Marty Hurney made a radio appearance on Charlotte's WFNZ last week. Hurney, in his decade as an NFL general manager, has mastered the art of talking without saying anything. He was asked mostly about the draft, naturally, as that is the only event on the 2011 NFL calendar written in ink.
Hurney would not address whether or not the Panthers were interested in specific players with the first overall pick, but instead he said they were going to do more homework on a group of "five to eight" players. We can all recite his go-to line by now: "I think you have to pick an impact player at an impact position."
Since there is not a single player who is considered a 'lock' for the first overall pick, Panther fans will have to spend the next two months doing their best Sherlock Holmes impression, filtering through all the misdirection and subterfuge while trying get inside the minds of the Panthers' brass--all in hopes of identifying, and then separating these five to eight players.
First we need to try and identify these five to eight impact players. We know that in order to make the list, a player has to play an 'impact' position. Marty Hurney may have a different opinion on what constitutes a certain position being impactful, but let's try to eliminate a few positions nonetheless...
Positions deemed most 'impactful' by the author are:
Quarterback, Tailback, Wide Receiver, and Offensive Tackle on offense, and then Defensive Tackle, Defensive End, Rush Linebacker, and Cornerback on defense.
In the spirit of being thorough, let's identify the top two players at each of these positions (based on the author's objective opinion):
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert, Missouri and Cam Newton, Auburn
Tailback: Mark Ingram, Alabama and Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
Wide Receiver: A.J. Green, Georgia and Julio Jones, Alabama
Offensive Tackle: Nate Solder, Colorado and Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
Defensive Tackle: Nick Fairley, Auburn and Marcel Dareus, Alabama
Defensive End: Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson and Robert Quinn, North Carolina
Rush LB: Von Miller, Texas A&M and Aldon Smith, Missouri
Cornerback: Patrick Peterson, LSU and Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
We now have a list of 16 players. Let's see if we can cut this list in half with some old fashioned deductive logic, shall we?
After the Carolina's favorite architect decided to go back to Palo Alto for at least one more season, The Panthers seemed to change their tune when it came to drafting a quarterback with the first pick. Blaine Gabbert has been climbing up the draft boards lately. While Gabbert has the size and speed that scouts covet, his collegiate statistics (specifically his number of wins) leave something to be desired. While he has a chance to be good, I don't see Gabbert as being the immediate answer to our quarterbacking problems. When you question whether or not he could wrestle away the starting spot from Jimmy Clausen, I think its safe to assume he should not be the first overall pick.
Officially scratch Blaine Gabbert off of the list.
Ah, yes. Cam Newton. What more can I say that hasn't already been said? If the kid had a background like Tim Jebow, I'd say he's the front-runner. But we'd have our heads in the sand if we didn't question some of the decisions this young man has made during the last four years. The first pick in the draft has to be someone who you could see being the face of your franchise for the next 10-12 years, all while drawing zero negative attention to himself and the team. While it is entirely possible that Newton plays his best Mother Teresa for his time in the spotlight, it is also entirely possible that he has a three or four year NFL career marred by immaturity and poor decision making. Notice I said nothing about his ability? I don't think there's any question as to whether he has the physical tools and football skills, but that is not what you are gambling on with Newton. And the workout...we did not see anything new, other than some decent footwork while simulating five and seven steps drops...it didn't move him up or down in my book.
I cannot and will not scratch Cam Newton off of the list.
Tailbacks are not picked at the top of the first round anymore. Even Adrian Peterson was the seventh pick four years ago. Even if Ingram was on the same level as AP, our current stable of tailbacks prohibits us from picking one with the first pick of the draft. As a side note, I think Ingram will be a top five tailback in the league as early as next season. But nevertheless...this is one position where need comes into play, and we have no need at tailback, particularly if DeAngelo Williams is resigned.
Officially scratch Mark Ingram off of the list.
(see Mark Ingram, but not quite as good)
This kid will be good. Mark it down. But he will be good for someone else. Again, no need.
Officially scratch Mikel Lashoure off of the list.
This is where it starts to get spicy. AJ Green is the near unanimous number one receiver in this draft. Personally, I have a couple of reservations with picking Green #1, but neither of them is a reflection of Green as a player. First, I believe our struggles at the quarterback position severely devalue a top-flight receiver like Green. Look at Steve Smith's lack of production last season. How could the Panthers possibly strap-on another great WR and expect to use both of them effectively? Look at how well an all-star pairing of WRs did with sub-par quarterback play in Cincinnati last season...and Palmer even had an 82.4 QB rating last season! Second, we spent three picks (two early) on receivers in last year's draft. I have a problem with making LaFell or Gettis a fourth WR. Our future at this position has never looked so bright. So let's give the LaFell/Gettis combo some time to develop.
Even though I'd pass on Green, there are still those who feel he should be in the conversation, therefore I will not scratch him off the list.
This is really nothing more than a technicality. Jones is the second WR on most lists. WR is an impact position. Those facts put him in the article, but there's no way Julio makes the short list.
Officially scratch Julio Jones off of the list.
Solder is the long, lean, athletic specimen that all teams look for in a left tackle. With our biggest need on the offensive line being at RG, and with Gross and Otah presumably back in form, we do not have a need at tackle, especially at the top of the first round. This one is easy...if a player is not really close to being the BPA, and the team has little to no need at his position, it is safe to...
Officially scratch Nate Solder off of the list.
Again, he's not the BPA, and OT is not a dire need. I respect his game immensely, but...
Officially scratch Gabe Carimi off of the list.
The closest thing to a consensus number one prospect. Fairley is probably the front-runner at the moment. We have talked about Fairley's game quite a bit already, so let's just not cross him off the list and move on. The fact that the Panthers' second biggest need is DT gives this potential pick some strength and some backing.
Probable front-runner, obviously he stays on the '5-8' list.
Marcel is a going to be a pro-bowler in a 3-4 system. The question is: can he be as effective as a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3? Either way you are probably going to spend most downs throwing a guard out of the way, so usually a transition from one to the other is successful. The one thing that puts Dareus a few notches below Fairley on my list is his frame. He is listed at 6' 4" and 304lbs. The combine will tell the true story, but I think he is closer to 6'2" and 285lbs. If your under-tackle is that size, more times than not you will try to compensate for his lack of bulk with a massive, space-eating nose tackle...someone who can be very hard to find. Again, I'm very high on Dareus, and see Hawaii in his future, but give me the choice and I'm taking Fairley for his larger frame (which could be added to), and superior athleticism. The one advantage Dareus has is several years of good tape.
Marcel narrowly stays on the list because of the Panthers' sizable need at DT.
Probably the most physically impressive defensive lineman in the draft. Bowers, like Fairley, really has only one year of good tape. He was consistently good throughout the whole year. There weren't many stretches were he disappeared, which is unusual for any DE. Put on the tape and he keeps popping up, whether its sacks, tackles for loss, pressures, batted balls, etc. Bowers is about 280lbs, and could easily add 10 to 15 more pounds to his frame. There are two flags that I see with this pick...first is, we have a fringe pro-bowler in Charles Johnson who almost certainly will be with the team next season. