Congratulations, Carolina Panthers! You've earned the top overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. You may be sitting there right now asking yourself, “Self? What am I going to do with this pick?” The first thing you do NOT want to do is fall into the trap of the No. 1's, which can take a couple of forms.
The first, and most common, is reaching for a franchise quarterback. Especially one who stands 6'6", 250 pounds—before you weigh his Heisman Trophy and National Championship ring. Everything seems aligned for Cam Newton to be the first name called by Roger Goodell.
Jimmy Clausen didn't get it done last season.
For Carolina, the biggest worry with Cam Newton shouldn't be that he could turn out to be a JaMarcus Russell-type bust. The biggest fear should be that he has a Carson Palmer-like career—not good enough to get over the hump and handcuffing the organization while they wait for his development. For all of his physical gifts, we've never really seen how he adjusts when a team has already seen him once. (The only SEC team to get two shots at Newton was South Carolina and it looked helpless against him, although it had been a mediocre defense all season long.)
Plus, it's hard to imagine that, even as bad as Clausen was, he's a hopeless case after one season. The Panthers also now have a quality tight end in Jeremy Shockey to take some pressure off of Steve Smith. Even without DeAngelo Williams, a healthy Jonathan Stewart can provide enough of a running game to keep defenses honest.
But maybe a bigger reason to avoid Newton is that he wouldn't play to Ron Rivera's strength. You don't call a mechanic to fix your sink. He'll probably figure out how to get it done, but it may take a while. Giving a defensive-minded head coach a multi-talented offensive weapon doesn't quite compute.
However, that leads to the other issue: Taking the best player on the board. In this instance, you're probably looking at Patrick Peterson, the dynamic LSU cornerback with a freakish combination of size and skill. With the likelihood that Richard Marshall leaving in free agency, the chance to find a new shut down corner is enticing. And it aligns with Rivera's defensive personality.
Except that no one has ever taken a corner with the first overall pick. There's a reason for that. The rules are stacked against them. As long as the NFL continues to favor more offense, the perceived value of cornerbacks continues to fall. They're still important to their teams, but it's hard to fathom a defensive back that could be enough of a game breaker to warrant the top pick. Put it another way, how many people would take Darrelle Revis with the first pick?
Yet hovering in that same draft-mosphere are a couple of defensive linemen, Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus. The two are nearly equal in just about every measurable category. They're both incredibly talented run-stoppers, filling a position of immediate need for Carolina. But the big knock on Fairley has been his maturity, especially his penchant for unnecessary penalties.
Fairley would probably be the ultimate home run pick for the Panthers. He looks great on film, scouts have loved him in workouts and his monstrous night against Oregon in the BCS Championship game proved how disruptive he can be. And he has to look tantalizing for the Denver Broncos sitting at No. 2.
But for Carolina, the risk/reward factor of selecting Fairley may be too great, leaving Dareus as the leader in the draft day green room.
That's not to suggest that drafting Dareus is settling for something lesser. In reality, all four players have a legitimate claim to being the league's top overall pick in 2011. But with the combination of team needs, coaching philosophy and player makeup, there's no other real choice for Carolina. Then again, traps work because they never look like traps.
Here's to hoping the Panthers are keeping their eyes open.