Make no mistake, the draft didn’t break the way the Carolina Panthers had hoped.
Panthers GM Marty Hurney in his pre-draft press conference declared, “That’s the fun thing about the draft – you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Now, on the other side of the draft, the reality of the draft board not breaking the way you hoped has left the Panthers with many of the same questions they faced entering the draft.
The good news on Thursday night was the Panthers got their choice of offensive weapons in the first round, with every WR/RB/TE not named Saquon Barkley remaining on the board; the Panthers had the pick of the litter and selected DJ Moore. Moore’s ability to create yards after the catch was mentioned multiple times by Hurney. For the second year in a row, the Panthers have invested their top pick in a playmaker capable of extending the play; Christian McCaffrey’s 607 yards after the catch last season was the most ever for a Cam Newton pass catcher and the first time a Panther has had more than 400 YAC yards since Cam’s rookie season. If Olsen and Samuel are able to return healthy this season, Cam’s never enjoyed a more diverse array of targets.
On Friday night, The Panthers were armed with three picks in the second and third rounds, which were identified by Hurney as the strength of this draft. By the end of the night, however, the Panthers selected two defensive backs and added some additional day three picks. The Panthers added a pair of fiery SEC defensive backs, but two numbers stand out about this duo, who are supposed to be an injection in the arm for a Thieves Ave. crew that struggled to produce turnovers last season. The first number: five. That’s the combined number of INTs for Jackson and Gaulden in their college careers. The second number is 200. As in the 200 pound threshold, which neither clears. Gaulden comes in just under at 197, but Jackson checks in at just 178 pounds. It’s not impossible to play at that weight, but the opponent’s run games will try to find Jackson and make him prove that he can stay on the field and tackle; by the end of the third round, the Panthers had decided the strength of the draft had dried up and they traded out to the first pick of the fourth round.
It was only five years ago that the Panthers went back-to-back defensive tackles in the first two rounds of the draft, but looking at the last four drafts, the Panthers have spent time and again picking smaller guys in the first three rounds. If you’re keeping count, that’s now more that weigh in at less than 200 pounds than more than 300.
The way the board fell on Thursday and Friday again had the Panthers turning away from both the offensive and defensive lines; these were two areas, in addition to the secondary, that Marty Hurney emphasized in his pre-draft press conference. These repeated forays to answer both the weapon and the defensive back roster holes early in the draft, has left the Panthers depending on the return of Julius Peppers and the emergence of Mario Addison on defense and still fighting to fill holes along the offensive line.
Finally, in the fourth round, the Panthers looked to both bolster both lines by selecting a developmental tight end, out of Indiana, in Ian Thomas along with defensive end Marquis Haynes from Ole Miss. Thomas should come in and contribute year one, but with hope he’ll blossom into a complete tight end down the line. Coach Rivera spoke specifically of having a ‘Joker’ role for Haynes, in specific sub packages, where he will be able to utilize his speed, either to get after the QB or in coverage.
“There’s something I know you guys have heard us talk about and that’s what we call the Joker position,” said Rivera about Haynes – that they wouldn’t force anything on the rookie and let him play a position where he felt comfortable. “A guy that can do a couple of different things as well, and again, with his athleticism, his ability to drop that he’s shown to drop into coverage at times, we think that’s where he can fit. He’ll be a situational pass rusher for us, a guy that will have opportunities too, in certain situations and circumstances obviously. But with that Joker package, it’s something that we’ve talked about since Sean’s (McDermott) been here, and Steve (Wilks) followed up on it last year and it’s something that Eric’s (Washington) looking at as well.”
More than most, this Panthers draft feels dependent on guys being put in the best situations to succeed – in the defensive backfield, the team would love to use James Bradberry against bigger wide receivers, Jackson against faster wideouts and Gaulden against tight ends. Offensive coordinators, however, will look to move the defenses around and create mismatches; how well will these young players handle these shifts and being moved into uncomfortable positions? It will dictate whether Hurney and the front office were right to be patient with the draft and letting it come to them.
The decision that may loom largest for Hurney and the Panthers was one they ultimately did not make. Shortly after the Saints made a splash to select Marcus Davenport with the 14th pick, the Panthers had a brief window, along with the rest of the league, to make a trade up the board for FSU safety Derwin James. Ultimately, the 16th pick was snatched up by the Bills, for the price of pick 22 and 65, meaning the Panthers potentially could’ve snagged it for 24 and 55. The discussions of Haynes as a ‘Joker’, Gaulden being able to cover tight ends and Jackson’s speed could’ve been answered in the form of one selection.
Ultimately, the Panthers stood pat.
The Carolina Panthers got faster over the weekend, they got two new targets for Cam Newton, and now have a diverse selection of weapons and defensive backs to throw at teams. The offensive and defensive lines, however, will continue to be works in progress, and the need for a big-bodied running back, adept at pass protection, still persists. The Panthers’ front office still has work to do entering the season and starting May 8th, we’ll continue to see the roster evolve as teams can add more veteran free agents without impacting their potential compensatory draft picks.