The NFL combine serves as a measuring stick for owners, general managers and scouts to get one final look at a prospect before the draft. Sure, there are still the pro days to consider, but the combine is the NFL's ultimate interview for an incoming draft class.
Carolina will have their scouting department in attendance to evaluate the players and determine which of them are worthy of their time and attention. Attention to detail and accurate grades will allow the Panthers to construct a successful draft class in 2014.
It was those keen observations that allowed Carolina to unexpectedly draft middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2012 and considering his first two years on the field, his selection was brilliant.
What will Carolina be looking for at the combine this year?
There are several factors they will have to take into consideration—many of them related to their needs. However, if everything goes well and their reports are true to form, their 2014 draft class should allow for the Panthers to build upon their successful 2013 campaign.
Players to Watch
Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilit
Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Odell Beckham, LSU
Allen Robinson, Penn State
An elite wide receiver is typically selected in the draft's opening round. This year's draft class has a few top-tier receivers who have the potential to develop into elite players in the league. That doesn't mean Carolina will be unable to address one of their major needs, as the players listed above are all capable of becoming great players at the pro level.
Carolina scouts will be looking at this position very closely as any receiver who stands out on a positive note, and could prompt them to seriously consider drafting a wide receiver first. It's important to keep that in mind as the team will need to consider the most pressing need: Wide receiver or offensive tackle.
The Panthers need a receiver who will not only take the attention away from Steve Smith and Greg Olsen, but one that can grow into the number one receiver role. Even though Smith was a former third-round pick, the mid-round selections of Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards and Kealoha Pilares have all proved to be fruitless.
Looking into first two rounds could be the difference maker.
A receiver who can stretch the field, has great hands and has the size to battle defenders should be the prototypical player the Panthers scouts should be looking for at the combine. The latter may not bode well for Cooks and Beckham as they are the two shortest receivers in the draft, but Cooks has been drawing comparisons to Steve Smith. If he can perform like him, he could be held in high regard by Carolina.
Players to Watch
Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Zack Martin, Notre Dame
Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
Morgan Moses, Virginia
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
Offensive tackle is the other pressing need for the Carolina Panthers and if Jordan Gross does indeed retire, the need for an offensive tackle almost becomes the first priority of the team. Protecting Cam Newton's blindside will be important for the Panthers, as will finding a young lineman who can have a long and productive career like Gross has enjoyed since he was drafted in 2003.
Carolina scouts will need to make sure they find a tackle who can not only block effectively, but maintains some shifty footwork to compensate for Newton's mobility. The Panthers need to come away from the draft knowing they have not only upgraded their offensive line, but have a long-term solution in place on the outside.
If Edmund Kugbila and Amini Silatolu can bounce back next season, Carolina could theoretically be set and not have to worry about the offensive line until it's time to replace Ryan Kalil.
For now, the focus is on offensive tackle. Many draft experts may be picking the Panthers to take a wide receiver first, but Dave Gettleman's strategy for building from the inside out could see Carolina drafting an offensive tackle with the 28th overall pick.
Players to Watch
Jason Verrett, TCU
Marcus Roberson, Florida
Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
Both Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence will be entering free agency, and that leaves Melvin White, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and James Dockery. While there is plenty to be excited about with the ceilings of White, Thomas and Norman, the future of Munnerlyn, and to a lesser extent Florence, could prompt the Panthers to address the position within the first three rounds.
Identifying a shutdown corner would prove advantageous as the already stout defense would become more dangerous. The secondary may have been considered a weakness in 2013, but it's not as glaring as offensive tackle or wide receiver.
The Panthers could very well look at a safety, but could be set with Robert Lester and Charles Godfrey patrolling the interior of the secondary. This would leave the cornerback position as the area to improve. Carolina should do everything possible to retain Munnerlyn, as he would offer a strong veteran presence within the secondary.
The scouts should be looking at players who are opportunistic and can take advantage of errant passes. Any cornerback who shows the ability to blanket a receiver and not get burned deep will garner much attention. Still, if the Panthers do draft a corner this spring, it may not happen until the third round at the earliest.
