was "We waited months for THIS?"

1 (28) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

The good: He's huge with a massive catch radius. With Cam Newton's continued struggles with throwing the ball high, it's not that bad of an idea to have a hulking receiver able to haul in some of those errant throws. Although he doesn't play as physical as his 6'5" 230 lbs might suggest, I think it should be easy to teach him how to abuse defensive backs that give up 40 pounds and half a foot in height to him both after the catch and in run-blocking.

The bad: Benjamin, a redshirt-sophomore, is a very young, raw talent who won't see his peak for 2-3 years. While he should help a bit in the red zone, I don't see him getting consistently open in crunch time early in his NFL career, forcing Cam to "throw it up" to him. As such, Cam won't be as pressured to be more accurate and could slow the QB's growth in that area as sort of a "law of unintended consequences." He's a "boom-or-bust" candidate and exactly the type of player you want to avoid in the first round. Nice upside, but a risky choice.

2 (60) Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

The good: Ealy IS "the good one" - the better Missouri defensive end over the one talked about so much due to sexuality (Michael Sam). Before the draft, I said I'd like to see some depth for the DL for the rotation, either at the ends or the DT spot and Ealy gives the team exactly that. He's a first-round talent that slipped here due to runs on other positions and can also possibly be used as contract leverage with the Kraken who was franchised this season. If Ealy can translate some of that college success into the NFL as a rookie, it should keep a fire lit under both Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and at minimum give little drop-off when one of them has to hit the bench for a breather. 

The bad:
 Ealy's a much safer pick in the second round than Benjamin was in the first, but ideally you want to get a second-rounder who is a starter and Ealy won't be that, barring injury to the incumbents. Gettleman is on record saying "you can never have too many pass rushers - it's impossible." I beg to differ, especially when pass rushers come at the expense of someone on the edge on offense whose job it is to STOP all these pass rushers. Ealy also showed some inconsistent play on his game tape, according to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, and since he's the one watching tape on all these kids, I'll have to defer to his judgement here. If Ealy's motor is okay, coaching should shore up any bumps in his game.

3 (92) Trai Turner, OG, LSU 

The good: Trai's one of the top guards in the draft and was likely a "BPA" pick, much like the second-round Ealy pick was, so there's good value here. He's a very tough, physical run-blocker and quite a capable pass-protector for an incoming guard. With two small school guards in Edmund Kugbila and Amini Silatolu both getting injured early last season, Turner should come in and start right away and can play either guard spot. My bet is he's a RG, Silatolu stays at LG, and Kugbila still needs some development with his missed time. He even comes from a similar offensive scheme at LSU and looks to make the biggest and most immediate impact of anyone in this group.

The bad: Turner's being chosen here pretty much sealed the fate of the 2014 O-Line as by now pretty much all the tackles, which we needed so desperately, were gone by our 4th-round pick, leaving our most glaring position of need un-addressed. He's also the third guard selected in three years, meaning Gettleman likely has already written off one of the previous two as a "miss" - probably in Kugbila. At best, the injury bug made him draft another starter with the idea of using the odd-man out as a reserve in case of a repeat of the injury issues they've endured the last two seasons.

4 (128) Tre Boston, SS, UNC

The Good: Boston is Carolina's "Backyard Baller," coming from UNC via Gettleman, IN Boston (or thereabouts) via Skype. He can play either corner or safety, but I think his best bet is at strong safety. He's tough against the run and isn't afraid to hit holes and play in the box. Has a leader's personality and is very outspoken. Could be the glue at SS for the secondary to help the unit play better as a whole.

The bad: Gettleman may have inadvertently drafted Steve Smith 2.0 as far as his mouth goes, but that remains to be seen. Average athletes like Boston with big mouths can be divisive so he better come in and produce quickly. Working against that is his own uneven college play, like Kony Ealy although Ealy doesn't have the mouth on him Boston does. That being said, the strong defense's locker room and established stars like Hardy and Kuechly should keep Boston in his place - for now.

5 (148) Bene Benwikere, CB, San Diego State

The good: Carolina needed help in the secondary and traded up a tad (giving up their 7th-rounder and later 5th-rounder) to move up and grab a corner. Benwikere is a "ball-hawk" who plays the ball very well in-flight and can contest a lot of throws. Also has above-average instincts and diagnostic skills so he could play safety or nickel corner, but was probably taken as much for his special teams ability as anything. His positional versatility (nickel corner, special teams, free safety in a pinch) is his main strength here. High-floor, low-ceiling type here in the 5th round, but a safe pick considering his draft position.

The bad: Ran only a 4.63 at the combine, so he's not a guy to match up on fast WRs in man coverage. Projects as a nickel corner with a ceiling as a #2. Not good in run support, so he will probably be limited to special teams and nickel sub-packages for most of his career. 

