The Panthers off-season exploits, or lack there of, have been well documented since the team hurried to franchise tag All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy and then immediately signed kicker Graham Gano, the most accurate kicker in the NFL from 50-plus yards (6-6), to a four-year contract extension.
Since then the team has made the wrong noise, letting three of their top four receivers sign with other teams, including All-Panthers celebrity Steve Smith, who was unceremoniously released from the team after it became apparent there would be no restructuring of Smith’s seemingly exorbitant contract in the face of mounting salary cap issues.
Also making negative headlines this off-season was the departure of defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell, two young, arguably budding, stars at their respective positions, leaving the Carolina Panthers scrambling to fill in the secondary holes with Charles Godfrey, coming of a season-ending Achilles injury in 2013 that nearly cost him the entire season, and free agent cornerback Antoine Cason, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, who signed with the team two weeks ago. The Panthers also signed former New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper.
Panthers general manager David Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera have made it clear several times they plan to draft a wide receiver, a defensive back, and/or an offensive lineman, or the simply the best player available, how ever it pans out. Considering the moves the Panthers made to their offensive line after the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and the uncertainty of 33-year old guard Travelle Wharton, the offensive line may not be the issue (isportsweb.com article highlighting the Panther’s offensive line moves).
LT Jordan Gross announced his retirement before free agency.
The Panther’s offensive line may not need much help, but the secondary and receiving corps does. Besides Godfrey, and recently signed Cason and Harper, the Panthers will rely on the best remaining defensive back from 2013, Melvin White, and a few reserves without additional moves. The receiving corps might be worse off: besides tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers don’t have a single receiver left on their roster that caught more than three passes for the team last season.
Carolina signed Jerricho Cotchery, 31, the former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver to relive some of the pressure felt after losing all but one of their top receivers form a season ago. Despite a productive 2013 campaign, in which Cotchery scored 10 touchdowns, more than Smith and Brandon LaFell combined, Panthers fans aren’t exactly secure in Cotchery being their top outside receiver.
Production on the field is one thing; securing the right talent to surround quarterback Cam Newton, set for free agency in 2015, is quite another. If the Panthers want to sign their franchise quarterback to a long-term deal they must surround him with talented young receivers that will not only take some of the pressure off their star quarterback, but allow the team to build championship-caliber chemistry on the offensive side of the ball to compliment one of the best young defenses in the NFL.
Many experts have billed this upcoming draft as one of the best draft classes in years, and fortunately for the Carolina Panthers wide receiver and defensive back are two of the deepest positions in the draft.
I wrote last week about the top defensive backs in the draft and the likelihood of Carolina drafting a defensive back at their respective draft position in the first two rounds, but considering the situation at receiver the team might be better off drafting a wide receiver, and they shouldn’t wait around to do it. I make the case here for why the Panthers should move up in the draft to secure one of the better wide receivers in this deep draft.
Below is chart of the top-five wide receivers in the upcoming draft class according to NFLDraftScout.com. The rank on the far left indicates their overall draft rank; the asterisk indicates the player is an underclassmen.
*Odell Beckham Jr.
All five projected first round wide receivers have their strengths and few weaknesses. In fact, many of them are relatively equal when it comes to size, speed, and strength. One can easily see from the list that Mike Evans is the only receiver on this draft list big enough to dominate defensive backs at the professional level, including having the longest arms of any receiver in the draft (35.12 inches), but Evans is also the slowest of any of the five receivers analyzed (4.53 40), and far weaker (12 225 lb. reps) than both Watkins and Cooks (16).
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is the consensus top-ranked wide receiver in the upcoming 2014 NFL draft.
On the other hand, Brandin Cooks is the fastest (4.33 40) and strongest of any of the five receivers, yet he is the smallest and possesses the shortest arms (30.75 inches). Sammy Watkins, the consensus top wide receiver in the draft according to most experts, is one of the strongest and fastest of any wide receiver while possessing good size, yet he has average arm length and the lowest vertical of any of these five receivers (34 inches).
