Carolina Panthers' Combine Preview: Top Targets, Sleepers and Prospects to Watch
The Carolina Panthers are ready to descend upon Indianapolis for a final opportunity to watch, evaluate and grade this year's incoming draft class. Dave Gettleman and his staff have their share of targets and sleepers who will make up the Carolina big board.
Carolina's top targets will be instrumental in setting the franchise up for long-term success, while the sleeper prospects could evolve into solid starters or future Pro Bowlers like Greg Hardy.
The Panthers should have a list of top targets that address their biggest needs. Prospects who play wide receiver, offensive lineman or defensive back should be considerably deep as they will most likely account for Carolina's first three or four picks.
Sleepers and solid backup players will be scouted for their growth potential and how instrumental they can be to the team when called upon.
The following slides will break down different players at different positions with an emphasis on whether they are a top target or sleeper prospect. There will be several players to fill both categories as the team will have to assemble a backup plan if a desired prospect is taken before Carolina picks.
Top Target: Kelvin Benjamin, WR
School: Florida State
Weight: 235 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.54
The need for a playmaking wide receiver to complement and eventually replace Steve Smith is great. The Panthers have not addressed this position early in the draft in recent years, and when they have, it's been during the third round at the earliest.
Kelvin Benjamin is the kind of receiver who could flourish in the Panthers offense and be a star as he grows with Cam Newton over the course of his career. The need to add a top-tier receiver makes him a legitimate top target for the Carolina scouts, but the depth of the position could drop the need below offensive tackle.
Benjamin could not only open up the passing game for Carolina but give the team's offensive ranking a significant bump.
Top Target: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT
Weight: 310 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 5.12
If Cyrus Kouandjio were to fall to the 28th overall pick, it would be a shock. However, his value as a top offensive tackle should keep him on Carolina's watch list during the combine.
The Panthers may be inclined to draft an offensive tackle first in the draft regardless of what Jordan Gross decides to do. However, if he spends another year with the team, it could allow the Panthers to look elsewhere for their first pick.
According to Rob Rang at CBS Sports, Kouandjio has just 16 percent body fat. Scouts at the combine will check to see if that is the case as well as see if he can live up to his lofty scouting report. His footwork and mobility allow him to shift around better than most, and if he can do for Carolina what he did in college, the passing game and rushing attack could see noticeable improvement.
As noted earlier, Kouandjio falling late into the first would be surprising, and if he is there when Carolina is on the clock, he should be the best player available. His size and athletic ability will keep him firmly entrenched among the Panthers' top targets until he is no longer available.
Top Target: Jason Verrett, CB
Weight: 176 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.49
Selecting a cornerback in the first round would probably cause a collective number of dropped jaws across the Carolina fanbase. However, Pete Prisco at CBS Sports has mocked Verrett to the Panthers at 28th overall. His prediction is based upon the theory that Verrett would be the best player available.
Of course, it wouldn't be a wasted pick.
The Panthers could use an upgrade in the secondary and specifically at cornerback. Like Jordan Gross at left tackle, this position's importance could be based on whether or not Captain Munnerlyn signs a new deal with the team.
That being said, if Munnerlyn is retained, the addition of Verrett would give the Panthers some options. They could start both men on the outside of the secondary or team Verrett with either Josh Thomas or Josh Norman and return Munnerlyn to the nickel-slot position.
Verrett leaves his mark as a defensive back who can make a lot of plays. He only had two interceptions last season, but he defended 14 passes to lead the Horned Frogs. Additionally, he fits the mold of the defensive scheme as he is capable of getting into the backfield. He was able to record a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Considering the needs at receiver and tackle, it may frustrate fans if the Panthers went the cornerback route first. However, a similar strategy was employed in 2012 when the team drafted Luke Kuechly, and that has worked out well for everyone.
Top Target: Marcus Roberson, CB
Weight: 195 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.52
Anyone who is convinced Carolina will either take a wide receiver or offensive tackle first is probably rolling his eyes as another cornerback makes this list of top targets. The feeling is understandable, but much like the case of Verrett, he could be the best player available.
