The Panthers need help at all three levels defensively, though the highest-rated defensive player in the draft, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, will likely be snatched up within the first five picks.
That leaves linebacker Luke Kuechly (Boston College) and linebacker/defensive end Quinton Coples (UNC); defensive tackles Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State), Michael Brockers (LSU) and Dontari Poe (Memphis); and cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina), Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama) and Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama via Florida) as potential picks at the nine spot.
The Panthers could try to move up to the fourth spot to pick Claiborne by proposing a trade with the Cleveland Browns that benefits both teams.
If Carolina sends Jonathan Stewart, along with their first- and second-round picks (No. 40 overall) to Cleveland in exchange for the Browns' first- and third-round picks (No. 67 overall), the Panthers can get a difference maker at cornerback for the next ten years, and the Browns can immediately upgrade one of the NFL's worst offenses.
Stewart averaged 5.4 yards per carry and was Cam Newton's second-favorite target with 47 catches in 2011, but he's recently been made expendable with the Panther's acquisition of Mike Tolbert from the San Diego Chargers, even though Panthers GM Marty Hurney says otherwise.
Not So Hot in Cleveland
Cleveland, who is also said to covet quarterback Ryan Tannehill from Texas A&M, ranked 28th in both scoring offense (13.6 points per game) and rushing yards (95.7 yards per game). They may be able to draft Colt McCoy's replacement with the ninth pick if the Miami Dolphins pass on the former Aggie with the eighth pick.
Stewart, 25, is entering his fifth NFL season and the prime of his career with little wear and tear on his body after four years of splitting carries with DeAngelo Williams—the higher-paid half of "Double Trouble"—and would give the Browns an instant 1,000 yard back.
Tannehill is a stretch as the No. 4 overall selection. But if the Browns believe they can draft their quarterback with the No. 9 pick and acquire one of the NFL's best and healthiest young running backs in the process, along with a second pick in the second round—they already own the 37th pick—they could steal the draft.
Most early mock drafts, including DraftTek's and WalterFootball's, and my own from earlier this week, have had the Panthers picking one of the three defensive tackles listed earlier in this article—Brockers, Cox or Poe—though WalterFootball recently moved the BC linebacker, Kuechly, into the ninth spot.
The Panthers may have found a 3-technique-by-committee in Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse after injured 2011 third-rounders, Simone Fua and Terrell McClain, went down in the second half of the season. But defensive tackle remains the softest spot on the Panthers' defense heading into the 2012 NFL Draft.
Wherever Carolina finds a solution, the most important piece to the Panthers' defensive puzzle is shoring up the middle where they were often weak and vulnerable, especially late in games, in 2011.
However, if the Panthers have an opportunity to trade up and take Claiborne to play opposite Chris Gamble, they will have a pair of lock-down, shutdown corners to match up with the NFC South's high-profile receivers like Atlanta's Roddy White and Julio Jones, New Orleans' Marques Colsten, and Tampa Bay's newly acquired Vincent Jackson.
Kuechly is also moving up draft boards quickly and could provide the Panthers with a great sideline-to-sideline play maker for the next decade.
Then again, the Panthers could just give Cam another toy and go for another offensive home run by picking the No. 2 wide receiver in the draft, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, to line up across from Steve Smith for the next several years.
But what do I know?
Floyd may not help solve the Panthers' defensive woes directly, but he can certainly add to Carolina's already high-powered offense by keeping the Sean McDermott's unit off of the field.
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