After securing the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers are on the verge of making the most important draft selection in franchise history.
Coming out of a decade where the Panthers made a trip to the Super Bowl and competed very favorably in the strong NFC South, it appears that they may be entering 2011 with a new head coach as many speculate that John Fox could be canned at the end of the season.
Here is where the conundrum lies for Carolina.
They spent a second round pick on Jimmy Clausen in the 2010 NFL Draft and despite the high selection, Clausen paled in comparison to fellow rookie passer Sam Bradford. Despite the woes, one has to remember how quickly Clausen progressed from his frosh season on at Notre Dame.
Clausen is clearly a talented quarterback and we seen what he was capable of doing at times this year, but the highlights are too few and far between the bad play he had to endure through.
Let us not forget that Clausen dealt with injuries as well. Despite drafting Clausen high a year ago, if Stanford QB Andrew Luck declares, do the Panthers draft him?
Luck has NFL-blood in him and he was coached by the most prolific play caller in college football today—Jim Harbaugh. Luck ran the purest pro-style offense in college as efficient as anyone could and is said to be a lock for the first overall pick should he declare, after all, he is an underclassman.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no “can’t miss” prospects in the draft. Luck is no exception either. The Panthers are ranked dead last in total offense in the NFL and it is not the fault of Clausen alone. All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith has been dinged up pretty much the entire season. While Smith leads all Panthers’ WRs in production, he is tallying just 46 receptions for 554 yards and two touchdowns. Trailing Smith, are rookies Brandon LaFell and David Gettis.
To the naked eye, Clausen’s line of two touchdowns and eight interceptions almost assures the Panthers of selecting Luck if he declares. Although, the Panthers offensive line have given up the second most sacks in the league despite sending offensive tackle Jordan Gross to the Pro Bowl.
The Panthers need to think long and hard about whether or not they should draft Luck. Are they willing to possibly pass on the next Matt Ryan or will they fill other positions in dire need of talent and possibly end up like the San Francisco 49ers—talented with no passer?
Clearly a quarterback is of need in Carolina, but if Luck does not declare, the decision to draft a player at another position takes precedent since none of the other passers have the upside that Luck possesses, even if they do receive first round grades.
If Luck sticks around at Stanford, the decision becomes a lot more easier in regards to drafting a gunslinger, that is for sure.
In 2007, Steve Smith signed a six-year contract, but he is clearly not happy with the direction of the franchise. Smith is also not happy with the play at quarterback. Battered by injuries and packing some extra baggage, Smith has been rumored to want out of Carolina after the season.
The Panthers could cut bait with Smith, but it would be detrimental to their team health since the rest of the depth chart at WR is young and inexperienced. Rookies Brandon LaFell and David Gettis have showed some promise but they are not dependable and shadowing them on the depth chart is David Clowney and former Appalachian State quarterback, Armanti Edwards.
If the Panthers do indeed draft Luck, then they would clearly miss out on the likes of A.J. Green, Jonathan Baldwin, Julio Hones and company. If Luck does not declare, then the Panthers have to discuss drafting A.J. Green and making him the first wide receiver drafted first overall since New England selected Irving Fryar in 1984.
Green has the makeup of an elite wide receiver. His selection would automatically upgrade all prospects for Jimmy Clausen.
Then again, if Luck or a player at another position is selected first, the Panthers must pursue a wide receiver in the later rounds. Prospects such as Leonard Hankerson (Miami Fla.), Austin Pettis (Boise State), Dwayne Harris (East Carolina) and Matt Szczur (Villanova) are intriguing prospects.
Do not forget though, the Panthers lost their second round pick in a deal with New England which netted the Panthers WR Armanti Edwards.
Regardless, the need to draft a wide receiver is a priority for the Panthers, but how much of a priority it is has yet to be determined due to the unsettling status of Steve Smith.
The Panthers have rarely relied on the tight end position due to it not being involved in the Panthers offensive scheme. With a young quarterback, maybe that should change. The Panthers have utilized Jeff King, Gary Barnidge and Dante Rosario off and on in the last couple of season but neither of the three have the capabilities of a Chris Cooley or Vernon Davis.
2011 is a weak year for tight ends so the Panthers will likely pass on drafting one again.
Jordan Gross is one of the top left tackle’s in the game but the rest of the line needs addressed.
More importantly, center Ryan Kalil is set to walk as a free agent after the season. Do the Panthers re-sign him or draft his replacement? This might all hedge on whether or not the Panthers pursue a quarterback in the draft, which again hedges on whether or not Luck declares.
The Panthers rank in the middle-of-the-pack in sacks, but depth at the position of defensive end is needed. Charles Johnson was snubbed from the Pro Bowl despite accruing 11.5 sacks (seventh best in the NFL).
Tyler Brayton anchors the right side of the defensive line. He proved to play much like a journeyman again. Backing up Johnson and Brayton are two youngsters that have upside, but by not beating out Brayton, both Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood obviously have some question marks.
There is no doubt that the Panthers miss Julius Peppers. A defensive end might not be high on their priority but the discussion will come up should the Panthers not draft Luck.
The Panthers rank 23rd as of Week 16 in stopping the run. This will not cut it in Carolina and the culprits are Derek Landri, Nick Hayden and Ed Johnson. The Panthers are likely to take a long look at Auburn’s Nick Fairley and Alabama’s Marcell Dareus should Luck not enter the draft.
Both defensive tackles are impressive in plugging the gap and stopping the run. Fairley is more equipped than Dareus at applying pressure to the quarterback, but let me remind you, there is no Ndamukong Suh in this year’s draft.
James Anderson played above expectations and Jon Beason is as good as they come in the NFL. Still, a presence is needed on the weak side as Nic Harris struggled and played in over his head at times. While linebacker is not a high priority, it should be addressed at some point in the draft.
The Panthers had a good secondary in 2010 that should continue to get better as the younger guys gain more experience. Chris Gamble is a veteran that earned his payday yet has not succumbed to lackluster performance.
Charles Godfrey should have received some more recognition for the year he had considering that only two other safeties had more interceptions than he had. Much like the running back position (which I need not discuss), the secondary should be the least of the Panthers issues.
The Wild Card
Carolina may look to fetch some extra draft picks by trading WR Steve Smith. This is possible considering Smith’s current state of mind with the organization. Smith is no longer a spring chicken and his desire to win may trump his desire to remain with the only team he has ever played for. After witnessing Julius Peppers demand a trade a year ago, look for Smith to pull the same card come March.
Pros: Rushing attack, left tackle, Charles Johnson, Jon Beason & James Anderson, secondary.
Cons: WR depth, the rest of the o-line, defensive tackle, Nic Harris.
Question Marks: Quarterback, WR Steve Smith, Ryan Kalil, Tyler Brayton.
Carolina’s Draft Picks (not including compensatory picks)
Rd. 1, No. 1
Rd. 3, No. 1
Rd. 4, No. 1
Rd. 5, No. 1
Rd. 6, No. 1
Rd. 7, No. 1