The Carolina Panthers have the hardest decision any No.1 pick has had in the last few years. Usually, there is that franchise quarterback who the team could have started signing after Week 17. This year, the lack of that guaranteed pick (Luck) has created a huge conundrum for the Panthers.
The first Mock Drafts from Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both have Carolina selecting one of the many dominant linemen. McShay has Carolina selecting Da’Quan Bowers, while Kiper has the Panthers taking Nick Fairley.
I have seen Fairley, and I know how he can dominate a game; just ask Oregon. He had 11.5 sacks while playing in the SEC and this 6'5" monster defines what it means to be a pass rusher. It makes all the sense in the world for the Panthers to select Fairley.
Looking back, they haven’t had a good penetrating lineman since Brenston Buckner and Fairley could easily be the best the Panthers have ever had. Just look at the effect Damione Lewis had with the Panthers. Fairley could be five times better.
With all this being said, I’m not confident the Panthers should take Fairley. I am unsure if he can play the run as well as he did in college and only one year of success raises questions. The other options, besides a trade, are Da’Quan Bowers, Robert Quinn, Blaine Gabbert and A.J. Green.
Should Carolina take a monster in the middle, or will the need for speed (and a Gabbert) win out in the end?
Bowers is a popular choice because the last time Carolina drafted this high they took Julius Peppers out of North Carolina, and Peppers is now arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL. Like I mentioned before, McShay believes Carolina will take Bowers, because he thinks he is the best player available and would fulfill a need Carolina has at defensive end.
I would disagree with this pick. First, the player would have to be better than Fairley because Fairley could be such an impact player for the Panthers. Bowers had 15 sacks, so he has the pass rushing ability. He has good size at around 6'4", 280 pounds, so he might be the best available.
The other aspect to look at is whether the player satisfies a bigger need than Fairley. My answer to this is no, he does not fulfill a bigger need. Defensive tackle is a huge priority and as big of a beast that Bowers is, I like what the Panthers have at the position.
Tyler Brayton still holds his own in the run game and if he’s back, then he will again be a solid end for the Panthers. Greg Hardy is a future star that was drafted in the sixth round. Hardy has great size that allows him to occasionally move inside. He has also shown great ability to get to the quarterback, when he plays. I cannot wait to see what Hardy can do with a year under his belt and more playing time.
Then there is Charles Johnson, who had a monster season. His 11.5 sacks put him third among defensive linemen and 3.5 sacks better than Julius Peppers. He will only get better and is a definite at the end position.
The other player that raises questions, along with Brayton, is Everette Brown. If you don’t remember him, he’s the end out of Florida State that the Panthers traded a first-round pick for. He has needed time to adapt to the NFL both physically and mentally, but he is bigger and showed his progress this season. He only had 3.5 sacks, but there were many occasions when Brown was just a split second too late. A bigger presence in the middle could easily add four or five sacks.
Robert Quinn is another option at defensive end that the Panthers could draft. He has similar size to Peppers at 6'5", 270 pounds, and is from North Carolina, but he has one glaring flaw. He, like most of North Carolina’s defense, was suspended the entire season.
Character issues usually attract more attention from the Bengals than the Panthers, as character is highly valued in the organization. He remains a possibility because of his performance in 2009 and the massive potential he has, but his whole status depends on the combine. If he excels, then he becomes a possibility, but he’ll need to prove that his suspension did not hurt his work ethic or passion for the game.
His name's not all the great, but could he still prove himself worthy of the No.1 pick?
Blaine Gabbert is a name that is being thrown around more and more. If he has a great combine, his poster may start to go up in Charlotte. The Panthers have Jimmy Clausen, but that’s not very reassuring.
Gabbert is 6'5" and resembles a white Josh Freeman. He has a big arm and is mobile for a big guy. The Panthers have an obvious need for quarterback, as evidenced by the last place rankings in every passing category. The problem is that Gabbert might be more hype than skill. Plus, with the prospect of Luck waiting next year if the Panthers are bad or if there’s no season, it seems like an unnecessary risk.
Comparing Gabbert to Fairley, there’s no question that Fairley is the better pick. The Panthers think they have a need at quarterback, but that’s to be determined. There is a definite need at defensive tackle and if it came down to Gabbert and Fairley, I wouldn’t even invite Gabbert.
My personal pick is a certain receiver from Georgia. His name is A.J. Green. This 6'4" monster has never been good; he’s always been great. He was suspended for four games this season so his stats were low, but there’s no question he is the best receiver in this draft.
He is also the only player comparable to Fairley. Green fulfills a big need, like Fairley. He is the best at his position, like Fairley. He is from the SEC, like Fairley. The big difference is that Green is a future superstar who can lead the Panthers into the future.
He could also change the franchise in a season. Steve Smith has said Carolina needs a new No.1 receiver; they’ll have one. Green can learn to be the best from Smith. Plus, along with a healthy line, Green could save Clausen’s future as a quarterback in the NFL.
If Clausen does do well, he will have a chance to stay and last year’s problem was just inexperience. If he fails, the Panthers will be in line for the No.1 pick again and draft Luck. Then, since they drafted their future star receiver, Luck and Green can grow together and dominate the NFL. This would also give the Panthers more leeway if they decided to trade Steve Smith.
Nick Fairley would be a great pick for the Panthers, but what A.J. Green could provide not only now, but in the future, has to be taken into consideration. Either way, if they stick with these two prospects, then they cannot go wrong, no matter which one they draft.