How Panthers' Biggest 1st-Round Need Went from WR to OT

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How Panthers' Biggest 1st-Round Need Went from WR to OT
Michael Conroy

Back in February, well before free agency began in the NFL, there was a growing notion that the best use of the 28th-overall pick in the draft was for the Carolina Panthers to select a wide receiver.

It made perfect sense.

The Panthers had long-time No. 1 receiver Steve Smith on one side of the field, and for many years didn’t have a true No. 2 to complement. For the past two seasons, Brandon LaFell had been the guy opposite Smith. Before him it was Legedu Naanee in 2011 or David Gettis in 2010.

You have to go all the way back to 2009, when Muhsin Muhammad was still in town, to find a true No. 2 receiver, someone that worked in conjunction with Smith and created what could be called a “perfect duo.”

Four years is a long time to wait to upgrade that No. 2 spot. Instead of taking a wide receiver in the first round in recent years, the Panthers have gone with quarterback Cam Newton (2011), linebacker Luke Kuechly (2012) and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (2013).

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No one can argue with those picks; all fabulous draft-day decisions. But 2014 was finally going to be the year the Panthers could look at a wide receiver in the first round. The defense ranked second in the NFL last season in points allowed, and had been addressed early in both the last two seasons. It was the offenses’ turn, and the need was great at receiver.

Carolina didn’t just need a No. 2 wide receiver to take pressure away from Smith, although that was one of the biggest reasons. The Panthers needed a guy that could stretch the field, and force defenses to stop bunching to Smith’s side or in the middle to fight off tight end Greg Olsen. They needed a receiver that could work with and learn from Smith during the veteran’s final years in the league, and then eventually take over as Carolina’s No. 1.

Taking a wide receiver in the first round was a perfect plan for the Panthers. Until the world seemed to collapse around the notion, completely rearranging the needs for this Carolina team.

First, on Feb. 25, left tackle Jordan Gross decided to retire. The Panthers knew that Gross was mulling the decision over, but they felt he had another season left in him.

Gross was the third-ranked offensive tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He allowed a sack of Newton on six times, and he was responsible for just one quarterback hit and 22 hurries.

After Gross, center Geoff Hangartner and offensive guard Jeff Byers decided to retire. Their losses weren’t huge like Gross’ was, but they were still depth that will be missed.

Shortly after Gross, Hangartner and Byers collected their retirement watches, the Panthers decided they were done with the face of the franchise, Smith. The wide receiver was released and shortly ended up with the Baltimore Ravens. His exodus paved the way for the rest of the wide receiver corps.

With Smith gone, LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon left via free agency, leaving the Panthers with zero wide receivers who caught a pass in 2013 from Newton.

On April 2, another shoe dropped. Offensive guard Travelle Wharton told Charlotte Observer reporter Joe Person he was leaning toward retirement.

Wharton was the NFL’s third-ranked left guard, according to Pro Football Focus. Wharton didn’t allow a sack last season, and he only gave up a total of 15 quarterback pressures. If he decides to retire, the left side of Carolina’s offensive line will be decimated.

If you’re keeping count as you read:That’s four receivers lost, three offensive linemen for sure, and one likely gone. When Newton returns to the field following his recovery from ankle surgery, he’s going to have a completely new set of receivers to get to know, and will be behind an offensive line that’s far weaker than it was in 2013.

What’s more important, to add a top-of-the-draft receiver or find help protecting the franchise’s greatest asset?

The Panthers need a No. 1 receiver. They picked up Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood in free agency, but there’s no No. 1 there, and that collective unit is not nearly as talented as Carolina’s 2013 group.

As nice as it would be to grab a receiver at No. 28, the Panthers need a starting offensive tackle more.

Sure Newton is going to need targets to throw toward, but he can’t throw from his backside. Carolina has only two linemen returning in 2014 that logged at least 1,000 snaps. Ryan Kalil is solid at center, but Byron Bell was largely thought to be a huge disappointment at right tackle. And now Bell is considered the front-runner to take over for Gross on the left side.

Carolina’s receiver corps is a ghost town of talent, but the lack of starting-caliber offensive linemen could get someone hurt, namely the quarterback. Newton is a Panthers treasure and has to be protected.

The Panthers have to go offensive tackle in the first round. It’s not sexy, but it’s absolutely necessary.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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