When I casually ask people what positions the Panthers need to focus on in the offseason, I generally hear the usual "second wide receiver opposite Steve Smith", "shutdown corner", or "dominating defensive tackle". I rarely ever hear "future left tackle" or "forceful outside linebacker". Yet these are perhaps two of our bigger needs. Of course you can argue the need for a WR, CB, and DT, but these are also positions in which we have plenty of young talent.
Our 4th round pick last draft, CB Brandon Hogan of West Virginia, has yet to play a down. Once thought to be a fringe first round pick, character concerns and injuries issues lowered his stock. He could be a shutdown corner. Darius Butler has also played fairly well in spurts and Captain Munnerlyn would be ideal for covering quicker slot receivers. CB is a position that has a lot of top talent, but could be a reach for a top 10 pick. Position could be better addressed again in later rounds.
Our two picks in the 3rd round were both defensive tackles, Terrell McClain of South Florida and Sione Fua of Stanford. The organization certainly is not giving up on two rookies after just one year. It is extremely difficult for two rookies to come in and start right away alongside one another, but it’s also hard not to notice how often McClain gets into the backfield and Fua draws double teams. Throw in second year player Andre Neblett and, hopefully, the return of Ron Edwards, the Panthers might be able to afford another year of evaluation here. Like CB, DT may have to be addressed in the 2nd round or later.
The Panthers currently carry six wide receivers on their roster but only use three of them. Brandon LaFell is like Darius Butler on offense. He has not dropped a single pass all year, and made several great plays (most notably his 44 yard reception on 4th and long late in the 4th quarter against the Vikings, although if only he had enough to speed to score…), but often disappears during games. Granted this could be on the play-calling; no way to know for sure. Kealoha Pilares, Armanti Edwards, and Seyi Ajirotutu only contribute on special teams, but I like Pilares’ potential to do some damage out of the slot. I would not be surprised to see our offense utilize him more down the stretch to see what he is capable of. WR is also a position that may have good free agents in the offseason, notably Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson. Jackson is extremely intriguing since he played with Offensive Coordinator Chudzinski as lately as last season. Unless we are extremely enamored with Justin Blackmon or Alshon Jeffrey in the draft, I see us going elsewhere.
This brings me to the main point of the article. I do not see OT Jeff Otah and OLB Thomas Davis sticking around after the season. Their financial commitment is too great to offset their injury problems. These two are dominating forces on the field, but they can’t seem to ever get on it. Davis is working on his third straight ACL tear while Otah has faced a myriad of injuries, from concussions to back strains to an ACL tear of his own. Watching this past week’s game against Tennessee, these two positions were terrible. The offensive line has played well most of the season, but the linebacking core is really banged up. It makes you wonder how much Jordan Gross has left in the tank.
We are a rebuilding team right now with QB Cam Newton the focal point of the future. Newton should be here and be our QB for the next 15 years if everything goes according to plan. Will Gross be here for the next 15 years? Absolutely not. We very easily may have to replace both tackles. Byron Bell is not bad for an undrafted rookie. His run blocking is fantastic, but his pass blocking is suspect. He could develop into a decent right tackle. However blocking Cam’s blindside, we may need to find an entirely new alternative. In a year where we are 2-7, it may be our best option to get that future LT now before we start becoming a decent team and will be a tough position 5 years from now when Gross needs to be replaced. This year are a few options, most notably C Ryan Kalil’s little brother Matt Kalil from USC, who should be a top 5 pick. Stanford tackle Jonathon Martin has also been given that future LT label (makes Andrew Luck look good) and should be a top 10 pick.
When it comes to linebackers, it’s harder to see the future. We have an absolute stud in the middle in Jon Beason, and a more than capable backup behind him in Dan Connor. James Anderson has also started to find his own on the strongside. However, it seems like every year we are trying to plug in holes where Davis should be and are stuck with mediocre talent. It may be for the lack of Beason, but when opponents run off tackle or stretch plays, the linebackers take way too long to get to the hole or get caught up in a block (especially evident against Washington before Hightower left the game). Davis was that explosive linebacker that would hit that hole hard with Beason alongside him. It would be ideal if we could replace him with similar talent. A LB that has that potential is Vontaze Burfict of Arizona State, a former top recruit in the country. This might be a player we target if we string together a few wins down the stretch and end up with a draft pick outside the top 10.
There is a reason the Panthers are 2-7 right now. I personally believe it falls on the defense. We just lack playmakers there. We struggle to force turnovers or come up with key stops. All three levels could easily be upgraded. Our offense has been spectacular so far, save for last week. If we spend early picks on the offense, I hope it is with an eye toward the future. We could use a WR, OT, OLB, and CB, but in what order? What is our biggest need going into the offseason? Or should we let the rest of the season play out first before we start discussing how to improve the team? Voice your opinion.
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