NFC South: Tyler Gaffney

Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin jammed his middle finger and let a touchdown pass slip through his hands during Thursday night's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh.

Otherwise, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound wide receiver out of Florida State had a strong preseason and established himself as the No. 1 target the Panthers were looking for when they released Steve Smith in March.

The finger doesn't appear to be anything that will be an issue, and Benjamin played longer than he was scripted to because he wanted more time on the field. Two of his four catches for 56 yards were in traffic over the middle.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Don WrightKelvin Benjamin has been everything the Panthers were expecting when they drafted him in the first round.
"We wanted Kelvin to get some good reps,'' coach Ron Rivera said after the 10-0 victory that gave Carolina a 2-2 preseason record. "We wanted to give him the opportunity to get good plays. He is still young and is still learning, but is still a valuable part.''

As the Panthers begin preparing for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, let's take a look at the entire 2014 draft class and how it will impact this season:

  • WR Kelvin Benjamin (first round, No. 28) -- Some teams had Benjamin rated as a second-round pick, saying he was too inexperienced and unproven. The Panthers felt lucky to get him in the first. He played like a top-10 pick during the preseason, leading the team in catches with 12 for 173 yards and a touchdown. Look for him to be quarterback Cam Newton's top wide receiver target this season. Grade: A-minus
  • DE Kony Ealy (second round, No. 60) -- The Panthers had Ealy ranked as a late first-round pick, but he's performed more like a second-rounder. He got off to a slow start in training camp, but maybe some of that had to do with the depth at his position. When you're being compared to Pro Bowler Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, third on the team's all-time sack list, you're going to pale. Grade: C-plus
  • OG Trai Turner (third round, No. 92) -- He was the front-runner to be the starting right guard from the get-go, and was performing at a high level before a groin injury sidelined for him the last two preseason games. Whether or not he starts in the opener remains to be determined because Chris Scott has played well in his absence, but he'll play major role. Grade: B-plus
  • S Tre Boston (fourth round, No. 128) -- He underwent sports hernia surgery in June and never really got a chance to earn a roster spot. Odds are he'll be placed on injured reserve with the hope to later return to the practice squad. The Panthers like his future. Grade: Incomplete
  • CB Bene' Benwikere (fifth round, No. 148) -- Perhaps the biggest surprise of this draft class. He has played well enough to at least split time with veteran Charles Godfrey at the nickel position. Grade: B
  • RB Tyler Gaffney (sixth round, No. 204) -- The Patriots did what Carolina should have done with the former Stanford star early in camp. They stashed him on injured reserve when the roster was cut to 75. Carolina released Gaffney, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp, hoping he would clear waivers and they could place him on injured reserve. New England spoiled that plan by claiming what Carolina considered one of the better blocking backs in the draft. Had Gaffney not been injured he likely would have been the fourth back. The good news is Carolina found Fozzy Whittaker, who led the team in rushing during the preseason. Grade: F

 
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers needed a dynamic wide receiver. They got one in first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. They needed a left tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross. They didn't get one. They needed a cornerback. They got a potential starter at nickel back, but the need for a starting every-down player wasn't quite as big as many thought with the news that safety Charles Godfrey has moved to corner.

That my quick assessment of how the Panthers did in the NFL draft.

Overall, I'd give this class a C-plus based on need. The plus is the Godfrey factor that nobody outside the organization was aware of.

Based on value and potential impact, I'd give it a B-minus. I really like the addition of Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round. He adds another pass-rusher to a defense that led the league in sacks last season with 60 and gives general manager Dave Gettleman flexibility for the future in dealing with the big contracts of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.

I also like the selection of LSU guard Trai Turner in the third round. He may not fill the void at tackle, but he gives the team a huge (6-foot-2 1/2, 310 pounds) player with a nasty attitude that could start at right guard.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Panthers a C-minusInsider based on need and a C based on value. He wasn't quite as high on Benjamin and the failure to get a tackle played a role in his evaluation.

It really doesn't matter what either of us think. It's what Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera think that matters the most. Rivera believes the post-draft roster has the potential to be better than it was last season when Carolina went 12-4 and won the NFC South.

"I like the potential in a lot of different phases of our offense and defense, and I think we added some free agents who are going to help us on the field," Rivera said. "I told Dave a few days ago that I really liked the way we set up our board, and I liked what they had come up with. I loved the targets that we had.

