One of the best things about the period between the end of the NFL season and the draft is the ongoing debate about which player a team will draft first. Understandably, the teams picking in the top five have more reason to be more enthusiastic than most, but a lot of fans look forward to the draft as a way to fill a pressing need with a player who may grow into a star.
The Carolina Panthers have the 28th overall pick and, like every team in the league, football experts everywhere have made their predictions about who will be the first selection. Carolina's needs are obvious at offensive tackle and wide receiver, but there have been predictions regarding other positions as well.
One must be careful not take too much stock into a projected draft and take the predictions to heart. Sometimes, they pan out, while others are just another list of projected players that missed the mark.
The next few slides will discuss the predictions that draft experts and analysts have made for the Panthers in the first round and whether it is a sound judgment based on the team's needs.
Sources for mock drafts include the Charlotte Observer, ESPN, CBS Sports, Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated. Projections on this list have been made in the month of February unless otherwise noted. Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com and scouting reports provided by CBSSports.com.
Predicted by: Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN) and Matt Miller (Bleacher Report)*
Brandin Cooks has been drawing a lot of comparisons to Steve Smith for his ability to make shifty moves and use his speed to make plays. Carolina's need at wide receiver justifies his selection as the team's first, but they could be favoring a receiver with more height over one who is short and relies on his speed.
However, Cooks' playmaking ability has caught the attention of both Kiper and Miller to project him to the Panthers late in the first round. It should be noted, this was one of the earlier predictions and Miller has since changed his pick for Carolina to Zack Martin (more on that later).
Dave Gettleman and company may have a hard time overlooking the young man's production, and if he can do what he did in college at the professional level, he will be a legitimate stud at receiver. He does have some experience at returning punts, but it's doubtful he would be utilized as a return man.
Along with his explosive speed and fluid movements on his routes, his work ethic and durability will make him a strong candidate to become Carolina's first pick in May.
* Denotes prediction made in December 2013.
Predicted by: Don Banks (Sports Illustrated) and Rob Rang (CBS Sports)
On the surface, it would appear ridiculous to project a cornerback or a safety to Carolina in the first round. If the Panthers are unable to come to terms with Captain Munnerlyn, the need at the position will be just as high of a priority as receiver and offensive tackle.
Roberson appears to be an ideal pick in the event Munnerlyn departs the team. His physical and aggressive nature will be immediately embraced in Carolina and if he can work on his discipline in coverage, he could be a solid NFL starter.
Until the Panthers make some decisions regarding their current group of free agents, it's safe to hold any defensive back to Carolina until the later rounds.
Banks' prediction appears to suggest best player available, while Rang's prediction has the Panthers opting for a cornerback over receivers, like the aforementioned Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin. The only conclusion for his pick is that the need to upgrade the secondary will take precedence and Carolina will gamble on the strength of their defense to carry them during 2014.
Predicted By: Dane Brugler (CBS Sports)
Jarvis Landry is the prototypical receiver whom Brugler feels will appeal to the Carolina scouts. He has a solid frame and the speed to accompany it, but has received above-average marks for his hands and toughness. If he can show improvement at the combine and at his pro day, Landry could make a strong case for himself to be the Panthers' first pick.
Compared to Denver's Eric Decker, he could be a solid receiver in an offense that features one of the best young quarterbacks of the game and sound veteran leadership. Considering the way Carolina receivers like to block for each other downfield, Landry would have no problem fitting in as he loves getting downfield to hit someone.
There are a lot of positives to take away from this young man, and if he can address the issues that have prompted scouts to mark him down, he could become a late-round steal for the Panthers.
Predicted By: Pete Prisco (CBS Sports)
Based on Prisco's prediction, and assuming the Panthers have allowed Greg Hardy to walk, it's unlikely they will draft Jason Verrett if Dee Ford is still on the board. The need for a talented edge pass-rusher would be too much to pass up, and a player like Ford could thrive in Sean McDermott's defense.
However, let's assume for a moment that Hardy will remain with Carolina. That would negate the need to target a defensive end early and could warrant Verrett's selection. Much like the case for Roberson earlier in this presentation, taking a cornerback first would suggest the Panthers have parted ways with Captain Munnerlyn.
