Last year, the Carolina Panthers had the first pick in the draft, took a chance on a player who wasn’t viewed as a sure thing, and scored big time when Cam Newton turned out to be as impressive a rookie quarterback as the NFL has ever seen. This year, the Panthers enter the draft knowing their offense is in good shape moving forward, and needing to build a defense.
Defensive tackle: The Panthers’ run defense was brutally bad last season, and they simply have to get better in the middle of their defensive line. With the ninth pick in the NFL draft they’re highly likely to take someone they think can start at defensive tackle from Day One.
Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State is widely regarded as both the best defensive tackle in this draft and the defensive tackle who will be most ready to start as a rookie, and Carolina would be smart to snap him up if he’s available. Some mock drafts have shown the Panthers going after workout warrior Dontari Poe of Memphis, and although Poe is an intriguing talent, he’s a better fit for a team that can be patient enough to develop his raw athleticism and turn him into a complete defensive lineman.
Defensive end: Don’t be surprised if the Panthers go with defensive line in both the first and second rounds, with a tackle and an end as their first two picks. If Carolina goes with a defensive end at No. 9, it could be North Carolina’s Quinton Coples, a 284-pounder who has the talent to start immediately, but whose work ethic has been questioned. If tackle is the choice in the first round, a defensive end in the second round like Marshall’s Vinny Curry could be an option.
Cornerback: The Panthers traded away their third-round pick to acquire tight end Greg Olsen, so if they do go with a defensive end and a defensive tackle in the first and second rounds, they’d enter the third day of the draft having addressed only their defensive line. If that is the case, they’ll hope they can take a flyer on Day 3 on someone who will be able to make a difference in their secondary. Cornerback is a position they’d like to improve, and if there’s a cornerback available in Rounds 4-7 who’s also a good special teams player, that would be ideal. The Panthers struggled on special teams last season, and the third day of the draft is a good time to add players who can return kicks or improve their coverage units.
Wide receiver: Steve Smith’s recent contract extension will keep him in place as Newton’s top receiver for another few years, but the Panthers would like to surround Newton with as many weapons as they can. With five picks on the third day of the draft, the Panthers will likely take at least one receiver and hope he can develop.
Impact players like Newton don’t come along every year, but the Panthers will hope that this year’s draft leaves them with an upgraded defensive line. Anything beyond that is gravy.