In other words, there is no wide receiver of the top five on this board that contains the perfect size, speed, and strength à la Calvin Johnson, but most of them, save perhaps Marquis Lee, warrants being the first receiver taken off the board on May 8th.
The Carolina Panthers could wait for their call and draft Lee, assuming he was still available at the 28th position, his pre-draft ranking, or hope that Odell Beckham Jr. falls to them. I have issues with both.
First, I don’t believe Lee would be worth the Panther’s first draft pick. Lee is far slower than someone 6-feet and 190 pounds should be, especially as your as a top wide out (4.52 40), and his 38-inch vertical was the only measurable that ranked in the top-25 of wide receivers; Lee, once considered one of the top receiver prospects in the country with skills and ability suffered injuries and inconsistency at USC, essentially costing him one of those top spots.
Secondly, I don’t believe Beckham Jr. will still be available. Besides being relatively short (5’11”) and weak (seven 225 lb. reps), Beckham Jr. is blazing fast (4.43 40) and jumps through the roof (38 inch vertical). His relatively short stature might be compensated for by the fact he has some of the biggest hands of any receiver (10 inches) and ranked in the top-25 for arm length (32.75 inches).
If the Carolina Panthers want to secure a top receiver they are going to have to draft up. At the 28th and 60th positions in the first two rounds, the Panthers have a legitimate shot of drafting a game-changing player, but the Panthers must choose wisely. With glaring open positions at wide receiver and the secondary, Carolina’s decision could affect the team for years. And considering the pressure to retain the services of one Cam Newton, the pressure is even greater to make the right choice.
That choice is at wide receiver, and if the Panthers want to make a serious difference on their offense heading into 2014, they need to draft big. I would suggest the Panthers trading up to get within the first 20 draft picks, essentially ensuring the Panthers of securing one of the top receivers in the draft.
To be more specific, I would target Beckham Jr. The moves required to get in a position to draft a player ranked as high as Sammy Watkins is unrealistic considering the Panthers want to keep most of their roster in tact, while trying to reserve as many of their draft picks as they have, especially considering the team received no compensation draft picks for 2014.
LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the top receiver draft prospects in 2014.
Evans played tough competition in the SEC and has great size, but his strength and speed are serious concerns for me if I’m considering taking him at the top spot. Cooks’ speed, strength, and hops (36 inches) are off the charts, but his size is worrisome for a guy who’ll be counted on to take the bulk of the team’s targets within the next year or two. Although he has huge hands (9.62 inches), his height and arm length could be a problem in the face of the ever-growing defensive backs of the NFL. Cooks could work great as a slot receiver with his quickness and strength, but slot receivers are seldom drafted with a top pick.
It should be pointed out that Kelvin Benjamin, the star receiver on the National Champion Florida State Seminoles is one of the biggest targets in the draft and is ranked just out of the top-28 (the Panther’s first draft position) at 33rd. He possesses the second-longest arms in the draft, just a quarter inch shorter than Evan’s, and the third biggest hands in the draft (10.25 inches). However, at 240 pounds, Benjamin was weaker than Watkins, Cooks or Evans (13 225 lb. reps) and was painfully slow (4.61 40), ranking out of the top-100.
Considering the aforementioned information regarding the prospects, the Panther’s draft position, the depth at defensive back, the needs of the teams drafting before them, and the fact that Carolina is far more desperate at wide receiver than in either the secondary or on the offensive line, I make the case for the Carolina Panthers moving up in the draft to secure the services of Odell Beckham Jr., the speedy SEC receiver who plays much bigger than his 5’11” 200-lb. frame would suggest considering his hand size and arm length.
The chances of Beckham Jr. being available at the 28th spot is almost unrealistic, but the chances of him being available within a good enough range for the Panthers to make a move to secure him without giving up much are not only realistic, they’re plausible.
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