Since Roberson is off the board in this particular mock draft, the thinking here is Carolina needs a cornerback and values it more than a receiver or offensive tackle. Verrett led TCU in passes defensed and is the type of defensive back who can make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack when called upon to rush the line.
His value with the Panthers will depend on their needs, who they will re-sign in free agency and how the draft plays out. Considering the other needs for Carolina, it's hard to see a first-round pick being used on a defensive back.
Predicted by: Pat Kirwan (CBS Sports)
This prediction not only addresses one of Carolina's most glaring needs, but features a player who has been overlooked by some when it comes to predraft big boards. Antonio Richardson is a mountain of a man at 6'6" and 327 pounds. His selection makes sense, as it brings in the replacement for Jordan Gross and gives the Panthers a stronger line if Gross were to stay for another season.
Richardson is an exceptional player in blocking pass-rushers and holding his own in the ground game. The latter will bode well for an offense that has lacked a 1,000-yard rusher for five years.
There is one issue about Richardson that will need to be corrected at the next level: his ability to stand his ground and not get bull-rushed into his quarterback by defensive players. This was the case when Tennessee played South Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney dominated him. If Clowney were to go to a team like Atlanta, protecting the quarterback will become more important than ever.
Despite this, there is a lot of upside with Richardson and he could be develop into a solid lineman who can enjoy a long, fruitful career as a pro.
Predicted by: Matt Miller (Bleacher Report)
Citing the need to protect Cam Newton, Miller feels this would be the right course of action for Carolina to take when they are on the clock for the first time in May. Martin has become another popular choice associated with the fan base, and if the Panthers don't select a wide receiver in round one, Martin would more than make up for that.
However, it's hard to imagine him falling deep into the opening round after he has been projected as a mid-first round pick by the majority of experts. Making this mock draft even more interesting are the picks that will follow Martin.
Miller has predicted that Kelvin Benjamin will go to Carolina in the second round and Loucheiz Purifoy will go to them in the third. That would be a very strong first three rounds for the Panthers.
Going back to Martin, if he is available, he should be hands down the best player available. When the Panthers are on the clock and Martin is still on the board, expect Carolina to have their pick in under two minutes.
Predicted by: Todd McShay (ESPN)
This may have been an early prediction, but it's still one that is popular among fans in Carolina. Kelvin Benjamin could have the potential to be the best wide receiver ever drafted by the Panthers. For a team that has drafted Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, that is saying a lot. Both receivers have made a name for themselves in Carolina and are practically associated with every Carolina receiving record in franchise history.
Why he has been overlooked by the experts when he's been available is uncertain. Perhaps, they feel Carolina will have more pressing concerns at other positions or value another receiver instead.
Benjamin's size and speed make him a desirable pick, but his need to run smoother routes could have Carolina looking somewhere else. Of course, it may be his flaws that cause him to drop into the second round, as Miller predicted. If that is the case, the Panthers may have gotten a steal.
It may be wrong to heap so much expectation onto Benjamin, but to be fair, if a wide receiver is taken first by Carolina, much will be expected of him.
Predicted by: John McMullen (The Sports Network via The Charlotte Observer)
Another LSU standout, Beckham had 1,175 receiving yards on 62 receptions and eight touchdowns. His numbers are slightly lower than his teammate Jarvis Landry, but he can still do a lot of damage on the outside. If Landry and Kelvin Benjamin are off the board, they could look in his direction as the first pick.
Beckham lacks the size of some of his peers, but he makes up for it in speed. He has shown some improvement with his ball-handling, and if he can overcome his lack of physical presence, he could be a decent receiver in Carolina. Still, he does have great field vision, and if paired with Steve Smith, could give opposing secondaries fits.
He hasn't garnered too much attention as a first-round pick for the Panthers, but everything could change over the course of the next few weeks. If Beckham can turn some heads at the combine and follow it up with a strong showing at LSU's pro day, he will give his draft stock some extra boost.