2011 NFL Draft: The Five Best Options for the Carolina Panthers at No.1

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2011 NFL Draft: The Five Best Options for the Carolina Panthers at No.1
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One of the  wonderful oddities about covering the NFL Draft before it actually happens is that even the best experts are way off base about 99 percent of the time.

With so many different variables that can take the shape and form of trades, player stock change, team needs and various rumors, you really have to do your homework to pin-point exactly what anyone involved in this big, hot mess is thinking.

So, instead of playing God or mind-reader, why don't we just dumb it down a bit and take a close look at each team's top five options. Each team could go in a variety of directions with their first pick in the first round this year, so it's time for a breakdown of who those players could be, and why they would be the perfect match for the franchise in question.

We kick it off with the Carolina Panthers. Naturally, the usual suspects will be here, but let's make an argument for each one as the "perfect fit".

1. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn

Jimmy Clausen isn't the answer. Jimmy Clausen can't be the answer. I just can't remember a guy who looked so inept and lost for an entire season, yet went on to be a big-time player. Maybe Clausen can be a solid quarterback some day. But that is in major question, and the Panthers are in perfect position to make sure their franchise isn't hand-cuffed to Clausen's potential.

Cam Newton has the most potential out of all the quarterbacks in this class. He is instant ticket sales. He is a massive man with a big arm and elite athleticism for the position. He's won a national title, and just about anyone remotely close to the game of football knows his name. In other words, if you're going to pass on this guy, you have to build one heck of an argument to explain why you're doing so.

The only reasonable explanation would be one of three things: The team believes in Clausen, the coaching staff likes Blaine Gabbert better, or Ron Rivera and Co. see an impact defender as a bigger need. If the Panthers were just being honest, you would already know that Clausen isn't in their long-term plans anymore, that Gabbert is second to Newton at the moment, and they are loosely still considering drafting a big name defensive player with the top pick.

Yes, Gabbert deserves consideration. Yes, defense is a major priority. But you still have no answer at the most important position in football, and you have the opportunity to draft a guy that could completely change the game, while lifting your formerly 2-14 franchise in the process.

Carolina could still roll with Gabbert, who is also extremely talented, or a stud defender, but at least for now, it only makes sense for them to grab the most talented player in the draft. 

2. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri

If not Newton, then Gabbert, right? Gabbert doesn't have the great size that Newton does, but athletically, he's right there with him. Add in the fact that Gabbert is easily more pro-ready than Newton as we speak, and you have the rationalization that he could be picked No.1.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Sure, Carolina might not want to pass up all the support from their fans that they'd get for landing a megastar in Newton, but it's hard to argue against the fact that Gabbert is nearly just as talented, yet a much safer pick. Both guys are likely to at least initially sit behind Clausen if drafted, so why not pick the guy that is still highly-touted, but not as big of a risk?

The logic is right, but only to a point. Because in this stage of the game, all of these players have to be considered risks; Gabbert included. Ultimately, the Panthers need a change at quarterback, and it's going to come done to these two guys. For now, Newton still holds the edge with superior overall talent and marketing potential. 

3. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

Quarterback is the sexy pick. Sure, it's a need in Carolina, but after just drafting a guy in the second round in 2010, some might argue that Clausen still deserves another season to prove he's going to be able to sink or swim. Add in the fact that Carolina needs some serious help on defense, and that argument just turned into a reality.

Kris Jenkings has been gone for a few years now, and Carolina still doesn't have a replacement. It's only been one year since Julius Peppers jumped ship, but you can jot down "ditto" for his position, too. However, with the Panthers being amongst the worst in rushing yards allowed last season, they have to know that beefing up their interior defense is mission number one when they're attacking defense in this position.

Who does Carolina take with the first pick?

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The only question is, do they choose to attack this weakness with the first overall pick? With the much-hyped Nick Fairley available, they have to at least put some serious thought into yet. Yes, Fairley has only shown he can play at a high level for one season. Yes, he's been riding high off of his excellent performance in Auburn's NCAA title game win. And sure, his work ethic and conditioning have been brought into question.

But when you don't have a guy to lean on in the middle of your defense and a potential beast defensive tackle is sitting their, prime for the plucking, it has to be tempting. In the end, I think Fairley's question marks will be enough to drive Carolina to drafting Newton, but he's absolutely still a candidate for the first selection.

4. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama

Dareus is a guy that for some reason doesn't get enough credit as a premiere impact defensive lineman, especially when Fairley's name is involved. Sure, some mocks have him going in the top three, but few actually talk about his as a potential top overall pick.

This doesn't make a ton of sense, as Dareus is clearly just as talented as Fairley, and actually has slightly more experience. He hasn't been able to reach the dominant level that Fairley scraped in 2010, but the talent and potential is certainly there. So, if it really is there, then why do people keep ignoring it when it comes to the Carolina Panthers?

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Truth be told, Dareus isn't as flashy as the quarterbacks or Newton right now. He's not as explosive and hasn't displayed consistent dominance like Fairley has, and he's not nearly as marketable as either of the three guys currently above him. I'm not saying Dareus will solely miss out on being the top pick because he's not marketable, but when you're picking the new face of your franchise, it absolutely factors into it. 

At this point, quarterback is the bigger need, while if Carolina went defensive tackle, Fairley would have to be the pick, as he has more potential and was more dominant in 2010.

5. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia

Can we throw Jimmy Clausen a bone and admit that his receiving weapons weren't exactly elite in 2010? Obviously he was inept and his offensive line didn't really do him any favors at times, but really, this guy had Steve Smith, and then what?

Carolina's run game was even suspect for much of 2010, while they had zero tight end help, and no one opposite of Steve Smith to count on. Just think for a second what Clausen could do if he had a serious gamer at receiver that could help free up Smith. It's still hard to actually envision it, but if Clausen had two stud receivers, in theory, he'd be a better quarterback.

Green has to factor into the decision-making here, even if that means the Panthers don't pick him with the top pick and they end up trading down. If it's not to add a play-maker to get the defense's focus away from Steve Smith, then maybe it should be done to replace him. Smith can throw a lot of blame on his quarterbacks and supporting cast in recent years, but any way you look at it, he still hasn't been putting up elite numbers. He's 32 and has to be somewhat regressing, while putting his talent on a new team could likely extend his career quite a few years.

The Panthers need major help at quarterback, defensive line, and could use an upgrade at receiver. None of this should be a mystery to the Panthers faithful, or even the casual NFL observer. However, it's become fairly apparent that quarterback is the route Carolina has to take to get back on the right track. If they're serious about making sure 2010's 2-14 season never happens again, the do-over starts with getting Cam Newton with the top pick.

For more 2011 NFL Draft coverage, head over to NFL Soup.com!

Follow me on Twitter @NFLSoupKevin 

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