The Carolina Panthers closed out the 2011 season on a high note by winning four of their final six games. They'll enter the upcoming season as one of the NFL's teams on the rise and likely dark-horse candidates to win the NFC South title.
The Panthers found their crown jewel in the form of a quarterback last season with their No. 1 overall pick. In finding a game-changing franchise quarterback, the first domino in becoming a premier team has fallen.
Carolina now must surround the queen on their chessboard with a few rooks and knights.
The 2012 NFL Draft is an especially defining moment for the Panthers franchise that will determine the staying power and destiny of their organization for the next generation of Panthers football.
We're going to take an in-depth look at some of the players who are likely to be to available with each of the Panthers' selections in this April's Draft.
The Panthers hold seven total draft choices:
Round 1, Pick 9 overall
Round 2, Pick 42 overall
Round 4, Pick 104 overall
Round 4, Pick 143 overall
Round 6, Pick 180 overall
Round 6, Pick 207 overall
Round 7, Pick 216 overall
I invite you to take a look at seven offensive players who the franchise must target in this year's draft.
With the ninth overall pick in the draft, the Panthers elect to make themselves stronger in the trenches by selecting the 6'6" junior tackle from Iowa, Riley Reiff.
With wide receivers on the board like Notre Dame's Michael Floyd and Baylor's Kendall Wright, the Panthers bypass a couple of big playmaker options to solidify a position of heavy need.
Offensive tackle Jeff Otah was the team's first-round pick in 2008, but has ended the last two seasons on injured reserve due to knee injuries. Reiff has the ability to step in right away as the starter at right tackle and serve as a protector to the organization's most valuable asset.
As Cam Newton ages, he will continue to become more of a pocket passer and great QB play is the distant cousin of strength at the tackle position. In combining Reiff with Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Kalil, the Panthers will have a luxury most teams are never be able to afford.
Ironically, Reiff is rated by NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock as the No. 2 offensive tackle in the draft behind Ryan Kalil's younger brother, Matt.
The Panthers will lean either on a receiver already on their roster or hope to land someone later in the draft who can become a No. 2 option to WR Steve Smith. Quarterbacks like Cam Newton have a habit of aiding in the development of guys who weren't blue chip to begin with—just look at some of the receivers that Donovan McNabb and Ben Roethlisberger have made productive over the years.
Reiff's run-blocking ability is described as follows:
Strong run blocker who is powerful at the point of attack and comes off the ball hard during run plays with a nice initial burst. Reiff is quick and light on his feet in the screen game and gets to the second level with ease. Once at the second level, he does a nice job of locating his target and maintaining his block through the duration of the play.
With the number of screens that Carolina will be running to DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert—along with the creative run calls that offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski likes to install—Reiff is a near-perfect pick at No. 9 overall for Carolina.
From Death Valley in the Bayou to Cam's Kingdom in Charlotte.
Rueben Randle is a 6'3" wide receiver with tremendous hands, 4.45 40-yard dash speed and dangerous run-after-catch ability due to his strength.
What's more exciting for Panthers fans to think about: the LSU product falling to the Panthers at the 42nd overall selection; or him streaking free of a defensive back on a skinny post to catch a 50-yard rope to the end zone from Cam Newton?
I love Randle in Carolina for a few reasons.
The SEC product is commonly rated anywhere from the fourth- to eighth-best receiver in this draft. While he doesn't pile up the headlines that a Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, or Alshon Jeffrey seem to, it's important to remember that he had Jordan Jefferson throwing to him for much of his LSU career.
He still managed 53 receptions for 917 yards and eight touchdowns last season—strong numbers considering some of the defenses he went up against in that conference.
Another thing I really like about Randle to Carolina: With Steve Smith serving as Newton's primary target, he won't have the pressure of being a No. 1 receiver right away. Smith showed in 2011 that he was still dominant enough to draw double coverages, which could allow a physical talent like Randle to enter the league as a rookie and really contribute nicely.
Randle was once thought to be a first-round pick, but a lackluster NFL combine showing and two quiet games against the elite 2011 Alabama defense hurt his stock.
The Panthers exchanged what would have been their third-round pick in 2012 for starting tight end Greg Olsen. They would be wise to look for 6'6" tight end Louisiana-Lafayette standout Ladarius Green with their fourth-round selection to complement Olsen in the Carolina passing game.
Green is the fourth-rated tight end and 103rd-rated player overall, according to NFL Draft Scout.com. If the graduating Ragin' Cajun is on the board just a selection later, the Panthers would be adding a tremendous weapon to their offense.
There's no way to know what will create a superstar tight end in the NFL, but I believe that Green's size is a nice indicator.
Sideline Scouting helps sum it up:
Good at getting free off the line of scrimmage, uses his hands well to shed the bump and run... Can run underneath routes or spread the field by running vertical routes; either way is a nearly impossible matchup... Uses his body to perfection in shielding off defenders and making catches in traffic, might be the best part of his game... Very tough to catch from behind due to his combination of speed and long strides, a big time playmaking threat from the tight end position.
Rob Gronkowski has created a trend at the position that every franchise is looking for: large-bodied, athletic tight ends. To add a talent like Green in the middle of the draft to grow up with Cam Newton would serve them well as Greg Olsen moves closer to 30 and Jeremy Shockey leaves town.
Green has run a 4.44 40-yard dash, but is commonly around 4.53 speed.
Cam Newton displayed that he loved using his tight ends as a rookie by throwing them nine touchdown passes. If the Panthers add Green in the draft, it would be a great service to their franchise QB.
