Assessing Potential Impact of Each Carolina Panthers Rookie in 2014
Year in and year out, rookie players make a huge impact on the landscape of the NFL, and in 2014, the Carolina Panthers will expect that impact to compensate for the departures of several veterans who were key to the team's playoff run a season ago.
Projecting the magnitude of any rookie's effect on a team, whether positive or negative, usually isn't easy, especially before training camp, when position battles are decided.
The task is even more challenging for a team like Carolina, because general manager Dave Gettleman's penchant for adding talent before filling positional needs in the draft leaves many rookies with unclear roles on the roster.
However, with a bit of experience-based conjecture, one can begin to see the role that each rookie will fill for the Panthers this season. Read on to find out which players will see immediate playing time and which will spend extended time in development before stepping onto the field.
Kelvin Benjamin, Wide Receiver
College: Florida State
Draft Position: Round 1 (28th Overall)
The selection of receiver Kelvin Benjamin was one of few picks made by the Panthers that most of us saw coming. Not only was he one of the most talented players left on the board, but he filled a huge need for the Panthers.
Before drafting the Florida State product, Carolina lacked a true No. 1 receiver on the roster. The Panthers signed a number of free agents who will be solid contributors—Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood—but none filled the mold of the go-to target Cam Newton needed.
With Benjamin stepping in as a Day 1 starter, expect him to have a huge impact on the offense. Standing at an imposing 6'5" and possessing great long speed, he's clearly a physical specimen, but he also has the competitive drive that made fans love the Panthers' former No. 1 receiver, Steve Smith.
A 10-touchdown performance is not out of the question for Benjamin. No one has seen Newton paired with a receiver of his size yet, so defenses could be scrambling for solutions if the two develop good chemistry. And even if Benjamin fails to reel in double-digit touchdown numbers, he will without a doubt be a valuable red-zone distraction who could make the Panthers all the more effective out of their goal-line set.
Kony Ealy, Defensive End
Draft Position: Round 2 (60th Overall)
Heading into the draft, Kony Ealy was considered by some to be one of the 10 best overall prospects, so when he fell all the way to the Panthers late in the second round, the team had no choice but to take the talented defensive lineman, despite already having two of the league's best defensive ends.
Ealy can get pushed around in the run game at times, but he can be an unstoppable pass-rusher and has all of the physical tools to be a star of the same magnitude as the team's franchise player, Greg Hardy.
Ealy will be the first substitute for both Hardy and the team's other elite pass-rushing defensive end, Charles Johnson. Don't expect huge numbers from him in year one, but he could give the Panthers the flexibility to trade Hardy, who is expecting a big paycheck once the franchise tag expires next offseason.
Ealy is also a great insurance policy should Hardy or Johnson fall to an injury at any point in 2014.
Trai Turner, Guard
Draft Position: Round 3 (92nd Overall)
Trai Turner surprised many when he entered the draft early in 2014, but the Panthers welcome the 20-year-old prospect with open arms.
While he fits another of Carolina's biggest needs, he also provided great value at the bottom of the third round; he would have had a great chance to be drafted in the first round would he have returned to school another year, so the franchise gets a high-ceiling player who may need some extra time to develop.
However, Turner will have to develop on the fly as he's likely to be thrown into the starting lineup immediately at right guard. He possesses great natural power and mauling ability in the run game, but an area of focus will be improving in pass sets, where his footwork can get a bit sloppy and he can lose his balance at times to stronger nose tackles.
If he and the rest of the interior offensive line can stay healthy, his immediate impact will be felt in the form of a resurgent running game. Fellow interior linemen Amini Silatolu and Ryan Kalil are also fantastic run-blockers, so it should be exciting to see them open up holes for Carolina's multifaceted backfield.
Tre Boston, Safety
College: North Carolina
Draft Position: Round 4 (128th Overall)
Tre Boston is the only player drafted by the Panthers this year I perceived to be a reach based on where they selected him. Other than the team's final selection, running back Tyler Gaffney, he will receive the least playing time of their draft picks.
However, some time on the bench could be all the motivation Boston needs to improve into an eventual starter for Carolina. He was a productive player in college who brought a lot of attitude and leadership to his defense, but he can be undisciplined in coverage, something that has to change before the Panthers entrust him with a starting spot.
Boston's main contribution will be pushing the veteran ahead of him, Thomas DeCoud. I'll restate that he is very unlikely to win the starting position, but competition typically brings the best out of players.
Bene Benwikere, Cornerback
College: San Jose State
Draft Position: Round 5 (148th Overall)
The Panthers liked Bene Benwikere so much that they decided to trade up in the fifth round to grab the slipping cornerback on Day 3 of the draft. He isn't the well-rounded and physically imposing talent you find on Day 1 of the draft, but his coverage and ball skills rival some of the best conerbacks in this draft class.
Benwikere will battle converted safety Charles Godfrey for the nickelback spot, and although Godfrey has the seniority, don't put it past the rookie to win the position battle. He's a heady and instinctive zone corner who should excel in the Panthers defense in 3rd-and-long scenarios.
Tyler Gaffney, Running Back
Draft Position: Round 6 (204th Overall)
As I mentioned earlier, Gaffney is highly unlikely to receive any playing time in his rookie season, but the choice of a running back could provide insight into the Panthers' future plans for overpaid backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Gaffney doesn't have great speed or burst, but he can be highly effective behind an offensive line of the road-grading type that the Panthers are putting together. He has excellent patience in vision, and best of all, his contract is less than 10 percent of starter Williams'.
Undrafted Free-Agent Signees
Corey Brown, Wide Receiver, Ohio State
Corey Brown brings experience and productivity in the return game to a Panthers roster that is devoid of exactly that. The team already has a full corps of receivers, but his ability as a kick returner should earn him a roster spot.
Denicos Allen, Outside Linebacker/Safety, Michigan State
Denicos Allen is a Thomas Davis-type tweener coming out of college; he lacks linebacker size and safety speed, but he lays the boom regardless. This makes him a great candidate as a special teams gunner as the Panthers love to keep around linebackers who contribute in kick and punt coverage.