As general manager Dave Gettleman has said before, the team will take the best player available during the upcoming draft, but there’s no doubt the team will be targeting specific areas that needs improvement: offensive line, secondary and wide receiver.
Jordan Gross is hardly replaceable. His leadership on and off the field will be surely be missed by his Panther teammates and fans.
Finding a player to start 167 games, be named to three Pro Bowls and lead the team to a Super Bowl will be tough. However, the upcoming draft offers many possible suitors to take over for Gross.
While the “hot” pick would be to select a flashy, playmaking wide receiver in the draft, the team must address the gaping hole at left tackle.
Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson may fill that void. At 6’6” and 336 pounds, Richardson could virtually stop stop a train. The run-heavy Panthers could used a player like Richardson. Not only does he fit the bill as far as size, he arguably has played against the nation’s best teams in the SEC.
Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith may or may not be suiting up for the Panthers this season. With Dave Gettleman leaving his future in question, the team must address the wide receiver position at some point during the draft, most preferably in the first three rounds.
Here are two players that could fall to the Panthers and make an immediate impact in Week 1:
Jordan Matthews – Vanderbilt
Height – 6’3”
Weight – 212
Matthews has the frame the Panthers have longed for since former wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad retired. “Moose” was the perfect compliment to Smith—a great possession receiver, and possibly the most underrated pass-blocking receiver in NFL history.
Matthews reeled in 112 receptions for 1,477 yards and seven touchdowns last year for Commodores. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Matthews logged a 4.46 40-yard dash time and a 35.5" vertical leap.
Brandin Cooks – Oregon State
Height – 5'10"
Weight – 186
This playmaking receiver has drawn many comparisons to the Panthers’ Steve Smith. Last season for the Beavers, Cooks grabbed 128 balls for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Cooks timed a 4.33 40-yard dash time, the fastest for a receiver at the combine.
In the NFL, Cooks is best suited for a slot receiver position but could be a Day 1 starter. If the Panthers do go with the speedster, Smith could be a great mentoring tool, as he was looked upon as more of a special teams player when he entered the league.
Perhaps one of the most surprising positions last season for Carolina was its secondary. Deemed “The Legion of Whom” for its lack of household-name players, the squad held its own, but did come with issues throughout the season.
As Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes said prior to his matchup against the Panthers last season, “Their secondary is probably their weakest link on their defense.” Holmes was correct in his assessment.
The Panthers defense was arguably the best in the league, but if they had a legitimate secondary, they would be outstanding.
James Dockery, Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Melvin White rounded out the corner for the team with safeties Robert Lester, Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell primarily making the “Legion of Whom.”
Munnerlyn, a seventh-round draft pick out of South Carolina, has been a productive corner with the team but faces the decision of free agency this offseason.
Look for the team to aggressively search for replacements in the secondary in both the draft and free agency.
Tight end Greg Olsen is among the NFL’s best, but the team could use another to help Cam Newton and Co. stretch the field. In his rookie season, Newton had both Olsen and Jeremy Shockey to throw to when there wasn’t anything open downfield, and the team had its most productive season in years.
Someone who could compliment Olsen both in reeling in passes from Newton and aiding the line in rushing situations would be ideal for the Panthers.
Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas and Georgia’s Arthur Lynch could be ideal fits for a team looking to add depth later in the draft.
Niklas, 6’6” and 270 pounds, hauled in 32 catches for 498 yards and five touchdowns for the Irish last season, and Lynch, 6’4” and 258 pounds, recorded 30 catches for 459 yards and five touchdowns for the Bulldogs.
The latest round of players to accept restructured deals includes center Ryan Kalil, linebacker Thomas Davis and running back Jonathan Stewart, which created roughly $7.25 million in cap space, according to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer.
Steve Smith could be next in line for a restructured deal.
With defensive end Greg Hardy being one of the team’s top offseason priorities, the next move could be franchise tagging the elusive pass-rusher.
The Panthers do not have any huge gaping holes—unless they lose Hardy—and most of their deficiencies should be easily addressed in the upcoming draft and free agency.
This year’s draft is one of the deepest in years and could prove to be fruitful for the Panthers if handled correctly.
For the first time since the early 2000s, the Carolina Panthers are only a few pieces away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender.