With the 2014 NFL Draft approaching this April, one team who had a surprisingly great season this past fall was the Carolina Panthers. With a stout defense led by Luke Kuechly and an improved offense thanks to the play of third year quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers were able to win the NFC South and earn their first playoff berth since the 2008 season. It was a season to remember for Panthers fans.
However, it wasn’t the dream season Panthers fans hoped for at the end of the day. The harsh reality was even though they earned the #2 seed in the NFC behind the Seattle Seahawks and a first round bye, they really were not the second best team in the NFC this past season. The Team that beat Carolina in the playoffs, San Francisco 49ers, was the second best team based on their next week’s performance against Seattle. Now that the season is over, Carolina is looking towards the NFL Draft to find some young talent that can help them build on last season and reaching the next step: Winning the Super Bowl. I will discuss Carolina’s strengths and weaknesses as they prepare for the draft.
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Defensive Line, Linebackers, and Special Teams
Panthers General Manager Dave Gettlemen has a strong belief on building the team from the inside out. The Carolina defense was terrific last year in large part of the defensive line. In last year’s draft, Carolina added two large defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short. Both had great rookie seasons playing alongside defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and they will look to build on that progress heading into next season. Since the 2001 and 2010 seasons, running backs have never really been an issue for the Carolina Panthers. They arguably have the best running back duo in all of the NFL in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart, along with Hybrid back Mike Tolbert, who can play both fullback and running back. Williams had a solid season bouncing back from a couple tough years with the team rushing for 843 yards and 3 TD’s. Tolbert was more of a short yardage back who really took the pressure off quarterback Cam Newton during crucial third and fourth down short yardage situations. Stewart was hampered by injuries all season long and only played in 2 games this past season. With the good production of Williams and Tolbert this past year, don’t be surprised panthers fans if you see GM Dave Gettlemen look to trade Stewart and get something valuable as a team need.
There’s not much to discuss about the Carolina Panthers Linebackers. They are young and talented group that flies around and make plays for their defense. Luke Kuechly is emerging as a top 3 middle linebacker in the NFL, Thomas Davis has bounced back tremendously since his three knee Injuries and rookie AJ Klein I starting to show the coaches that he is a potential star in the making for the panthers. Special Teams was superb this past year for the Panthers with kicker Graham Gano and punter Brad Nortman each having good seasons really gave the panthers an extra boost.
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Wide Receiver
There’s no secret here folks. If you’re a Panthers fan and you know about the game of football, it’s obvious that the offensive line and the wide receiver position is the weakest part on the Carolina roster right now. The problem is which position is at rock bottom right now? With the retirement of Left Tackle Jordan Gross and the possibility of guards Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner retiring, it would appear that the offensive line is in some serious need of rebuilding. Here are some prospects I believe the Panthers should target leading up to the NFL Draft that are realistic options for them.
Zach Martin (Notre Dame): Big guy who can play with a fast paced offense. Did a good job protecting the backside of Tommy Rees, who was not a mobile QB. It shouldn’t be hard for him to protect QB Cam Newton on the backside
Antonio Richardson (Tennessee): Another big guy who can protect the backside well. Did a nice job against some good pass rushers in the SEC like Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, and Michael Sam. Only concern is can he handle the more faster and athletic pass rushers in the NFL
Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama): Great raw talent and played for a terrific program. He also played with some great offensive lineman alongside his years with the Tide. Only concern I have with Kouandjio is he durable and athletic enough to protect Newton’s backside against some good pass rushers.
My Pick: Zack Martin - if he is still on the board, I would take Martin here. I think he would fit well because of his ability to protect the blind side. If he can protect a pocket passer, then he should have no trouble protecting Newton for Next Season. As bad as I would like to see Carolina draft a wide receiver in the first round, their #1 need and priority is offensive line. The Panthers lost their playoff game to the 49ers because of their inability to protect the quarterback. If they don’t improve their offensive line starting with the draft, it could be a long season upfront.