However, according to Rob Rang's mock draft, that would leave players like Kelvin Benjamin and Morgan Moses still on the board, so it seems unlikely the Panthers would pass on either of those players in favor of a cornerback.
Roberson's scouting report lists his size and route anticipation among his strengths. On the other hand, his weaknesses include a tendency to make too much contact downfield. Given the fact that coverage discipline was lacking in Carolina's postseason loss to San Francisco, that could be a red flag about the former Florida defensive back.
If Rang's prediction holds true and Carolina takes Roberson in the first round, it will be due to how much he impressed at the combine and perhaps his showing at his pro day.
Top Target: Jarvis Landry, WR
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.49
Landry should be a top receiving target for the Panthers if Kelvin Benjamin is off the board. Dane Brugler's mock draft suggests that as a possibility. His selection wouldn't be a terrible one, and he could be the type of receiver that the Panthers have been searching for.
He had a great season in 2013 when he caught 77 passes for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns. A combination of decent size, strength and speed contributes to his success as a receiver, and he could develop into a great one in the NFL.
It should be noted that his scouting report has drawn comparisons to Eric Decker. If Landry can improve his route running against press coverage and learn to counter physical defensive backs, his career as a pro should be a fruitful one.
Top Target: Morgan Moses, OT
Weight: 325 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 5.28
Moses projects as a strong early second-round selection, which bodes well for a team picking late in the first like Carolina. Like any other tackle on this list, he figures to be held in high regard based on the Panthers' need to rebuild on the edge of the offensive line.
He would make for a great selection as he was instrumental in giving the Virginia Cavaliers their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. Carolina running backs have struggled to reach that mark in recent years, and if Moses can help DeAngelo Williams or a healthy Jonathan Stewart reach that goal in 2014, his selection will have been worth it.
Drawing comparisons to Ryan Clady, Moses could be a perfect, longtime fit in the Carolina offense. If Jordan Gross plays another season or two, he may be shifted to the right side so the rookie can protect Cam Newton's blind side.
Top Target: Brandin Cooks, WR
School: Oregon State
Weight: 186 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.49
Despite being a hair taller, Brandin Cooks has been labeled Steve Smith 2.0 in some Carolina circles. His ability to stretch the field and burn defenders with his speed allow for that justification. However, his size may deter him from being a first-round selection.
His role in the Carolina offense could see him teaming up with Smith on the outside or moving to the slot, with a big receiver and Smith being the focal points for the cornerbacks.
Cooks had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Oregon State. He capped his collegiate career with a huge 2013 showing by catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. If his numbers were cut in half and translated into the NFL game, he would rank second on the team in receptions, first in receiving yards and first in touchdowns.
On one hand, that shows how impressive the young man can be on the football field; on the other, it exposes the need to improve the Panthers receiving corp.
If Carolina is willing to overlook his size, Cooks could make the receiving unit one of the most talented in the league.
Top Target: Allen Robinson, WR
School: Penn State
Weight: 210 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.54
Robinson is another big receiver who is capable of becoming a first round pick in this year's draft. His average vertical speed could turn off the Carolina scouts, but his production in 2013 cannot be overlooked. He had 97 receptions for 1,432 yards to lead the Big Ten in 2013. Additionally, he led the Nittany Lions with six touchdowns.
His physicality would benefit the Panthers, which are in need of a physical receiver who can outmuscle defenders and pick up a lot of yards after contact. His size would give the offense another weapon inside the red zone, and he has the ability to compete for jump balls.
Robinson's presence would force defenses to open up coverage on Steve Smith and Greg Olsen in those kinds of situations and possibly allow the passing game to open up for more deep throws. He may not have the explosiveness of Brandin Cooks or Kelvin Benjamin, but he could command enough coverage to allow Smith to make a play deep.
Top Target: Zack Martin, OT
School: Notre Dame
Weight: 305 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 5.22
Considered one of the top offensive tackles in this year's draft class, Zack Martin may not be around for Carolina to have the chance to select him at 28th overall. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be considered a top target.
He had a good showing at the Senior Bowl as he played both guard and tackle. He would give the Panthers a few options to work with, and if Jordan Gross is back in the fold for the 2014 season, the offensive line would be significantly improved on the outside.