What made Dave Gettleman successful in last year's draft was his ability to identify the best player available versus need. His selections of A.J. Klein and Kenjon Barner raised a few eyebrows, but there was a method to his madness.
Klein enjoyed moderate success as a role and backup player, especially when the need presented itself at outside linebacker. He appeared in all 16 games of the 2013 season (he started two) and totaled 21 tackles and two sacks. Essentially, he more than justified his selection at a time when fans were screaming for Carolina to take a defensive back.
Barner is still a work in progress, but he could find his way into the backfield if the Panthers decide to part ways with either DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart. For now, he is relegated to special teams.
This year's draft is deep at wide receiver and it shouldn't be surprising to see Carolina take a receiver between the fifth and seventh rounds. Today's game is evolving in such a manner that players can still contribute at the professional level regardless of their draft status.
Fans should expect the Panthers to focus on defensive back, defensive end, wide receiver and offensive lineman between rounds four and seven. If they are able to land a player in those rounds who can win a starting job or be a key contributor, they will have found a hidden gem.
Speaking of hidden gems, there is always potential to land that proverbial steal. A couple of great examples of Carolina's draft day hidden gems are Steve Smith (third round, 2001 draft) and Greg Hardy (sixth round, 2010 draft). If Captain Munnerlyn can build upon a successful 2013, he could be mentioned in the very same breath.
However, identifying a hidden gem is difficult. The return may not come instantly, as was the case with Hardy. It should be noted that not all hidden gems are drafted. Robert Lester and Melvin White were both undrafted free agents and each found their way to the team and, at times, into the starting lineup.
It could be argued that they took advantage of a weak secondary, but they did enough to earn their place at the table this past season.
A possible position that could breed this year's hidden gem for the Panthers is wide receiver. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of depth at the position and Carolina could be the beneficiaries of an under-the-radar player.
Unfortunately, it may take until the preseason or the regular season for a hidden gem to emerge (or in Smith's case, a couple of seasons), but the ground work for finding one begins at the combine.
The last thing any team wants on their hands is a player with character issues. While such concerns are not limited to unruly off-field behavior, the combine serves as a means to gauge a player's work ethic. Carolina has built a reputation for avoiding players who may become a liability in the league, as the team dealt with their fair share of unacceptable behavior in the late 1990s.
Let's be clear: There is a fine line between a locker room distraction and a player who lets their emotions get the best of them. Steve Smith fits the mold of the latter and his success can be attributed to his competitiveness and fiery on-field demeanor. In the end, he is a leader and one who takes accountability for his actions.
The players who fit the bill are those who have yet to mature and may not be ready for the stage that is the NFL. If Carolina is unable to identify those players, they could make the mistake of drafting them and reap the consequences in the near future.
Granted, not everyone can be pointed out as potential troublemakers, but history has shown what can happen to a franchise when a star player allows their personal life and lack of accountability catch up to their professional career.
The mark of a successful draft class is defined by how well a team comes together and what they can do on the field. Production and winning go hand-in-hand, but there are times when a player's hype can blind those making the big decisions.
Buying into the hype can be attributed to every Matt Millen pick ever made in Detroit from 2001 to 2008. Of course, his inexperience as a front office executive played a role, too.
Recent history has given us Tim Tebow. He may have found many unorthodox ways of winning football games in 2011, but he has never been proven to be an adequate starter or backup of any kind in the NFL. The lesson here: What worked in college does not always translate to success in the big leagues.
Former Carolina players like Dwayne Jarrett, Everette Brown and Jimmy Clausen all turned into players who never realized their potential in the NFL. They may not have been subjected to the same level of hype as Tim Tebow, but they certainly failed in similar fashion.
No matter how great a player was in college, there are no guarantees for success as a pro. College awards and accolades do not mean a thing at this level of football. The Heisman trophy winners from 2001 to 2011 can attest to that. Seven of those winners are still in the NFL today and three of them are starting quarterbacks.
While a player's skills are valuable, their ability to adjust to the speed of the game and evolve into a professional football player in the NFL must be heavily looked at and reviewed by the scouts. This will make or break a player's career and could determine the future of the franchise.