It’s been two full seasons since Julius Peppers was hurting people while wearing a Panthers uniform, and he’s still missed dearly. In 2011 Carolina ranked 25th with 31 sacks, which is the same total a weak front seven finished with in 2010. Outside of Charles Johnson–who had 9 (29 percent) of the Panthers’ sacks last year–there isn’t an imposing threat.
That’s why the Panthers are among the group of teams in the top half of the first round expected to dip into the pool of quality pass rushers available. With offenses shifting dramatically towards the passing game over the past several seasons, cornerback and an elite defensive end or defensive tackle who can consistently apply pressure have become two defensive positions in high demand on draft day.
Ideally, Panthers GM Marty Hurney will target a DT who’s cut from the Ndamukong Suh mould, and has the strength to penetrate into the backfield with ease, but is also effective against the run. The Panthers gave up an average of 130.8 rushing yards per game last year, although significant injuries to key linebackers can be partially blamed for that weakness.
1. Helping a weak pass rush should be the primary focus in the first round. Early mock drafts had Dontari Poe as the Panthers’ pick, but he’s since faded depending on which mock you’re reading. If the Panthers go for a defensive tackle, who are you hoping for between Poe and Fletcher Cox?
Personally, I’m both hoping and thinking the target is Cox. The Panthers have spent a lot of time both visiting with him, and trying to hide how much they like him. I fully expect if he’s available at No. 9 he’ll be the pick. I believe he would add versatility to the defense, because he can be used at both DT and DE, and be a factor in both areas.
2. Or could Carolina favor an edge rusher to complement Johnson instead? If that’s the case, then who’s your favorite between Quinton Coples and Melvin Ingram, both of whom could be available?
If the Panthers look for a DE it will be Coples. He fits the 4-3 scheme better, and the organization doesn’t typically think outside the box when it comes to their defensive players.
3. The buzz around Stephon Gilmore is building, and earlier this week there was talk that he could leap into the top 10. Would he be a good fit for the Panthers?
I believe Gilmore is a mostly manufactured prospect. While the Panthers have met with him, I don’t see anything concrete enough to believe he’s a target. I’m stunned he’s become rated the No. 2 CB prospect in this draft, and I think on draft day we’ll see teams reflect the same doubt.
4. What about Luke Kuechly? He could fortify a run defense that was also weak, and suffered several key injuries last year.
Kuechly is one of my favorite prospects in the draft, but it’s tough to take a player in the top 10 who would start the season as a backup. While injuries ravaged the LB group last year, I think the front office will wait one more year to see if OLB Thomas Davis can return to form. I don’t doubt they’ll look to take an LB, because I just don’t believe they’ll spend a first-round pick on the position.
5. Lastly, is trading down to get a receiver like Kendall Wright a possibility? Another weapon for Cam Newton and support for Steve Smith would be nice…
I think the Panthers would love to trade down, but that’s easier said than done. As it pertains to the WRs in the draft, they’ve spent significant time scouting all of them. I like Wright, but another guy the Panthers could be looking at in a trade down is Georgia Tech’s Stephen Hill. He would be a player available somewhere in the 20-30 range, and he possesses the ability to stretch the field.