Carolina Panthers 2017 NFL Draft: Top 3 Needs

Year to year fluctuations are natural in every sport – the NFL is no exception. However, a drop-off from 15-1 to 6-10 is more akin to stepping down as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to take over a hometown family business. The 2016 season saw the Carolina Panthers fall from a top tier team to an afterthought. Now, with the eighth pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, Carolina is in a position to use this premier pick as a vault back into contention.

With the majority of significant free agent signings in the rear view mirror, the Last Word On Sports NFL team has moved on to looking at the top needs for every NFL team heading into the draft. Today, the Carolina Panthers are the focus. As mentioned, the Panthers hold the pick number eight in the draft (as well as 40, 64, and 98) and general manager David Gettleman will will be looking to do anything in his means to get the Panthers back to the playoffs in 2017.

Carolina Panthers 2017 NFL Draft: Top 3 Needs

Running Back

Carolina re-signed veteran running back Jonathan Stewart to a one-year extension. However, following the upcoming season, Stewart is likely to be a cap casualty, as the Panthers can get out from his contract with only $1.5 million in dead money. To say Stewart, now 30, underperformed in 2016 is an understatement. While he was able to stay on the field for 13 games, he averaged an abysmal 3.8 yards per carry. This after only having 4.1 yards per carry in 2015. It’s time for Gettleman to find Stewart’s long term replacement.

Thankfully for the Panthers, the running back class in the 2017 draft resembles the cast of The Departed – the star power is evident. With the eighth pick, the Panthers have a chance at snagging their Leo in the form of Leonard Fournette. Fournette is a bruiser, and would be an ideal fit in Carolina’s offensive system. However, there is talk of him going as high as second to San Francisco (unlikely) or to Jacksonville at four (this makes much more sense).

I am simply not buying the Christian McCaffrey to Carolina talk. If the Panthers miss out on Fournette, I believe their play will be to wait until the second or third rounds. Alvin Kamara from Tennessee would be a good fit at 40. D’onta Foreman from Texas could work at 64. Both could easily step in and play the Mark Wahlberg role (I’m giving Matt Damon to Dalvin Cook in this scenario).

Offensive Line

Cam Newton went under the knife, yet again, last month – this time to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Since entering the league, Newton has been one of the most hit quarterbacks in the league. The Panthers did a bit to address this issue in the off-season. However, the high price tag signing of left tackle Matt Kalil is far from a long term answer.

Daryl Williams showed promise at right tackle during his second season in the NFL. The fourth round selection in 2015 showed steady improvement during his ten starts in 2016. He is expected to start at right tackle for Carolina. The interior of the line is the strength. With Trea Turner, Ryan Kalil, and Andrew Norwell, the Panthers should be set at the guards and center.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, this draft is not rich in talent along the offensive line. There’s no sure-thing, top ten tackle. I would be shocked to see Carolina pull the trigger on one at eight. Ryan Ramczyk and Garett Bolles are the two tackles likely to be sure-fire first rounders. Cam Robinson, out of Alabama, could potentially be available at 40, but it is not likely. One player to keep and eye one with the Panthers’ third round pick is Antonio Garcia from Troy. Even against lesser competition in the Sun Belt, Garcia did not surrender a single sack during the 2016 season.

Defensive End

Ron Rivera‘s defense is predicated on the front seven being able to get after the quarterback. Employing a lot of cover 3 and zone principles, the scheme doesn’t put a ton of pressure on cornerbacks. For most of his tenure in Carolina, the secondary has not featured household names. David Gettleman had no hesitations to let Josh Norman walk a year ago, but sign Kawann Short to a mega-extension last week.

Following Norman’s departure, the Panthers took cornerbacks with their second, third, and fifth round picks in 2016. James Bradberry showed enough promise in his rookie season to make the coaching staff believe he can develop into a true number one corner. Therefore, Carolina can avoid taking a defensive back with a top pick. Instead, they can focus on finding a talented pass rusher. The re-addition of Julius Peppers and the extension of Charles Johnson shouldn’t shy the Panthers away from taking a pass-rusher high.

The perfect scenario for Carolina would be for Stanford’s Solomon Thomas to somehow fall to eight. This is looking less and less likely as we approach the draft. Thomas has shot up boards ever since he dismantled potential top quarterback Mitch Trubisky on national TV during the Sun Bowl. Other options in the first round for Carolina would include Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett. When examining the second round, Charles Harris and Carl Lawson would be interesting picks at 40. Additionally, DeMarcus Walker and Dawuane Smoot would be intriguing options in the third round.