Although it ended at a 6-10 clip, the Carolina Panthers' 2011 campaign was nothing short of exciting. Steve Smith returned to form, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart regained their dominance on the ground and Cam Newton turned out to be much better than advertised.
The 2011 season was very assuring for Carolina and a huge step in the right direction.
But just as every other team in the NFL, there is certainly room for improvement.
So as the front office looks to build upon the team's recent success, here are the top five targets the Panthers should be aiming for in the 2012 NFL draft.
The following players would be draft targets for the Panthers, but will most likely be unavailable as the ninth overall selection:
Matt Kalil, OT, USC Projected Draft Selection: No. 2 to No. 3
Brother of Panthers center Ryan Kalil, Matt Kalil is another one of those surefire prospects. He is far and above the best offensive lineman in this draft. Unfortunately for Carolina, Kalil will most likely get snatched up by the St. Louis Rams at No. 2. If not, there's no way the Minnesota Vikings will pass up on him with the very next pick.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State Projected Draft Selection: No. 2 to No. 7
Even before his monstrous Fiesta Bowl performance, we all knew Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon was the best wide receiver in college football. There are few, if any, weaknesses to his game, and he has exhibited many skills necessary to succeed at the next level. Many compare him to Terrell Owens minus the off-field baggage.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU Projected Draft Selection: No. 3 to No. 5
LSU's Morris Claiborne looks to be the next biggest shutdown corner coming into the NFL. He has nice size, good length and excellent speed. In addition, Claiborne is great in man-to-man coverage and is a four-down player. He is undoubtedly the best defensive prospect in this draft.
Given their shaky defense, Carolina would drool over the opportunity of selecting Claiborne. Simply put, this is the guy for this team. Unfortunately, it'll take quite a few unexpected events in order for him to drop down to them. Claiborne will most likely land in Minnesota and definitely would not last to the Panthers if Tampa Bay gets a crack at him.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney recently indicated that the team may be looking for an offensive line in the upcoming draft. When asked about what their focus would be, Hurney responded by stating:
"On offense, I think you try to keep your strength strong. And when you have a quarterback like Cam and a running game like we do and the offensive line, I think you have to always look to make sure you keep that area strong because this is a league where you have to score points to win."
If that's the case, Jonathan Martin would be a very logical target. Martin is one of four notable offensive linemen in the 2012 class and could certainly add some more depth to the line.
Weight: 304 lbs
- Very solid in pass blocking
- Good upper-body strength
- Uses hands very well
- Intelligent player with great anticipatory skills
- Anchors bull-rush extremely well
- Inconsistent footwork
- Needs to add bulk
Just like Martin, Riley Reiff is another realistic target for the Panthers.
Reiff is easily a Top-10 talent, and would also bulk up an already impressive offensive line. Whether it be Reiff or Martin, the front office may be looking to keep Cam Newton safe with their first pick in 2012.
Weight: 300 lbs
- Very effective in both pass and run blocking
- Great footwork, light on his feet
- Excellent work ethic
- Exhibits great awareness
- Very coachable player
- Complacent at times
- Still inexperienced at the position (former defensive lineman)
When LSU's Michael Brockers announced that he would enter the 2012 festivities, he landed himself a spot on the Panthers' watch list.
The Carolina defense was nothing short of atrocious in 2011. They ranked 24th against the pass, 25th against the run and gave up an alarming 26.8 points per game.
In order to shore up their weak defensive line, the team could opt for Brockers. His tremendous upside is certainly something to look at and may be much too tempting to pass up on.
Although he is a bit raw at the moment, the Panthers would surely be patient in Brockers' development into perhaps one of the league's best defensive tackles.
Weight: 306 lbs
- His quickness and powerful legs generate a great bull-rush
- Gets off the line with ease
- Displays good instinct
- Does not give up much ground
- Possesses elite size
- Great athletic ability
- Needs to improve technique
- May entail a slow growth period during his transition into the NFL
There is no doubt the NFL has become a passing league. So if the Panthers look to compete with the very best in the industry, they could take Alshon Jeffery.
Cam Newton does have quite a few weapons. He already has help in Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. But neither David Gettis or Brandon LaFell appear to be future No. 1 wideout options.
If the Panthers take Jeffery, they'll supply Newton with a freakish No. 2 receiver for the next handful of seasons. And when Steve Smith eventually hangs 'em up, which hopefully will be a while from now, Jeffery would easily move into an incredible No. 1.
Weight: 233 lbs
- Elite size
- Good strength
- Tremendous hands
- Hard worker
- Adjusts well to the ball
- Picks up decent yardage after the catch
- Very athletic
- Sub-par route runner
- Needs to improve his blocking
When narrowing down the Panthers' 2011 draft possibilities, I considered the team's needs, the player's availability at the eighth/ninth overall pick and what the potential prospect would bring to the table.
So with all of those variables taken into account, Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick should be the Panthers No. 1 target come April.
As I said in the earlier slide, the NFL is a passing league. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they got passed on quite a lot. If they want to improve their 25th-ranked pass defense, they could go with Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick is a considerably tall cornerback who possess the skills and tools necessary to develop into an elite coverage man in the NFL. If you can add him alongside Chris Gamble, you could have one of the most formidable cornerback duos in football.
Plus, the Panthers must find a way to stop the aerial assaults of Drew Brees and Matt Ryan to eventually take the division crown. Kirkpatrick would be an incredible step in improving the team's pass defense as well as their run defense.
Weight: 192 lbs
- Elite size
- Good physical upper-body strength
- Great on-field awareness
- Has lockdown ability on man-to-man coverage
- Intelligent player, learns at an efficient rate
- Hard hitter
- Not the fastest cornerback