Carolina has followed their shocking breakthrough in 2013 with a rough off-season. They've been besieged by departures on both sides of the ball, losing Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Ted Ginn, Mike Mitchell, Brandon LaFell and Captain Munnerlyn. This has left gaping holes at wide receiver, offensive line and secondary. It's rare for a 12-4 team to go into the draft having to draft for need, but this is the position Carolina found themselves in. An evaluation of their selections:
- 1st round selection: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State Grade: C+ This grade is not Benjamin's fault, but rather a product of the situation Carolina finds themselves in. It's difficult for a franchise to have a late 1st round pick and be all but forced to come out of it with a legit #1 WR. Benjamin no doubt seduced the Panthers with his size (6'5", 240) and wide catching radius. By default, he steps in and becomes Carolina's #1 WR. However, a huge red flag comes when you look at the fact that he only produced on the college level for one season. The NFL is littered with the corpses of players who used their superior physical attributes to snooker teams into using high choices on them. The Jets learned this from Stephen Hill, the Browns with Greg Little, and so on and so forth. I believe Benjamin has been miscast, and would have benefited from going to a team with top flight receivers in place to learn on the job. The Panthers' top 4 WRs next year? Benjamin, Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant, Jerrico Cotchery. Cam Newton can not be happy.
- 2nd round selection: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri Grade: C+ Some measure of praise is due for pinpointing a value choice, but the Panthers had so many other urgent needs that to draft to a position of strength seems silly. At most, Ealy will function as a third defensive end and pass rush specialist. He struggled with consistency in college and while he was considered a 1st round talent, he slid down the board. Ealy is going to need reps in order to work through his shortcomings, reps he won't be getting in Carolina. The second consecutive choice that may rue being drafted by the wrong team.
- 3rd round selection: Trai Turner, OG, LSU Grade: B+ Far and away, the most sensible pick made by Carolina. Turner was a potential 2nd rounder, and considered a 1st round talent who came out a year too early. To nab a player of his caliber in the 3rd round is a steal. Considering the Panthers' need on the offensive line with the untimely retirement of Jordan Gross, Turner was a great addition. The only factor keeping this choice from an A grade is Turner's need for seasoning. It's possible he may not start this year. Turner needs work on his body and technique. He will benefit from his years of experience in the SEC, where he faced NFL caliber defenders on a regular basis. Turner displays tremendous speed for a 6'3", 310 pound player, as he was the only guard to run the 40 in under 5 seconds. It's also possible he could be converted to center down the line.
- 4th round selection: Tre Boston, SS, North Carolina Grade: B- A bit of a reach, as Boston was projected in the 5th or 6th round. Giving Carolina's proximity to the former Tar Heel, they clearly watched him on a regular basis and saw things they liked. Carolina's front seven is among the league's best and they needed help in the secondary. While Mitchell and Munnerlyn's departures hurt, neither of them was an anchor on the back end. Boston is a player whose physical attributes don't jump off the page, but he just made plays. He was an immediate contributor at North Carolina, playing in 10 games as a true freshman, and piled up 282 tackles, 20 pass breakups, 13 INT, 8 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles over his career. Definitely a player to keep an eye on.
- 5th round selection: Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose State Grade: C+ The Panthers continue to draft to their positions of need, obtaining more help for their secondary. Benwikere displayed superior ball skills, breaking San Jose State's school record with 14 career INT. What gives scouts pause is that he inflated his numbers playing inferior competition. 3 of his INT came in one game versus Louisiana Tech, a pass heavy offense known to fling the pigskin around. He projects as a poor man's DeAngelo Hall or Antonio Cromartie, a player who can man the CB like a WR and make plays. He's a subpar tackler, shows a lack of foot speed, and struggled against top flight competition. Stanford's Ty Montgomery burned him for several big plays during their match-up. Some scouts have compared him to Alterraun Verner, but he projects as a nickel corner and special teams ace.
- 6th round selection: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford Grade: D+ Again, Carolina confounds observers by drafting to a position of strength. With Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Kenjon Barner, and Mike Tolbert already in house, it's tough to see how Gaffney carves out a role for himself. The low grade is not a knock on Gaffney as a player, simply a commentary on misuse of resources. You don't have to squint to see Gaffney making a name for himself in the league, but my gut tells me it won't be in Carolina.
Overall draft grade: C
While I did like the selections of Boston and Turner, the Panthers were hamstrung by having to draft for need. This led them to some puzzling decisions as they reached for certain players, while completely ignoring their holes on other choices. There was very little rhyme or reason to their method, and unless Benjamin pans out, this entire draft could go down as a waste. When you only have 6 picks, you need to make the most of them and it's tough to see how the Panthers did that. They've now placed a great deal of pressure on Cam Newton's shoulders, leaving it up to him to make the most out of a depleted WR corps and an offensive line that looks shaky at best. Conversely, Greg Hardy, Luke Kuechly and the front seven will shoulder the burden of providing consistent pass rush to cover for a leaky secondary. Last season may have been just a momentary moment of happiness for Panthers fans.