Roster building is a twelve month process.
While not exactly a new concept, this is becoming more and more true for the NFL, as teams look to get every edge they can on other teams when it comes to the draft, and as teams start building up for the draft earlier and earlier, so follow the mock drafts and the pieces on the hottest draft prospects of the day. While it is far too early to try and begin to predict where the Panthers will be picking come next year’s draft, let alone who they might be looking to select, there are of course some areas of the roster that the Panthers are likely to be interested in going forwards. While most if not all who will sit down to watch college football in the coming weeks will do so with at least some vested interest in one college or another, there is simply so much college football that it can at times be hard to decide what to watch. So, if this fall you find yourself having to chose between a number of unremarkable sounding games, here are a few players who might make sense for the Panthers come the 2019 draft who might sway your watching choices one way or another.
Drew Anderson, QB Murray State
Ok, stay with me here.
Anderson is a player worth watching a game for him alone, not only because as the quarterback he will be involved as much as any player on the field, but because he is one of the most exciting college football arms going. He joins Murray State this season as a graduate transfer from Buffalo, where he spent one season after time in junior college – while he only played in four games for the Bulls before going down with an injury, he managed to put up some truly impressive numbers, going 66-106 (62%) for 1039 yards and 10 touchdowns with just one interceptions, as well as adding 92 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Extend those numbers over a full college season and you have a QBR that would have ranked third nationally behind a pair of quarterbacks who went a combined 25-2. That’s really, really good.
What is more, having not drafted a single quarterback since 2011, quarterback depth is very much a need for the Panthers going into the 2018 season, and likely beyond. While it would be a surprise to see the Panthers expend a high draft pick on a quarterback, it would be far from a surprise to see them spend a late round pick on a player they can develop as a long-term backup for Cam Newton, with the potential for a trade for draft picks downs the line. Having only played four games at the FBS level, it would take an exceptional season for Anderson to lift himself into contention to be taken before the middle rounds this season, and so would make perfect sense for a team looking for a late round quarterback.
Besides the numbers, on the field, Anderson is highly impressive. He makes good decision with the ball in what is admittedly a fairly simplistic offense and has the arm to make all the throws asked of players at the NFL level. Most promising, however, is the touch and high-level accuracy he shows to all levels of the field. While the windows in the NFL will undoubtedly be smaller, he showed a consistent ability in limited snaps to fit balls into tight gaps, both vertical and horizontal, with an awareness to use the ball to move receivers away from defenders that is highly unusual in college players. There are a lot of question regarding Anderson, not least whether he can show the same skills over a larger sample size, but there have been few small school prospects as promising in recent memory.
Damien Harris, HB Alabama
There is a common theme when you look at Norv Turner’s successful offenses of the past: an excellent running back capable of pounding out yards inside the tackles – Emmitt Smith in Dallas, Stephen Davis in Washington, Ricky Williams in Miami, Frank Gore in San Francisco, Ladainian Tomlinson in San Diego and Adrian Peterson in Minnesota; while this is a list of running backs that would make any offensive coach salivate, it should not be forgotten that many of these players had some of their best seasons under Norv, whose offense seems highly suited to such rushers. It should be no surprise that CJ Anderson chose the Panthers are his free agent destination after being released by the Broncos.
However, Anderson only signed a one-year deal and should he put up the numbers that some of Norv’s former running backs have, he will undoubtedly be looking to get paid money the Panthers simply don’t have, forcing them to be in the market for an inside runner once again in 2019. While it is far from certain that Anderson won’t resign, or that if he does go elsewhere that the Panthers won’t be able to find his replacement in free agency, but it is certainly fair to see that the Panthers will be doing their homework on the 2019 running back class just in case, and in the 2019 class there is nobody better than Damien Harris.
Harris chose to return to Alabama for his senior season but, should he have entered the 2018 draft, he would have been in the conversation to be taken in the first round and could possibly even have pushed Saquon Barkley for the top spot, at least in some quarters. While Harris doesn’t have Barkley’s otherworldly athleticism, he is probably a more consistent running back, looking to grind out yards inside the tackle, making sharp high-speed cuts and looking to get downhill in a hurry. He has a rare combination of power, speed, vision and agility and could be the centerpiece of almost any NFL offense, as well as a perfect fit for a Norv Turner offense. The only question he has to answer in the eyes of scouts is regards to his ability to be a factor in the passing game, having only caught 30 passes in his three seasons at Alabama. If he can show himself to be at least serviceable in this area then he could make it hard for teams in need of a running back as early as the middle of the first round.
Jaylen Smith, WR/TE Louisville
The tight end position in the NFL is currently experiencing something of a schism, with the growing usage of undersized but athletic move tight ends gaining popularity around the league. While the Panthers latest addition to the tight end group, fourth round draft pick Ian Thomas, is about as far from this model as there is in the NFL, the value in being able to change personnel to create different looks for the defense could well have the Panthers at least somewhat interested in adding a smaller yet quicker tight end to the mix, especially with Chris Manhertz’s third tight end spot looking far from secure. Of course, with Thomas on the roster in addition to All-Pro Greg Olsen, the Panthers are likely going to pass on tight ends in the early rounds of next years draft, but as the draft enters the final day the Panthers may well be interested in taking a chance on a player with upside.
Enter Jaylen Smith.
Smith had something of a breakout season at receiver for Louisville in 2017, posting a 60-980-7 stat line in ten games. However, being listed at 6’4 and a shade under 225 lbs there is a chance that he attracts at least some interest for teams looking for a tight end. There is a chance that the Panthers or another team could look to use him as a pure receiver, and while he does have enough speed for the position, his reliance on his athleticism thus far could make it hard for teams to invest a high draft pick in him, knowing that he will need some time to learn the position properly once he gets to the NFL. As a tight end, he would need to add some weight of course, but he is not far off the weight that Devin Funchess played at at Michigan during the seasons in which he played tight end. At either position Smith is likely to be something of a long shot, but anybody that run sub-4.5 at nearly 225 lbs is going to be of interest to NFL teams, and with good hands and a surprising change of direction and quickness for a man of his size, the Panthers would likely not be the only team that looks to find ways they might get Smith on the field at whatever position he ends up playing in the pros.