Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Combine preview: Carolina Panthers
By David Newton
Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman needed less than 90 seconds to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick of the 2013 draft.
Probably half of that time was spent in stunned amazement that the 6-foot-2, 315-pound giant he had rated near the top of his draft board still was available at a position the team considered a top priority.
Don't expect it to be that easy this year.
The Panthers head to the NFL scouting combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis with three huge needs -- wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback. It's more unlikely that a star such as Lotulelei will fall to them this year since their first pick isn't until No. 28 after a 12-4 season.
The Panthers need to add a playmaker like Brandin Cooks who has the potential to eventually replace Steve Smith.
They'll have to be even more thorough with their homework at the combine and individual workouts to find players to fill major gaps.
And they were pretty thorough last season, making sure the heart condition that forced Lotulelei to pull out of last year's combine was not serious.
They may need to find the next Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who developed into the team's sack leader (15) and a Pro Bowl selection this past season -- and into a player who could be lost to free agency if Carolina can't reach a new deal or use the franchise tag on him.
The good news is Gettleman & Co. appear pretty good at evaluating talent. Three of their first four picks -- Lotulelei, defensive tackle Kawann Short (second) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (fifth) -- were huge successes as rookies.
Sixth-rounder Kenjon Barner never got to show what he could do because of a logjam at running back and fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila spent the year on injured reserve.
"Of the three guys we got on the field, we're real pleased with,'' Gettleman said in his season review.
Which brings us to the combine, where the Panthers will be looking for players who can make similar contributions. Here's a closer look at their top three needs and why:
Wide receiver: This is where many of the draft analysts have the Panthers focused, and with good reason. No. 1 receiver Steve Smith is heading into his 14th season and wideouts Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are unsigned in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. In all likelihood, the Panthers will re-sign one or two of their free agents. Ginn makes the most sense because he's a proven threat as a return specialist as well as a deep threat. But the Panthers need a solid No. 2 receiver who could develop into a No. 1 when Smith retires. LaFell hasn't done that. This is one of the deepest receiver classes in years, so this an attractive spot regardless of whether it's the first or second round.
Offensive tackle: Gettleman loves to talk about the "hog mollies," his term for the men in the trenches. He also loves drafting them, as we saw last season when the Panthers went one-two with defensive tackles. He believes in building a team from the inside out, which is why I believe this is where the Panthers will go in the first round if the right player is there. Left tackle Jordan Gross is either going to return for his 12th season or retire. Either way, he's not getting younger and the Panthers need to find a future replacement for him. Ideally, they could find a starter at left tackle in the draft and move Gross to right tackle. Or groom a draft pick at right tackle as they did Gross for a year in 2003. The chances of finding a starter here is much greater in the first round.
Cornerback: As I noted after the Super Bowl, the biggest difference between Carolina and Seattle was the secondary. The Seahawks simply were bigger and better. Carolina must upgrade this position even if it re-signs starter Captain Munnerlyn. While I believe this is third among priorities for a first-round pick, if one of the top three corners (Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Lamarcus Joyner, according to Scouts Inc.) were to fall to 28 he would have to get serious consideration. It's definitely a position that should get attention in the top three rounds -- and at the combine.
Other needs: Don't be surprised to see Carolina go after a tight end to give quarterback Cam Newton another option there after Greg Olsen, a linebacker and a backup quarterback in the late rounds. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd could be an intriguing pick if he falls to the fifth round as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has projected. He has many of the same qualities Newton has as a running quarterback and could learn a lot from Newton as he makes the transition into the NFL. Tight end actually was under consideration last year when Lotulelei became available.