Martin's scouting report suggests he may have to move to the inside as a guard, and if Carolina feels that way about him, he may only be drafted if Gross signs on for another year or two.
He should be on the radar during the combine and the draft. If he starts to slip in the first round, the Panthers may be associated with him as the 28th pick draws closer.
Top Target: Jack Mewhort, OT
School: Ohio State
Weight: 306 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 5.28
His experience blocking for a mobile quarterback at Ohio State makes Mewhort a strong and viable candidate to be the Panthers' first-round pick. Nevertheless, he is a solid second-round projection and could slip deep into that round when the Panthers pick again at 60th overall.
Mewhort is considered to be a better right tackle at the pro level, and if that is the case, Jordan Gross would remain at his position (assuming he plays another year). Additionally, it would allow Carolina an opportunity to draft a quality left tackle in next year's draft.
In a perfect scenario, Carolina could grab a playmaker at wide receiver in the first round and take Mewhort in the second. That would improve two areas of concern in as many rounds.
Sleeper: Mike Davis, WR
Weight: 193 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.52
It's hard to imagine the Carolina Panthers taking a wide receiver in the middle rounds if they take one early. However, it's not out of the question. Mike Davis spent four years in school, and his production can be described as consistent.
He did taper off slightly in his senior year as he caught 51 passes for 727 yards, compared to the 57 receptions for 939 yards the year before. However, it's not too significant, and he set a career high in touchdowns with eight.
Davis received a few accolades while at Texas, and although his numbers pale in comparison to some of the other receivers in this class, he could have tremendous value as a sleeper pick.
Sleeper: Anthony Steen, OG
Weight: 310 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 5.22
The Panthers could use some help on the interior of their line, and when they are on the clock in the third or fourth round, they could target an interior lineman.
One player who may appeal to them is Alabama's Anthony Steen. His scouting report lists one of his strengths as "fundamentally and technically sound in pass protection."
That should pique the interest of the Carolina scouts who saw the inside of the offensive line penetrated a little too quickly at times for anything to unfold. Cam Newton is a different quarterback (for the better) when given time to throw, and having someone who can hold his blocks would be beneficial to him in that regard.
Pass protection aside, the Panthers could opt to pursue a guard for the sake of adding depth to a position that was consistently plagued by injuries last year. There are still hopes for Edmund Kugbila and Amini Silatolu, but keeping the line young and fresh isn't a bad strategy to employ.
Sleeper: Aaron Lynch, DE
School: South Florida
Weight: 244 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.76
Assuming Carolina releases Greg Hardy into free agency, the team could look to replace him in the draft. Aaron Lynch possess the size and speed that make him athletically gifted for the position. He may be a bit smaller compared to Hardy (290 pounds), but his ability to penetrate an opposing backfield makes up for it.
Lynch only has two seasons of college football under his belt; he played at Notre Dame in 2011 before transferring to South Florida. Despite this, he has maintained a level of consistency at both schools, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with a team after having a year to learn the playbook.
He had 10.5 career sacks in college. Those numbers aren't eye-popping, but for a team that may need to patch up one side of its defensive front, Lynch should be taken into consideration when the combine opens. A rotation of Lynch, Frank Alexander and Mario Addison could be surprisingly effective.
If Hardy's success was a byproduct of the stout Carolina defense, who's to say the same can't happen for Lynch in the next few years?
Sleeper: Jeff Janis, WR
School: Saginaw Valley State
Weight: 212 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.43
Janis could fit the mold of a hidden gem in the middle rounds of the draft. He may have attended a smaller school than the most of his peers, but his potential is high. He completed his final season at Saginaw Valley State with 83 receptions for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns. His production was good enough to be named to the 2013 AFCA Division II Coaches All-America Team.
While the NFL may be a different animal compared to what Janis has experienced, his combination of size and speed should make him worth a look during the combine. If he impresses the Carolina scouts, they may consider taking him as a fifth-round pick.
Janis made a name for himself in school. It may take a season or two for him to emerge as a solid receiver in the NFL, but if he is inserted into the right offense, he could be one of this draft's biggest steals.