6 (204) Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford

The good: Gaffney has good size at 5'11" 220 lbs and excellent between-the-tackles runner for Carolina's power running game. With Jonathan Stewart's lingering injury issues and DeAngelo Williams being more of a finesse-style runner, Gaffney is insurance for the running game much like Trai Turner is for the interior line. More of a power runner than a shifty one, he's like a smaller version of Mike Tolbert but with a bit more straight-line speed at 4.5. Like Tolbert, has soft hands for a strong runner. With Kenjon Barner's NFL status still unproven, Gaffney could supplant wither Stewie or Barner, or both. Oddly enough, ran second-best 3-cone drill at the combine so he could have some unseen upside to him. Durable, able to handle large workloads. Very nice value in the 6th round.

The bad: Not an elusive runner, he's more of a zone-blocking style back - the "one cut and GO" type. Has average change of direction skill and quickness which you really need in a dynamic runner. Could become a 3-down back if he picks up blitz protection at the NFL level, but split time in college with baseball so, pardon the pun, could be "behind the curve" in his development thus far and may not see much of the field as a rookie.


Need: D

Value: B+

Overall: C


While David Gettleman did a good job of taking players that slid a bit overall and putting his "Best Player Available" strategy into place, he did so at the expense of some of the team's most dire needs - those being MULTIPLE WRs and of course the offensive tackle position. The only path left for him to make up for not taking a tackle is in the undrafted free agent pool, and if Byron Bell is any indication, Carolina's edges should be quite porous in 2014. With Cam Newton recovering from ankle surgery (a problem bothering him since college), he's going to need it 100% healthy to continue to try to elude inevitable backfield intrusions by enemy defenders. 

If the guard trifecta can stay healthy and with Ryan Kalil anchoring the middle, the Carolina running game should improve nicely up the middle (Bell IS a good run-blocker as a RT, but I've been calling him "The Turnstile" as a pass-protector). Word now is he might be moved to the blind side, which I see as a completely disastrous potential move. We might see a lot more "moving pockets" in the passing attack come this fall as things sit.

The biggest surprise for me was Kelvin Benjamin in the first round. Again, I despise "boom-or-bust" candidates in round one:

"He's 6-foot-5, 240 pounds with 35-inch arms, and you're talking about a catching radius. However, there's one thing about wide receivers with only one year of college production (like Benjamin at FSU) and it's a little sobering when you look at the names on that list: Stephen Hill, Greg Little, Devin Thomas, Anthony Gonzalez." -- Mike Mayock

Most helped: Carolina's power running game, defensive depth

Least helped: Explosiveness on offense, edge-blocking on offense

Strategy at work:

While the Panthers picked up help in the secondary, they failed to nab the #1 corner they've lacked since Chris Gamble's departure. While I may be reading the tea leaves too much here, I do see a sneaky pattern forming: a couple of these picks are designed to save the team money against the salary cap in 2015 and beyond.

If Kony Ealy becomes productive in the DE rotation or at least shows flashes of ability, Gettleman will use him as leverage against Greg Hardy in contract talks for 2015. Recall, Hardy is franchised, not signed to a long-term deal and Ealy's pick is not a coincidence. The team really needed depth at DT more than at DE, pass rushers or not, and with Gettleman's job security being excellent at the moment and Rivera having just signed a contract extention through 2017, his job security isn't far behind. With an outstanding defense still in place, LB A.J. Klein coming off injury from last season and possibly starting over Chase Blackburn, the front-seven got even deeper overall. Trai Turner and Ealy both could start for most teams immediately, although Ealy probably needs more work to do so than does Turner.

I wouldn't expect a thousand-yard season from Kelvin Benjamin for a couple of years yet, either. His role will be limited as a rookie until he learns to get separation from defensive backs and patience with him will be a great virtue from coaches, fans, and his teammates alike.

Overall, Gettleman's "grand strategy" is his multiple-year, very long-term view of the franchise's ability to win. This particular draft was obviously NOT a "win now" style of draft or we would have seen another more polished WR like Jordan Matthews or Allen Robinson being selected instead of Benjamin and then trading up in the second round to ensure getting at least a second-tier left tackle. Clearly, needs on offense trumped those on defense but this draft was evenly split on the two sides of the ball.

On the bright side, the ONLY way I see defensive performance falling off in 2014 is injuries up the middle of the front-seven, namely to Star Lotulelei, Luke Kuechly, or Thomas Davis. Last year's pick, A.J. Klein, mitigates that a little bit if HE can stay healthy in his sophomore campaign. Perhaps Seattle's Super Bowl run last season influenced some of the decision-making here as Seattle's O-Line in 2013 was pretty average, but I can really see the leverage being there for future contract talks with the selections of Ealy and Gaffney. Boston is probably there to replace Charles Godfrey for 2015.

However, I don't think this draft addressed the lack of offensive explosiveness nearly well enough. Carolina was dead last in plays of 20+ yards last season, and I see little in this draft to help change that for 2014.

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