Auburn's Nick Fairley could be the Panthers' top pick
It's been a week since Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck crushed Panthers fans with his announcement that he would be returning to college for the 2011 season, removing himself from the NFL draft, and in essence kicking the city of Charlotte in its collective gut.
Nobody in their right mind can fault the young man for wanting to go back to school to earn his degree, but plenty can wonder how he was able to sanely turn down the enormous dollar figure that awaits any top pick in the NFL.
In any case, the Panthers still have the No. 1 pick in April's draft and, barring an unlikely trade, will have to make a choice as to who is most deserving of that pick. Luck was a sure-fire selection before his announcement, but now the draft board becomes a bit more open for Carolina.
The team has glaring needs on the defensive line, especially at defensive tackle, which bodes well for Auburn's Nick Fairley. Fairley was dominant in the BCS National Championship Game with three tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a key stop on a goal line stand.
His performance in the title game solidified him as at least the best interior defensive lineman in the country, if not the best lineman period. Fairley has drawn comparisons to last year's first defender picked, Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, who was voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Along with Fairley, the Panthers will also take a look at Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers as a means to shore up the defensive line. Their top-producing defensive end from 2010, Charles Johnson, will be a free agent and a return to Carolina is questionable. Bowers racked up 15.5 sacks in 2010, good enough to lead the nation.
The fact that new Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has a defensive background may have some influence on which side of the ball the Panthers draft first.
The leading offensive candidate, with Luck out of the picture, is Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. Depending on who you talk to, Green is said to have the potential to be a top-caliber wide receiver in the NFL.
The Panthers could certainly use some help at the receiver position, but just acquired three receivers in last year's draft in Brandon LaFell, David Gettis and Armanti Edwards. Gettis and LaFell showed signs of promise at various times during the season, but uncertainty and a lack of consistent talent from the quarterback position made it impossible to give them a fair grade.
Which leads to the next major question for the 2011 Panthers: Who is going to quarterback this team? This could be a monumentally challenging question for the team given the unsure status of labor talks between the players and the owners. There can be no official team practices or organized team activities until a new collective bargaining agreement is in place, meaning the new coaching staff will have limited time to evaluate Jimmy Clausen with their own eyes before the draft.
If, through film, the new staff feels as though the Clausen experiment can be thrown out of the window just one year in, then that could open the door for a quarterback talent like Auburn's Cam Newton to be taken with the top pick. Newton looked and played like the nation's best player all season, winning the Heisman trophy and several other awards. His off-the-field character was called into question during a midseason scandal, though, and the Panthers are not an organization known for dealing with character issues.
The downside to drafting Newton is that he's not rated as top pick talent by most scouting experts and could be harmed by being thrust into the role of starting NFL quarterback too quickly, much like Clausen was last season. There is no question that Newton's athletic ability is through-the-roof, but his progression at the quarterback position could take some time, taking away from his chances of going first overall.
All of these players are going to have a chance at February's scouting combine to state their case for why they should be taken with the first overall pick, but my gut instinct at this time tells me it will be either Fairley or Bowers.