"Especially in the first three rounds, we had a pod of guys that we felt comfortable drafting and then feeling very good about who the number one guy was in each round. We can be better than we were and we are going to work and strive to get better."

Some of that might be coach speak. It will be tough for this team to improve in terms of wins and losses even if the overall talent is improved.

But the defense has the potential to be at least as good as the unit that ranked second in the league last season.

For all that was made of the losses on offense, it ranked 24th in the league last season. There needed to be an overhaul. That the Panthers didn't take a tackle shouldn't impact the grade of this class.

As Gettleman noted, after the first four there was a drop-off and the Panthers felt the talent already on the roster was better than anybody they could have selected. Looking at it that way, not taking a tackle with the top four gone before Carolina picked at No. 28 was the smart move.

Here's a look at my thoughts on Carolina's entire draft class:
  • WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State, 1st round, No. 28: Will be a huge target (6-5, 240) for Newton in the red zone and will keep teams from stacking eight players in the box, which should help the new offensive line and the running game.
  • DE Kony Ealy, Missouri, 2nd, No. 60: This wasn't considered a big need because of Hardy and Johnson, but keeping Johnson fresh will only make the defensive front that already was among the best in the NFL better.
  • OG Trai Turner, LSU, 3rd, No. 92: Never a bad thing to have a quality player who can strengthen the interior line, particularly for a team that wants to run as much as Carolina does.
  • S Tre Boston, North Carolina, 4th, No. 128: Carolina needed a young player to develop behind Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper.
  • CB Bene' Benwikere, San Jose State, 5th, No. 148 (traded fifth and seventh with Minnesota to move up 20 spots): Can compete for the nickel back spot that was left open when Captain Munnerlyn went to Minnesota.
  • RB Tyler Gaffney, Stanford, 6th, No. 204: This seems like a reach for a team stacked with backs, but he's a good blocker for a college back and can play special teams. It's not a sexy class, but it has the potential to be slightly better than average.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A wrap-up of the Carolina Panthers' draft. Click here for a full list of Panthers draftees.

[+] EnlargeKony Ealy
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Kony Ealy was a steal in the second round for the Panthers.
Best move: Adding another pass-rush threat to a team that led the league in sacks (60) with Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy at No. 60. He was rated a first-round pick by many teams, including the Panthers, which is why he was invited to New York City for the draft. He has freaky athletic ability at 6-foot-4 and 273 pounds. If he can play inside and out the way he and the Panthers say, he'll be a steal for a second-rounder. And as I wrote on Friday, if Ealy performs, he gives general manager Dave Gettleman the flexibility to move on after this season without the big contract of at least one of his star ends -- Charles Johnson ($16.4 million) or Greg Hardy ($13.1 million) -- as he attempts to get the payroll under control and sign quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly to long-term deals. Many might argue taking Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round was the best move, but the pick of Ealy has the potential for a more long-term and big-picture impact.

Riskiest move: Not taking an offensive tackle in the first two rounds. With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, that leaves the starting job between right tackle Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. Bell was considered adequate at best on the right side. Chandler is a former defensive lineman who was being groomed to make the switch to tackle before injuries at guard last season forced him in the starting lineup on the right side. It seems like a big gamble to leave Newton's blind side that unsettled, but the Panthers believed after the first four tackles went in the draft, the value on their roster was better than using a pick on one.

Most surprising move: I could say that Gettleman went to his son's graduation in Massachusetts on Saturday and worked with the team via Skype, but I'm on the record as saying that was the right move. According to Gettleman, it worked great. He even had a GM from another team text that it was the right move. The biggest surprise for me was the selection of Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney in the sixth round. Carolina already has three highly paid backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. They selected Kenjon Barner in the sixth around a year ago and barely got him on the field because the backfield was so crowded. Gaffney just crowds it more.

File it away: I said when Gettleman released wide receiver Steve Smith and let his next top three receivers sign with other teams in free agency that the Panthers really didn't lose that much. They represented less than 10 catches per game in reality. An experienced No. 1 receiver aside, the team might be in better shape going into this season with Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King than they were a season ago. Smith wasn't a true No. 1 anymore, and I was never sold on Brandon LaFell as a No. 2. Benjamin will draw extra coverage simply because of his size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and ability to go up for passes. He has a chance to be a legitimate No. 1 even though rookie receivers tend to struggle. Cotchery and Avant are solid possession receivers and good leaders who will help Benjamin's transition. One of the others has the ability to stretch the field with speed. Moves that looked questionable a few months ago are starting to look smart now.

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