The NFL draft is just over a month away, and the Carolina Panthers will be evaluating combine results and the upcoming pro days to gather more information about this year's draft class. The Panthers' most glaring need—considering their inability to produce an effective rush defense over the past few seasons and the multitude of players who have rotated through the defensive line interior—is defensive tackle.
However, there are other possibilities for Carolina's first-round pick. Last year, the team surprised many with its selection of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The pick raised a few questions, but in the end concerns were put to rest when Kuechly filled in for the injured Jon Beason and played well enough to earn AP Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Could a similar move be in the works this year?
It's possible the Panthers might not fill their most pressing need in the first round and select a player from another position. Or they may draft a defensive tackle to fill a longtime void on the Carolina defense.
Here are the positions the Panthers could look to address in Round 1 on April 25.
Star Lotulelei, Utah
Sheldon Richardson, Missouri
Sylvester Williams, North Carolina
Johnathan Jenkins, Georgia
Carolina has not had a solid player at defensive tackle for a long time. The Panthers tried addressing this need by taking two defensive tackles in the third round of the 2011 draft, selecting Terrell McClain and Sione Fua.
Two years later only Fua remains on the team.
The Panthers have used a rotation of veterans brought in via free agency but have yet to find the stud player to anchor the line for the long haul. Obviously the selection of one of the highly touted defensive tackles in the first round would be great for the team and provide help to the defensive ends and the linebacker corps.
Last year, the Panthers' rush defense was ranked 14th, and the year before that it was 25th. In fact, Carolina has not been ranked in the Top 10 in rush defense since 2005 when they were ranked fourth. By selecting one of the skilled defensive tackles in the first round, the Panthers will try building off the previous season and improve upon their rush defense.
This move will be highly anticipated on draft day and for many Carolina fans, it could be one that will turn the defense into one of the best in the league.
D.J. Fluker, Alabama
There is no doubt the Carolina Panthers will need to upgrade their offensive line very soon. Both Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross are embarking on the latter stages of their careers, and quarterback Cam Newton will need quality protection to guard him from pressure off the edges.
New Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman has stated he would like to see Newton be more of a pocket passer and not rush as much as he has in the past two seasons.
Having a young, talented offensive tackle would be a great piece to plug into the offensive line. Fluker would be a great asset to Newton and could help not only in pass protection but in opening running lanes.
If the Panthers are to go this route in the draft, it would seem Fluker would be the ideal choice, as the offensive tackle position becomes very thin outside the Top 10. Nothing is certain, but it's doubtful the Panthers will use their first pick on the offensive line unless one of the projected Top 10 talents falls to them.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, UConn
Desmond Trufant, Washington
There are concerns about the effectiveness of the Carolina secondary, especially with the pending release of veteran Chris Gamble. Gamble has been the subject of release since the season ended, and his departure would clear $7.9 million in cap space.
His release raises to obvious question: Who will start at cornerback for the Panthers?
At first glance, it would seem necessary for Carolina to re-sign Captain Munnerlyn and team him back up with Josh Norman to establish the secondary of the defense. Both played well last year with Munnerlyn stepping up and Norman producing well in his first year.
However, there is a slight chance the Panthers could draft a cornerback in the first round. Unless Dee Miliner sees a dramatic drop on draft day, chances are the only way Carolina drafts a corner is by trading down and selecting either Wilson or Trufant.
This wouldn't be necessarily a bad thing, as such a move would most likely garner the Panthers another draft selection, possibly allowing them to move into the third round. Selecting a cornerback just seems unnecessary given Carolina's more pressing needs and the possibility they can bring back Munnerlyn and go with their cornerback tandem from last season.
Tavon Austin, West Virginia
Keenan Allen, California
Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee
There is no question that Steve Smith is getting older. While he still has the same fire and intensity he showed in his rookie year, he does not have an heir apparent on the roster to take his place once he hangs up the cleats. While Brandon LaFell has been a solid second option, LaFell lacks the ability to stretch the field and create plays the way Smith has done during his time in Carolina.
Carolina could find Smith's replacement in the first round by selecting any of the three receivers listed above. Patterson has been identified as the best wide receiver in the draft by CBSsports.com and is the third best according to Scout's, Inc. Top 32 on ESPN.com.
There is no question that the Panthers need a playmaker at wide receiver for Cam Newton to throw to, but is that need great enough for them to overlook defensive tackle? It's doubtful but one should expect the Carolina organization to be scouting all three of these receivers heavily and weighing their options.
The passing game will be instrumental in the team's success. If there is not a quality receiver in the fold, the Panthers could find themselves in a very bad spot.
Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
Chance Warmack, Alabama
Much as in selecting an offensive tackle in the first round, the Carolina Panthers will be looking at the offensive guard position for the same reasons. The guard position will help tremendously in the running game as running lanes should be opened up more for Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams (should he remain with the team).
Rob Rang of CBSsports.com has the Panthers selecting Warmack at 14th overall, Warmack's selection would not be a bad one as his addition will solidify an injury-riddled and aging offensive line. His selection could be justified based on his strengths. From CBS Sports:
In pass protection, Warmack does a nice job of supplying an initial punch and grasping hold of his opponent, showing good lateral agility to slide as well as the anchor to handle powerful bull-rushers.
There is no question that there are multiple possibilities for the Carolina Panthers in the 2013 NFL draft. Of the five positions named on this list, each one can afford to be strengthened.
In the end, the first selection will be based on need, talent available and the immediate impact the player can provide next season. The smart money is on defensive tackle, but the possibility of drafting another position should not be overlooked.