Kuechly was the surprise pick of the 2012 draft, but who will Carolina select in 2013?
The 2012 NFL season is far from over. However, depending on who your team is and whether it has two or fewer wins, you may be inclined to feel the season is done.
The Carolina Panthers (1-4) are one such team that has many wondering if its season is lost. While they are regrouping during their bye week after a disappointing start, they will look to return and finish the season strong.
Of course, during the poor start, the Panthers' opponents have exploited their weaknesses, and how Carolina finishes could determine which areas the team addresses first.
The most obvious weakness is the defensive line, which has been the Achilles' heel of the defense (with the secondary being a close second), leaving Carolina without much presence in the interior.
If the Panthers continue to play the way they are playing right now, chances are that they will only record three or four more wins before the season is out.
A finish like that would guarantee the loss of jobs and a high first-round draft pick.
According to ESPN's Scouts Inc. Top 32, there are three top-tier defensive tackles within the 15 best 2013 draft prospects. Given that there are eight such positional players listed among the the site's Top 32, Carolina could theoretically finish anywhere and still draft a quality defensive tackle.
Based on how bad the secondary has been, it should be noted there are only two safeties and one cornerback on this list.
It's easy to assume how the Panthers will approach their draft strategy. However, the recent injury to center Ryan Kalil may prompt them to look at drafting a quality lineman to start grooming for the future. After all, Cam Newton will need quality protection if he is to succeed as the franchise's quarterback.
This is a very premature look at draft-eligible players, but it never hurts to start discussing the areas that need to be addressed. Obviously, there will be several defensive tackles listed here, but there are a few other positions the Panthers may consider, too.
Remember the curveball they threw everybody in the first round of last April's draft?
Star Lotulelei, Utah Utes
Height: 6'3" Weight: 320 Pounds
The Panthers are lacking a big man who can move offensive linemen at will, and Lotulelei may solve that problem. Lotulelei is quick off the line and is capable of getting pressure. He even possesses the ability to close running lanes and give opposing offenses fits when trying to move the ball.
Lotulelei is rated high in the Scouts Inc. Top 32, and if Carolina does indeed end up with a high draft pick, it will have to look at this kid very closely.
For anyone that enjoys trends, consider that Carolina has had success drafting out of Utah, with Steve Smith and Jordan Gross both being alums of the university.
Johnathan Jenkins, Georgia Bulldogs
Height: 6'4" Weight: 363 Pounds
Jenkins is a mountain of man who can pose all kinds of problems for opposing centers and guards in the NFL. While he lacks the speed of Lotulelei, he is strong, and when given the opportunity, he can impose his will on quarterbacks and running backs alike.
Carolina could use a stop-gap like him on the interior, but he needs to show better consistency in shutting down the running game. His size won't matter unless he can use it to beat his man in the trenches.
When he does win the battle up front, he can apply pressure, and while he may not be the fastest guy off the line, he does run well for a guy his size.
Georgia has been a quality school for producing NFL talent in recent years, and Carolina is no stranger to drafting players who have worn the red and black. Notable Georgia alums include Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis.
It should also be noted that while not drafted, the original Panther, John Kasay, was a Georgia product too.
Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State Buckeyes
Defensive Tackle/Defensive End
Height: 6'3" Weight: 335 Pounds
Hankins may be the most versatile of the interior linemen in next April's draft. He has the ability to play either defensive tackle or defensive end.
Given its problems up the middle and the question marks surrounding the growth of defensive end Greg Hardy, Carolina would be foolish not to give this guy a long, hard look at the combine and at his pro day.
He can make plays, but while he has versatility, he may lack the size the Panthers need to plug in the middle.
The one thing going for him is his ability to play the nose-tackle position, so he may be able to thrive in any defensive scheme presented to him.
Barkevious Mingo, LSU Tigers
Height: 6'5" Weight: 240 Pounds
As stated in the previous slide, the Panthers could look find another end to complement Charles Johnson if Greg Hardy doesn't emerge into the player many feel he can be.
Mingo is a quick end who can beat the tackle and get into the backfield in a hurry. Because of his ability to penetrate the backfield, he can force bad throws from the quarterback, resulting in either incompletions or interceptions.
While it's unlikely Carolina will draft a defensive end in the first round, the possibility of their drafting a player of Mingo's ability shouldn't be overlooked—especially if they get a very high pick. Drafting him could prompt the Panthers to move Greg Hardy to the inside, assuming he continues to do well at the position, but so far he is only seeing it on situational downs.
Regardless, this is one player that should be closely watched once the collegiate and pro football seasons end.
Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State Bulldogs
Height: 6'2" Weight: 185 Pounds
As mentioned in the introduction, the secondary has been a major weakness for Carolina this year. (And it was the year before that, too.)
It only makes sense that, if the Panthers do not draft a defensive tackle in the first round, they will look to upgrade and improve the secondary. Since the jury is still out on Josh Norman and Brandon Hogan has proven to be a near bust, Carolina will be doing itself a favor by strengthening this unit of its defense.
Banks possesses the ability to be the perfect complement to Chris Gamble on the other side of the field. He can cover receivers and has the potential to be a shutdown corner in the NFL.
Additionally, he can blitz from the outside and, if uncontested, can do a lot of damage in the backfield.
It would be a bit of a surprise if the Panthers for the second year in a row didn't use their first-round pick on a defensive lineman. But if Banks were to be drafted by Carolina, it is comforting to know that he would help boost on aspect of an otherwise weak defense.
This is only a sample of who might be available for the Carolina Panthers to scout, interview and work out this upcoming offseason. Anyone who knows the ins and outs of football is aware that the big boards constantly change. The players listed on this slideshow could see their stocks drop considerably. Others within the top 32 may move up or fall, too.
Oh, and there is this thing called the NFL combine. That week alone can change draft stock considerably.
Bottom line: Anything can happen.
As it stands right now, the biggest need in Carolina is to shore up the defense. Starting with the defensive line seems to be the best move.
However, the Panthers' philosophy may change between now and April.
Based on what we have seen after five games this year, though, the aforementioned players are those who could stop to the proverbial bleeding.