Sleeper: Chris Davis, CB
Weight: 201 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.54
On the surface, Chris Davis doesn't seem like the kind of player who could be a difference-maker. However, thousands of Auburn fans would disagree with that statement, as he was the catalyst for getting the Tigers to the SEC Championship Game and eventually the national title game.
He would be an interesting pick for the Panthers in the middle rounds if Captain Munnerlyn were to be re-signed to a new deal. It stands to reason he could compete for a job as a kick or punt returner—he had more success with the latter with an average of 18.7 yards per return.
Defensively, he is capable of breaking up passes with 14 of them in 2013. Additionally, he had 74 total tackles, with 2.5 of them being for a loss.
It's hard to get excited for a player who is drafted between the fifth and seventh rounds, but Davis' reputation could spark a lot of conversation for any team.
Player to Watch: Jordan Matthews, WR
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.55
There is a lot to like about Jordan Matthews and what he can bring to the table. He had two solid years at Vanderbilt and was named to the All-SEC second team. He did have a minor setback during the Senior Bowl as he failed to stand out among his peers. That shouldn't deter the Carolina scouts from looking at him in Indianapolis, where he should be able to redeem himself.
Matthews collegiate career suggests he is capable of improving and growing within the offense, and he shows big-play potential. He could be a savvy choice in the second round if the Panthers were to choose an offensive tackle in Round 1.
Player to Watch: Arthur Lynch, TE
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.82
When Carolina employed two tight ends in the offense in 2011, it allowed Cam Newton to not only post record-setting numbers by a rookie quarterback, but he also threw for more than 4,000 yards in the only time in his career. The Panthers may want to look at revisiting that offensive scheme (minus the overuse of the read-option).
Arthur Lynch has drawn comparisons to both Carolina's Greg Olsen and Dallas' Jason Witten. Factor in his ability to both block and catch passes, and Lynch could have a case for becoming a mid-round gem.
Don't be fooled: He lacks speed and doesn't pick up too many yards after the catch. However, he can do enough to move the chains and is a reliable checkdown option.
Trying to open up the passing game will be important during the offseason. Drafting a top wide receiver should help, but bringing in another tight end who can catch passes and pick up first downs could be the difference in the offense.
Player to Watch: Jaylen Watkins, CB
Weight: 194 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.48
Watkins isn't exactly a hidden gem, as he is a safe player the Panthers could consider taking in the fourth or fifth round. Regardless of how the secondary looks prior to the start of the draft, he would give Carolina a defensive back who is capable of making the transition over to safety if needed.
Last year, he recorded 52 tackles (two for a loss) and defensed seven passes. Watkins had a good showing at the Senior Bowl, and that should help him earn the attention of the scouts at the combine. He has earned some points with Jacksonville's staff, and it should be interesting to see if he can build upon his accomplishments during his week in Mobile, Alabama.
Player to Watch: Cornelius Lucas, OT
School: Kansas State
Weight: 329 pounds
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 5.29
Lucas is the kind of lineman who can improve his stock with a strong showing at the combine. He could be drafted in the final two rounds or sign with a team as an undrafted free agent. Naturally, teams are going to ask him about his level of motivation, as his heart really wasn't into the game during his freshman and sophomore years.
His size should be appealing, and if he is as athletic as his scouting report suggests, Carolina could find some interest in him as a depth player at tackle.
If he can make the necessary adjustments, he will prove to be a formidable obstacle for defenders to overcome.
Player to Watch: Logan Thomas, QB
School: Virginia Tech
Pre-Combine 40 Time: 4.67
Currently, the only quarterback on Carolina's roster is Cam Newton. Derek Anderson is a free agent, and while it's likely he'll sign another one-year deal, the Panthers will have to consider the future and who can back up Newton for the long haul.
Physically, Thomas has the build and skill set similar to the Carolina starter. However, he didn't fare too well at the Senior Bowl and will need to rebound at the combine if he is to boost his stock.
What's appealing about him is the possibility that he can be inserted into an offense like the one in Carolina and keep it consistent. Of course, that is the best-case scenario.
Thomas could be a player whom the Panthers target in the final round or sign as a free agent. However, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has speculated that teams will overdraft on the former Hokie. Carolina is unlikely to draft a quarterback, and if one is signed, he will most likely be a free agent.