A week from today, the Carolina Panthers will make franchise history when, barring a trade, they make their first No. 1 selection in the NFL Draft.
After a tumultuous 2010 season that ended with an embarrassing 2-14 record, the Panthers cleaned out their coaching staff, meaning that new head coach Ron Rivera's first draft pick in charge of the team will be the first pick in the draft.
This makes the pick even more important, as it will serve as his first official act as head coach since normal offseason activities have been frozen while the NFL and the NFL Players' Association try to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
There is no doubt that the Panthers have many needs heading into the 2011 season.
The interior defensive line is an area that hasn't been strong for this team since the departure of Kris Jenkins. The quarterback position was a total atrocity last year with rookie Jimmy Clausen under center for the majority of the season. The wide receiver corps is very young and inexperienced behind Steve Smith, who may or may not be in a Panthers uniform at the start of the season. A shut down corner to play opposite of the inconsistent Chris Gamble would be a big boost to the defense.
The good news for the Panthers with all of those areas of need is that there is at least one player at all of those positions that has a strong case as to why he should be chosen with the top pick. The bad news lies in the same fact because there is only one top pick.
Out of all the top prospects like Marcell Dareus, Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson and the like, none of them are a sure bet.
In most years there is a clear-cut top pick and everyone knows who is going first by the time the lights come up at Radio City Music Hall. This year, the speculation will continue until Commissioner Goodell reads the name at the podium.
The general consensus from most NFL experts is that Cam Newton will be the sweepstakes winner on draft night, but that would constitute a huge risk from Rivera and the rest of the Panther staff.
While Newton is an exceptional athlete and a great passer, he comes from a spread-style offense at Auburn that was simplified as much as possible to allow for a quick attack. His skills both under center and in an pro-style offense filled with difficult verbiage have never been tested.
Selecting Cam Newton would surely excite the fan base, but it would be the second year in a row that the team has used its first draft pick on a quarterback that had several questions surrounding him and his talents.
The first go-round was highly unsuccessful, as Clausen failed to improve during the course of the season, even after it was evident that it was over. It's hard to imagine the kind of ramifications that would await the Panthers if they were to miss a second consecutive time with a quarterback.
However, if the Panthers are able to acquire a franchise quarterback at the top of the draft—something that has been missing since the Kerry Collins era—then Rivera will begin his tenure as head coach with a stroke of genius.
Of course, drafting a quarterback could be easier if the normal schedule of offseason events had carried on as usual.
Free agency would have already commenced and the Panthers would have had the opportunity to get a veteran quarterback to offset the extreme youth at the position. That would allow a young quarterback to develop some before he is thrown into live action, something that would have likely helped Clausen immensely in 2010.
If the Panthers shy away from selecting a quarterback, they would most likely take Dareus, rated by many as the top overall prospect heading into the draft. This would be a much safer pick, as playing defensive tackle doesn't have quite the learning curve between the college and professional levels.
Another possible avenue would be Peterson or Green, but I think it is unlikely the Panthers will go with a position player outside of quarterback with the top pick. Both players will almost certainly have great careers, but it doesn't address either of the most glaring needs for the team.
Also, keep in mind that as it stands now the Panthers won't pick again until 65th overall, meaning they don't have an early second round pick to shore up one of their main needs.
Regardless of which path the Panthers choose to take with the first pick, it will be an early defining moment in the Rivera era.
Whether he chooses to take a gamble with one of the young quarterbacks, or shore up the defensive line with a run-stuffing tackle, he better hope that the pick turns out to be a good one, as it will mark the first step in rebuilding the Panthers to the perennial contender they once were.
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