Plenty of ups, downs and options for Carolina Panthers in upcoming NFL draft

jjones@charlotteobserver.comMay 6, 2014 

As Thursday’s NFL draft nears and teams’ draft boards take shape, three prospects appear to have the Carolina Panthers’ close attention at No. 28.

Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Southern California receiver Marqise Lee and Louisville free safety Calvin Pryor have the most first-round buzz for Carolina, according to sources.

With needs at wide receiver, offensive tackle and defensive back, and with 27 picks in front of them, the Panthers are unsure who will be available when they go on the clock for 10 minutes late Thursday night.

There’s angst among a fan base hungry for a future No. 1 receiver, but general manager Dave Gettleman has indicated that’s difficult to find in the draft. He’s committed to finding the best player available, a source reiterated this week, and that might mean a defensive player despite the Panthers having the league’s No. 2 defense last year.

It’s unlikely Carolina would be willing to trade up in the draft to secure a top-tier offensive tackle or elite receiver – the team would have to give up pick(s) its not willing to part with. But if the draft breaks the right way, and if the price is right, a source said the team would be amenable to trading down out of the first round.

Why a defensive player?

Two years ago the Panthers were linked to Alabama safety Mark Barron, but Tampa Bay scooped up Barron with the seventh-overall pick and the Panthers landed linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9.

Pryor is a similar type of impact safety. Known for his big hits, Pryor had 175 total tackles and five interceptions in his final two seasons with the Cardinals.

But Pryor may not be available by the time the Panthers select, and with the addition of Thomas DeCoud and the restructuring of Charles Godfrey’s contract, Gettleman could go elsewhere on the defensive side with that pick, like TCU cornerback Jason Verrett.

“You guys can look at me like I’m nuts,” Gettleman said last week, “but if there’s a “blue goose” pass rusher there or a “blue goose” defensive tackle sitting there I’m not going to be afraid.”

That blue-goose (i.e. really good) pass rusher could be Auburn’s Dee Ford or Missouri’s Kony Ealy, both of whom were first-team all-conference players last season. The team also recently met with Ohio State outside linebacker Ryan Shazier, according to reports.

Benjamin and Lee

It’s possible, though unlikely, Lee will be there at No. 28. The 6-foot, 192-pound receiver had 2,512 yards receiving in his final two seasons with the Trojans.

According to Advanced Football Analytics, Lee should go in the high-20s and there’s a nine-percent chance he’s available when the Panthers pick.

Benjamin, like many receivers coming out of college, needs to learn how to run more routes, but his size is something that can’t be taught. Multiple team sources have indicated he’s a top target for Carolina.

After hauling in 1,011 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns last year for the national champions, Benjamin (6-5, 240) posted a 4.61-second, 40-yard dash at the combine. There’s a 79-percent chance Benjamin is available for the Panthers, according to Advanced Football Analytics.

If the Panthers choose a receiver in the first round, there’s a concern how that player will deal with lofty expectations, according to a source. Ten of the 18 receivers taken in the first round of the draft since 2009 were part of the Observer’s top 40 NFL receivers.

The Panthers have no clear No. 1 receiver after the absence of Steve Smith, and the team is aware that a first-round receiver will be expected to produce early and often by a fan base starved for a target for Cam Newton.

Trade partner

By staying at 28th, Carolina will miss out on the top talent at the two positions of greatest need – offensive tackle and receiver. But there’s no indication the team is willing to trade up in the draft.

A source recently indicated the Panthers would “trade down all day” if the right situation happens Thursday night. The Panthers’ hope is there’s a first-round run of quarterbacks – at least five – that pushes best available players further down the board.

But the alternative hope is there is a dearth of quarterbacks taken in the first round, maybe as few as two like Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles. That would mean quarterback-needy teams who passed on a quarterback in the first round might get antsy by the second.

New England sits behind the Panthers at No. 29, and the Patriots have reportedly visited or worked out five quarterbacks. The threat of New England taking a quarterback – Tom Brady will be 37 just before the start of the season – may be enough to get a team like the Jaguars or Texans to move up if they have not already selected a quarterback.

There’s also the matter of the fifth-year option. If a team willing to trade up believes a quarterback is their future, the fifth-year option would be an attractive accessory, but it’s only available to first-round picks.

Should that quarterback be selected in the second round and later become the franchise signal caller, the team would not have the ability to exercise a fifth-year option that would pay the player less than he would fetch on the market.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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