Draft Preview – Carolina Panthers

An analytical look at the Panthers heading into the 2011 NFL Draft. Carolina has the 1st pick in the draft.

REVIEW OF 2010

Record – 2-14.

Finish – last in the NFC South, NFC and NFL.

Playoffs – hardly. The last time the Panthers were in the post-season was 2008, when they won the division but lost in the divisional playoffs to Arizona.

(That’s veteran WR Steve Smith to the right; the Panthers aren’t sure if he’s coming back for an 11th season.)

OVERVIEW

The Panthers have been around since the 1995 season and last year was the second worst record in franchise history. From the day they fielded a team and went to the NFC Championship Game after just two seasons (1996), Carolina has been an average to good team on the field. That disappeared in the 2010 season when they were able to win but two out of 16 games; they beat San Francisco by a field goal and Arizona by a touchdown.

There are not many recognizable names on the Panthers roster. Offensively there is veteran WR Steve Smith (46 catches for 554 yards and 2 TD catches), RBs Jonathan Stewart (178 carries for 770 yards) and DeAngelo Williams (361 yards on 87 carries.) Defensively their best player is linebacker Jon Beason.

Over the years, Carolina has largely built its roster through the NFL Draft. At the end of last year, 17 of 22 starters were Panthers draft choices. They have not been afraid at times to spend money in free agency, or to let players walk for bigger money (DE Julius Peppers) on the free agency market.

So far, the Panthers have kept their cards very close and haven’t given away their plans for the first pick. All they’ve said is there are eight players they were considering – QBs Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Mallett, WRs A.J. Green and Julio Jones, DTs Marcel Dareus and Nick Fairley and CB Patrick Peterson.

PARTICULARS

Offense – averaged 258 yards per game and ranking last in the NFL for the 2010 season. They finished No. 13 in rushing yards (115.4 yards) and No. 32 in passing yards (143.1) The Panthers scored just 16 offensive touchdowns. Stewart led the team in rushing with 770 yards; he was the only back over 500 yards. Smith led the team in receiving and there was only one other receiver over the 500-yard mark (Rookie WR David Gettis with 508 yards.) Five different QB played for the Panthers at some point during the season. Clausen got the most playing time, going 1-9 in his 10 starts. He hit 3 TD passes against 9 interceptions, throwing for 1,558 yards and finishing with a 58.4 passer rating. That was the lowest passer rating in the league. They turned the ball over 37 times.

Defense – gave up an average of 336 yards per game (18th in the NFL) and ranked No. 11 in fewest passing yards allowed (212 yards). They allowed 39 touchdowns. DE Charlie Johnson was the leading sacker with 11.5 on the season and S Chris Godfrey led the team with 5 interceptions. In his first year as a starter, OLB James Anderson was the team’s leading tackler with 130 total stops, 3.5 sacks and an interception.

Special teams – Like the rest of the team, the kicking game was inconsistent and did not provide enough winning plays. K John Kasay was a solid 25 of 29 on FGs and was 11 for 11 inside the 40-yard line. P John Baker averaged 43.1 a punt and the team’s net average was just 36.5 yards due to giving up a long punt return TD. The return game did not contribute significantly to the team, ending up in the bottom half of the league in average returns on punts and kickoffs.

DECISION MAKERS

Owner – Jerry Richardson is the managing general partner and heavily involved, but he tends to let his football people handle the football decisions. He retains the veto vote.

GM – Marty Hurney will be in his 12th season as the Panthers GM, taking over in 2002. He joined the team in 1998 and worked as the Panthers salary cap specialist for a number of years.

Head coach – Ron Rivera is a first-time head coach and this will be part of his initial draft with Carolina. He’s coached the last 14 seasons with the Bears, Eagles and Chargers. As a player for the Bears and then a coach, Rivera’s emphasis and knowledge is on the defensive side of the football.

Director of College Scouting – Don Gregory, scouted in the NFL, CFL, WLAF and XFL over the last 25 years. That included a five-year stint as a national scout for the south and southeast with the Chiefs (2002-2006.)

Who has the power? Hurney has his finger on the trigger, with Richardson being the man who settles any disagreements.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Defensive tackle – Today’s quiz is name a Panthers defensive tackle? That’s tougher than the Wonderlic. In the last five drafts, they selected just two big guys for the inside of their defense – Corvey Irvin (3rd-round in ’09) and Nick Hayden (6th-round, ’08.) The DTs had four sacks out of 31 the defense was able to collect. It’s not a pretty group and the pipeline for improvement is without product. As a defensive coach, Rivera is always going to look on his side of the ball first. But that doesn’t mean he’ll get what he wants. If they go in this direction, then Dareus would be the best choice for them.

2. Quarterback – Yes, the Panthers need a QB. They used a second-round choice last year on Notre Dame’s Clausen and he struggled. At no point did he provide evidence that he might be the type of quarterback who can turn around the franchise. Last year Carolina actually drafted three quarterbacks – Clausen, Armanti Edwards out of Appalachian State in the 3rd-round and Cincinnati’s Tony Pike in the 6th-round. Edwards is an athlete, drafted to provide different options (read Wildcat) for the offense, while Pike is the classic drop back, pocket passer. With Newton there are four questions the Panthers must get answers to – can he learn a complicated pro offense, can he win over his teammates, can his life stay quiet off-field and can he control his father and the entourage that has grown up around him.

3. Wide receiver – If at first they don’t succeed, try, try again – that must be the draft-room mantra of the Panthers when it comes to wide receivers. They selected two in 2010 (Brandon LaFell and David Gettis) and two in 2007 (Dwayne Jarrett and Ryne Robinson.) The whole situation at the position depends on what Smith plans to do in 2011. Will he stay for another season, or get out of town and run from the rebuilding project? That would leave no proven receiver on the roster and open the door for the arrival of Green with that first-round pick.

FIVE-YEAR DRAFT HISTORY

Actually, the Panthers have not drafted that poorly in recent years. They had 17 draft picks in the starting lineup at the end of the ’10 season. One thing that Hurney is not afraid to do is trade his first-round choice; he hasn’t had one since 2008, when he had two and grabbed Stewart and OT Jeff Otah. There’s no doubt he would love to trade out of this top spot and get more picks rather than hand all the big money to the draft’s No. 1 choice.

2006 – They grabbed the RB Williams in the first and then CB Richard Marshall in the second. LB James Anderson (3rd-round) got in the starting lineup last year as well and played good football.

2007 – Hit on Beason at LB and C Ryan Kalil, but missed badly on second-round choice, WR Dwayne Jarrett who caught just two passes last year.

2008 – The best draft by the Panthers in sometime, picking up three starters in the first three rounds (Stewart, Otah and S Charles Godfrey.) Plus, they found a pair of starting guards later in the draft (Geoff Schwartz and Mackenzy Bernadeau.) After three seasons, only three of the nine picks have departed.

2009 – As good as the ’08 class was the jury remains out on the ’09 Carolina draft class as DE Everette Brown has not jumped into the league as a major contributor, starting 3 of 28 games over two seasons, with 6 sacks.

2010 – Contributions were not bad from some of the rookie draft choices. Clausen struggled, LaFell caught 38 passes for 468 yards, DE Greg Hardy had 3 sacks and WR Gettis pulled in 37 passes for 508 yards.

PREDICTION

I think the Panthers will narrow the field to a pair of names – Newton and Darius. If owner Jerry Richardson is looking to rebuild and has his eye on the big picture of his franchise’s future, then he’ll deem of my franchise, I’d take the big DT out of Alabama. But if I’m trying to light a fire under my organization and my fan base (and sell a few tickets) then Newton is the obvious choice.

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