With the NFL Draft approaching, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the needs of each club. Up next is the team with the No. 14 overall selection, the Carolina Panthers. They’re short a third- and a seventh-rounder from trades made before he got there, so new general manager Dave Gettleman needs to make every pick count.
Offensive tackle: If Marty Hurney was still the general manager, you could probably bank on an offensive lineman with one of their first two picks, as he leaned heavily toward building a strong line. But since Gettleman doesn’t have background of his own, his history with the Giants points away from using first-rounders on tackles.
The Panthers restructured left tackle Jordan Gross’s contract to make it effectively a one-year deal, and there’s no one on the roster close to being able to replace him. Right tackle Byron Bell is a try-hard guy who has filled in admirably, but they could upgrade there without much effort.
But even if you’re not thinking long-term, they have a quarterback in Cam Newton that needs protecting now, and they could do better.
Cornerback: The Panthers have more nickels than a third-grade math problem, but no one on the roster you trust to point at Julio Jones and say “sic him.”
They brought back Captain Munnerlyn, and signed Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore. That gives them a bunch of competitive, hard-working effort guys who are going to get thrown over the top of with great regularity.
After cutting the under-appreciated Chris Gamble, they need someone who can step up and play man coverage, and using the first-rounder on someone such as Xavier Rhodes from Florida State makes as much sense as anything else they’d do.
Safety: Finances have tied them to the OK Charles Godfrey at one spot, but there’s a vacancy next to him. They tried bringing in veteran Haruki Nakamura to push former second-rounder Sherrod Martin, but all that yielded was Falcons highlights.
They’ve taken a long look at the top safeties during the pre-draft process, and using one of their first two picks on one shouldn’t be a surprise.
Defensive tackle: This is a popular pick for them, but they just re-signed Dwan Edwards. That’s the same Dwan Edwards they signed last September, after the Bills cut him. The Panthers need help at the position, but the bust rate on drafted DTs is historically high, and they can’t afford to miss without a full deck of picks.
Wide receiver: The perpetual search for a complement to Steve Smith has become a search for an eventual replacement for the Panthers star.
Smith’s still good enough to be the guy, and frankly, Brandon LaFell is good enough to be the second option (his three-year stats are nearly identical to former Panthers wideout Muhsin Muhammad at the same stage).
But if they draft a receiver in the first round, it will begin the end of the Smith era in Charlotte, as the last wave of contracts given out by the previous administration start to be culled by the new guy.
The Panthers are in an interesting spot, because their finish showed they’re good enough to compete, if not necessarily contend.
But 2-8 starts the last two years under coach Ron Rivera (along with being 2-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less) has created an uncertain environment, where almost every player and coach in the building’s on a de facto one-year contract.
If they deliver on potential, the current core of players could have a few more years. If they don’t, a year from now you’ll recognize Cam Newton, Ryan Kalil, Luke Kuechly and not much else.