Every once in a while, you get the feeling that a player coming out of college is a perfect fit for a given situation in the NFL. Ryan Broyles to Carolina around the 143rd pick in the fifth round makes too much sense for it not to happen.
I see Broyles as a lethal weapon in the slot in the NFL with the potential to become a No. 1 receiver. Broyles also has a lot of ability as a return man, which could allow him to contribute on special teams if needed.
In 2009, Broyles hauled in 76 passes for 964 yards and 12 touchdowns. He followed that up with 131 catches for 1622 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2010. With 349 career NCAA FBS receptions, Broyles is the record-holder in that department.
If Broyles had entered in the NFL draft a year earlier, he would have been a likely first-round pick. The reason will fall several rounds in this year's draft is due to a torn ACL that he suffered against Texas A&M this past November.
Broyles is an unheralded, forgotten option at this point. For instance, Walter Football rates him as just the 17th-best WR prospect in the draft this season. That doesn't make me want Broyles any less if I'm Carolina; we know what he's capable of if he comes back healthy.
Perhaps more than any player listed in this mock, Broyles is the player I feel most certain about becoming an impact guy with huge upside if he lands in Carolina blue and black. I believe his ceiling is that of another undersized receiver out of Utah who is now the Panthers' all-time leading receiver.
I want Carolina to make a reality out of the dreams I've been having while watching the Sooners on Saturdays in the fall the past few years. They can do that by selecting Broyles in the fifth round.
The Panthers need to find a backup QB who fits the style and tempo of the offense that Cam Newton will be conducting for the next several years. The Panthers brought in Derek Anderson to serve as Newton's first backup, but were lucky that Anderson never came close to taking a meaningful snap.
While Anderson is well versed in Rob Chudzinski's offensive scheme, the Panthers need someone who can be comparable to Newton in terms of running the offense should the franchise get dinged and miss snaps or games.
He might never be a star in the NFL, but Wisconsin's Russell Wilson can be an important complementary piece within Carolina's building dynasty over the next several seasons.
I think Wilson projects in the NFL game similarly to Ohio State's former Heisman winner Troy Smith. The Big Ten QB of the year will be a guy who can be counted on to run the offense competently with enough tools to not get you beat and even make a few plays of his own.
Wilson's mobility and arm strength make him dangerous out of a spread or a varied running attack like Carolina will run with Newton under center.
NFLdraftscout.com has him the seventh-highest QB prospect in the draft. Walter Football has him pegged ninth overall at the position. The question with this area of the draft is not whether or not the Panthers want Wilson here, it's if he will be available.
It's entirely possible that a franchise decides to take a chance on Wilson and spend a third- or fourth-round pick on this talented QB who finished ninth in Heisman voting last season. I believe Wilson will fall to the Panthers around this selection due to his lack of size—he's listed at just 5'11" and 205 pounds.
In a perfect world, you would want a Cam Newton clone readily available as his backup, but those type of athletes do not grow on trees. This is why Russell Wilson will be a commodity.
After a collegiate career in which he completed 60.9 percent of his attempts with 109 touchdown passes to just 30 interceptions, Wilson could settle in nicely as the long-term No. 2 option to Cam Newton in Carolina.
Follow me here: Sustainably good teams find a guy who can play in the trenches at this selection; the unsuccessful teams waste the pick on a player who will need to fight to survive final cuts in training camp.
The difference between being a franchise the caliber of the Cleveland Browns or a premier organization like the New England Patriots is a lot of times made with very selections like this middling sixth-round pick. This is not a throw-away selection for teams who will be highly successful over the next generation like the Panthers aim to be.
The player who best fits that mold at this selection is another Iowa Hawkeye lineman, guard Adam Gettis.
An All-Big Ten performer in 2011, Gettis is one of the more intriguing interior lineman in the draft due to what was described by Pro Football Talk as "plus athleticism." At 6'2", 293 pounds, Gettis is a small guard who could also see some time at center for teams needing a capable backup that can occupy a "swing man" type of role on the line.
Gettis' athletic, play-fast style would serve him well in Charlotte blocking for Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, just as he did for Marcus Coker at Iowa.
I like the way that Iowa linemen translate to the pro game. I like that he was linemates with the player we looked at with our first selection, Riley Reiff. I think he's going to have a long, solid career in the NFL and the Panthers would secure nice value with Gettis late in the sixth round.
Randy Bullock is the finest kicker in the 2012 NFL Draft.
If he's still available when the Carolina Panthers make their final selection of the draft, they should give us the rare experience of hearing a placekicker called as a draft selection.
He made 29 of 33 attempts last season, and hit 105 of 107 extra-point attempts dating back to the past two seasons.
He's not a nobody from the Big 12 conference. Did you know he won the Lou Groza award as college football's top kicker last season? There's a reason for that, and if the Panthers are smart, it will be listed as a fact line in their team program in 2012.
Don't some NFL kickers seem to hang around forever? They grow up with us from our childhood into when we leave the home for the first time to when we get real jobs and get married. Finding a new one that can stick isn't a small task.
The recent success of the Cowboys' Dan Bailey as a rookie (Bailey kicked in the same Big 12 conference for Oklahoma State) proves that sometimes a strong-legged rookie can be worth a look over a veteran.
While Olindo Mare has been a dependable NFL kicker since the mid-'90s, he'll be 39 years old next season and he missed several game-altering attempts for the Panthers in 2011.
Now is a great time for Carolina to start anew at the kicker position; Bullock should get strong consideration to be that player.