Panthers Draft Stock Watch: 8 Players Rising Up, Falling Down Carolina's Board
The Carolina Panthers enter the 2014 NFL draft with some serious needs. They desperately need to upgrade their offensive line and make improvements at wide receiver, but the secondary needs work too. Carolina lost a number of players in free agency and did some work in free agency to mend the holes left by those players, but there are still rips in the roster that need patching.
The Panthers will have their choice of talented players in the draft and have likely seen their big board take shape by now. They're undoubtedly keeping a keen eye on each prospect they've targeted, a group that has been a mixed bag as of late.
In my previous mock draft and big board for the Panthers, I put receivers like Kelvin Benjamin and Allen Robinson high on my list of potential and quality targets for Carolina, but my mind has since changed. Neither player has done anything to hurt his draft stock beyond repair, but the issues they do have could prove to be a turn-off for the Panthers.
On the other side of the spectrum, other players at the same position have surely garnered the praise of Carolina's big wigs. Cody Latimer of Indiana had a stellar workout at his pro day and showed why he should be considered in the early rounds of the draft.
He is a big receiver with great speed—two things that would benefit the Panthers offense in a major way.
Aside from the former Hoosier, cornerback Jason Verrett is another player whom Carolina should be impressed with leading up to the draft. He's an athletic defender who is great in coverage and could contribute to the defense right away.
Especially with the departure of Captain Munnerlyn in free agency, the Panthers could use a guy like Verrett to make up for the loss. Carolina has the opportunity to strengthen its thinned-out roster with the draft and will need to be wise with its selections.
Rising: Jason Verrett, CB
Jason Verrett is one of the best corners in this draft and would be a great pickup for Carolina, should it get the chance to draft him.
He won't make it out of the first round (he may not even make it to the neighborhood of the Panthers' 28th overall pick), meaning that Carolina would have to select him with its first-round selection. That would be a questionable move considering the biggest needs are wide receiver and offensive tackle, but Verrett's value may be too good to pass up.
Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey slated the former TCU Horned Frog to Carolina in his recent mock draft, proposing the idea that the wide receiver and offensive tackle positions are deep enough this year to be addressed in the later rounds.
The Panthers demonstrated their interest in the talented corner when they worked him out recently (h/t Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Charean Williams) and appeared at his pro day.
Plainly, he would make a difference from Day 1 and could be holding up a Panthers jersey come May.
Falling: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT
Once considered to be the top tackle in this year's class, Cyrus Kouandjio has suffered a tumble down most draft boards. Part of his descent in the rankings is his health, specifically concerns surrounding his knee.
His iffy combine performance didn't help his case, but the biggest issue is his knee.
The cartilage damage in his knee could potentially lead to bigger problems down the road, which should be the deciding factor in the Panthers' choice of not drafting him. While tackle is a need, the risk is too great with Kouandjio, and they need a consistently solid player over a possible star at this point.
The once-top tackle prospect is no longer worth a first-rounder, which is where Carolina might target a lineman.
The Panthers already needed help on the offensive line but are now in desperate need of an upgrade following Jordan Gross' retirement. This is a generally solid class of lineman, and they could likely find someone else who could fit the bill with less doubt about his future.
Rising: Brandin Cooks, WR
Brandin Cooks has had a great few months. The former college standout proved his worth as an NFL receiver through his stellar combine performance. His 4.33 official time in the 40-yard dash was the fastest of any receiver and solidified him as a top-tier wideout in this year's class.
His smaller stature is a concern for some, but his athleticism more than makes up for it. Besides being a track star on the field, he can also jump rather well for a 5'10" receiver; he notched a 36" vertical leap at the combine.
Other guys like Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans are the clear headliners of the group, but Cooks will make an NFL team very happy next season and the seasons beyond. One could argue that his size and skill set make him the Tavon Austin of this year's class, and if you recall, he had a pretty good start to his NFL career in 2013.
Cooks' potential impact in most offenses is undeniable, and that could make him a prime target for the Panthers in this draft. They'll have a chance to nab the rising receiver with their 28th overall pick if they don't draft a lineman but may opt to trade up a few picks if it comes down to the wire.
Regardless, Cooks is likely the only top-tier wideout that Carolina has a solid chance to get.
