10 NFL Combine Prospects the Carolina Panthers Should Watch Closely

Stephen Fenech@Fenech2491Correspondent IFebruary 20, 2013

10 NFL Combine Prospects the Carolina Panthers Should Watch Closely

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    With the combine taking place this weekend, an entire flock of Carolina Panthers' scouts and front office members are getting ready to descend upon Indianapolis.

    The Panthers have needs at wide receiver, along both the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary. It's up to new general manager Dave Gettleman to get the most out of his picks, as this will be the fanbase's first look at how he thinks.  

    The scouting combine represents an opportunity for teams to study a player's athleticism and to interview the next batch of NFL players. 

    Sure, 40-yard dash times and vertical leaps matter, but GMs across the league will be focus on drafting mentally stable players. Building an accountable locker room is key in maintaining a consistent contender, so the Panthers should rule out players with character questions surrounding them. 

    Carolina is without a third-round pick but still possesses two of the draft's first 48 selections. With those choices, the Panthers should walk away with two difference-makers, anything less would be a disappointment. 

    That's the nature of the NFL, as it's a win-now league. Gettleman is walking into a poor salary cap position, which adds even more pressure to April's draft. 

Kenny Vaccaro

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    Kenny Vaccaro is a complete safety, as he can play inside the box for run support or sit back in coverage. Either way, the former Texas Longhorn is capable of making game-changing plays. 

    In terms of position, Vaccaro is capable of playing either free or strong safety at the NFL level. Considering the Carolina Panthers are in desperate need of another safety, it's safe to assume the front office would strongly consider Vaccaro if he's still on the board.

    Pairing Charles Godfrey with Vaccaro would create a dangerous young tandem on the back line of the defense. In the pass-happy NFC South, the Panthers must be able to cover opposing wideouts over the top of the field. Vaccaro would aid in that effort.  

    In the past, Vaccaro has clocked in at 4.49 in the 40-yard dash, which is solid for a safety. 

    Vaccaro is without a doubt the best safety in the class and has top-ten talent. However, the value attributed to the safety position will likely cause Vaccarro to fall out of the top ten.

Desmond Trufant

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    Desmond Trufant has football in his blood, as two of his brothers are already playing cornerback in the NFL. 

    The youngest Trufant had a solid career at Washington and has proven that he is ready to play at the highest level. 

    The Panthers could use help at corner, which means they should be looking at all options at the position. Trufant will almost certainly be on the board at No. 14 but taking him there would be a reach.

    In order to get back under the salary cap, the Panthers may have to cut Chris Gamble. Such a move wouldn't be an indictment of Gamble's talent or play, as he is still an excellent cornerback. Unfortunately, the Panthers are in such bad shape financially that cutting Gamble has to be considered.

    Trufant stood out at the Senior Bowl, as he proved to be polished in man coverage. Considering how aggressive NFL passing attacks have gotten in recent years, the demand for solid cornerbacks is through the roof. 

    At the combine, I expect Trufant's stock to continue to rise. He might not get into the range in which the Panthers will be picking, but the front office should still watch Trufant closely. 

Johnathan Hankins

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    After having a solid junior year at Ohio State, Johnathan Hankins decided to forgo his senior season and declare for the NFL draft. At 6' 3", 317pounds, Hankins is best suited to be a defensive tackle in a 4-3 system, but he is versatile enough to be a defensive end in a 3-4.

    Hankins' best attribute is his ability to clog running lanes, which is something the Panthers defense could use. 

    A player like Hankins on the interior of the Panthers defense would aid in Luke Kuechly's ascent as one of the league's premier interior linebackers. 

    From a pass-rushing perspective, Hankins isn't going to light the world on fire. If asked to play from day one, Hankins won't be much help in generating a pass rush. However, with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy at defensive end, the Panthers might not need much pass rush from the interior. 

    At the combine, Hankins should be impressive during the bench press, as he has an extremely strong upper body.

    The Panthers should scout Hankins thoroughly, as his reputation as a two-down defensive tackle could lead to him being a bust. 

Everett Dawkins

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    While Everett Dawkins will not be a first-round pick, he could be an excellent addition to the Panthers defense in later rounds. 

    If Carolina decides to draft a player that isn't a defensive tackle in the first round, the front office should key in on trying to land Dawkins in either the fourth or fifth round. 

    Dawkins had a good career at Florida State, one in which he was surrounded by other NFL prospects. The result was one of the most dominant defensive lines in the country for the past two years, and Dawkins deserves a fair share of the credit. 

    At 6'3" and 304 pounds, Dawkins is a bit undersized to play defensive tackle at the next level. His quick first step may make up for that, but he may be forced to add weight to his frame in order to sustain his career. 

    If Dawkins can run under a 5.0 in the 40-yard dash, then he should be pleased. As a Seminole, Dawkins displayed good speed in pursuit when plays broke down. 

    The Florida State product has the potential to develop into a long-term starter, which would present great value for the Panthers in the later rounds. 

Jonathan Cyprien

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    For a safety to be a school's all-time leading tackler is impressive, and that's the case with Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International University. The senior safety had a sensational career in South Florida and would have been nationally recognized if he played at a more prominent program.

    A sound tackler, Cyprien never gives up on a play and flies around the field with an aggression that cannot be taught. 

    At 6'0" and 210 pounds, Cyprien has the frame to play well in the box, which is something the Panthers should value in a potential safety. 

    The biggest knock on Cyprien focuses on the quality of the competition he played at the collegiate level. While it's a fair point to address, watching Cyprien on tape should dispel that criticism. 

    While coverage isn't his primary strength, he shouldn't be a liability when opposing pass offenses target him. Also, if drafted by an aggressive defense, Cyprien would be a factor when asked to blitz. 

    The Panthers have a need at safety and Cyprien impressed at the Senior Bowl. Whether or not he is available in the second round will be the question, as the FIU product's stock is rising rapidly. 

Brandon Williams

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    Brandon Williams may be the first player off the board from a Division II school, as the Missouri Southern State product is a scheme-changing defensive tackle.

    Similar to Jonathan Cyprien from FIU, Williams has been overlooked for playing on a less prestigious program.

    During his senior season at Missouri Southern State, Williams compiled 68 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. 

    At 6'3" and 325 pounds, Williams is very strong and has a low center of gravity, which makes moving him extremely difficult. 

    When participating in the combine, Williams should excel in strength-related tasks, like the bench press. However, he will have a harder time during the 40-yard dash and the shuttles. 

    The main problem with Williams is that he won't be making many plays outside the box, but the Panthers have enough tacklers on defense to negate that weakness. 

    For a defense like the Panthers, who lack a run-stopping defensive tackle, acquiring a player like Williams in the second or third round would be superb. 

Menelik Watson

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    Menelik Watson only has one year of experience playing offensive tackle, which is why many were surprised when he decided to skip his senior season in order to declare for the NFL draft. 

    While very raw, Watson played very well at right tackle for Florida State in 2012. Watson was tasked with protecting Seminole quarterback E.J Manuel, and he did so admirably. 

    At 6'6" and 320 pounds, Watson has the frame to be a dominant tackle in the NFL. His long arms and quick feet make him a natural to play the position, which only adds to his value. 

    The Panthers will not consider Watson in the first round but should target him in the second if he's still available. 

    Starting in training camp, Carolina could plug Watson in at right tackle, a move that would make the offensive line better right away.

    Expect Watson to demonstrate his athletic prowess at the combine, which may in turn hurt the Panthers chances at landing him. 

    NFL teams look for specimens along the offensive line for various reasons, which is why Watson will not last past day two of the draft. 

    Watson's ceiling is very high, which means the Panthers should have a scout watching everything the Florida State product does this weekend. 

Star Lotulelei

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    Star Lotuleli has the potential to be a franchise-changing player, as I could see him going as early as No. 2 overall. That being said, there's also a chance that he slips if other defensive tackles jump him on draft boards.

    If Lotuleli slipped to the Panthers with the 14th overall selection, David Gettleman would run the pick up to the podium himself. An impact defensive tackle like Lotuleli could improve the Panthers defensive line exponentially, as it's the defense's weakest unit. 

    Lotuleli is a block-eater, which is an attribute every defensive coordinator looks for in a defensive tackle. The presence of Lotuleli would instantly make everyone else on the defense better and would take a lot of pressure off Luke Kuechly.

    The Utah product is capable of playing well against the pass and the run, which is a rarity for a prospect. 

    During his senior season, Lotuleli compiled five sacks, 11 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, four fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. Those are excellent numbers considering that opposing offenses were game-planning against him on a weekly basis. 

D.J. Fluker

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    D.J. Fluker may be the most dominant run-blocking offensive tackle in this draft. During his time at Alabama, Fluker consistently outplayed opposing defenders in the tenacious SEC.

    At 6'6" and 335 pounds, the Alabama product is exactly the type of tackle you want to run behind.  

    With his long arms, Fluker is dominant when he gets his massive hands on pass-rushers and is rarely beat when he can make solid contact. Also, his long arms make him a better blocker downfield, as he is able to redirect opponent's better than other tackles in this draft class. 

    At the NFL level, Fluker may struggle against speed-rushers at times but his run-blocking will make him an immediate asset.

    The combine will mean a lot to Fluker, as scouts want to see whether he has the skills to match his big frame. If scouts and executives leave Indianapolis impressed with Fluker, he could be in play during the middle of the first round. 

Cordarelle Patterson

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    Predicting who will be the first wide receiver to come off the board is a crapshoot. At this point, it appears as if it's a two-man competition between Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson and Cal's Keenan Allen.

    Focusing on Patterson, it's hard not to be impressed with what he did in just one season in Knoxville.

    After transferring from junior college, Patterson scored touchdowns in four different ways in his tenure with Tennessee. Not only did he find the end zone receiving, but he also scored rushing, returning a punt and taking back a kickoff. 

    At the combine, Patterson is expected to do well in the running and jumping drills, which will cause his stock to rise. 

    In today's NFL, GMs salivate over acquiring the next big and talented receiver. Physical receivers have an inherent advantage over smaller cornerbacks and are more dangerous in the red zone.

    Steve Smith is entering his 13th season in the NFL and will slow down eventually. Brandon LaFell, who is currently Carolina's second wideout, has done nothing to show that he will develop into a go-to option. 

    In order for Cam Newton to reach his potential, his receiving options must be upgraded. Drafting Patterson would be a step in the right direction. 

    Also, Patterson could take over returning punts and/or kickoffs, an area in which the Panthers struggled in 2012.