Falling: Marcus Roberson, CB
Marcus Roberson was once a promising NFL prospect, but his draft stock recently took a hit with his poor combine times and even less impressive pro day. Granted, the weather conditions weren't exactly favorable, but a 4.71 40 time, per Rob Rang of CBSSports.com, is just too slow to ignore.
This is not to say that he isn't talented and won't succeed at the next level, but it does raise some questions, and that could be a turn-off to Carolina.
The Panthers did sign Antoine Cason in free agency, adding a bit of a bandage to the cornerback position and making a riskier guy like Roberson irrelevant to their plans. Even if you don't consider the Cason signing, Roberson could end up being a liability in pass defense, which is just not what the team needs.
The Panthers could target another player of similar quality with less concerns once the third round hits, making the risk that comes with Roberson unnecessary. It'll be interesting to see how they approach it, but the former Florida Gator is looking like someone to stay away from—for now.
Rising: Cody Latimer, WR
Cody Latimer had an impressive end to his college career and showed that he's only getting better with his blazing pro-day performance. He was unable to participate in combine workouts last February because he was recovering from foot surgery, but he more than made up for it Wednesday in front of team scouts and officials.
At Indiana's pro day, Latimer ran an official time of 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash, per The Indianapolis Star's Zach Osterman—in case you didn't know, that's fast. Like, really fast—especially for a 6'3", 215-pound man. Latimer has now become a can't-miss prospect for the receiver-needy Panthers, and he would be a tremendous fit in Mike Shula's offense.
He's the big-bodied, speedy receiver who could dominate teams along with Greg Olsen and the newly signed Jerricho Cotchery. Personally, I don't believe he is either worth a first-round pick or will be the best available receiver at 28th overall, but Carolina should take a long, hard look at him in the second round of the draft.
The potential-filled Latimer could quickly become a fixture of the Panthers offense.
Falling: Kelvin Benjamin, WR
I've been high on Kelvin Benjamin for a while, but I'm starting to see more and more receivers show why they deserve to be on a higher pedestal than him. Don't get me wrong: He is a tremendous athlete—freakish even, at times—but there are issues with his route running and work ethic.
Admittedly, those are two bad traits that can be coached out of a player, but considering the fact that the Panthers will likely target a receiver in the first or second round, they need someone they can lean on from the start, even in a minor role.
Benjamin's ceiling is higher than a lot of receivers in this draft, but consistency is prized in the NFL, and the Panthers may not see that in him. His combine was generally average, and Benjamin opted not to try and improve his lackluster 4.61 combine time in the 40-yard dash.
Red flags are waving, and the Panthers need to be cautious in their evaluation of Benjamin.
Rising: Jimmie Ward, S
It's no secret Carolina's secondary needs some work, although it did sign a couple of quality guys in free agency. Regardless, the Panthers will need to draft some guys who can take over in the future, and Jimmie Ward is someone worth looking into.
Per CBSSports.com, the Northern Illinois product clocked in at 4.47 in the 40-yard dash, a great time for a safety. He is a versatile defender on the back end of the defense and could develop into a special player. He's not as highly touted as some other defensive backs in this class, but it's clear he can play and would be in a nice situation if he were to join Carolina.
The Panthers just signed Roman Harper in free agency, who would be a great mentor to Ward and help him get acclimated to the NFL. Harper is a respectable safety and would be nothing but a positive influence on Ward.
Ward has all the tools necessary to be successful in the NFL, and the Panthers would be foolish to not kick the tires on him at least.
Falling: Allen Robinson, WR
Allen Robinson is another receiver who impressed me for a while, but similar to Kelvin Benjamin, his stock is falling just a bit. Robinson has a ton of natural talent as a receiver and boasts the ideal size for a vertical threat, but he ran a bit slow at the combine, leaving some teams to question his overall quality.
When the Panthers released Steve Smith, they were saying it was time to move forward and go toward the future of the team. That means finding a new No. 1 receiver, which is something they'll take aim for in May's draft.
Robinson does a good amount of things well, but his 4.60 time in the 40-yard dash isn't what you want to see from a potential No. 1 receiver. Just like there are some prospects who seem like a safer choice than Benjamin, so is the case with Robinson.
Given how badly free agency hurt the receiving corps, Carolina will need to take full advantage of its draft picks and take as few risks as possible. It's vital that the Panthers draft well and pick players who will make an impact right away and could become a staple of the offense.
Combine results courtesy of NFL.com.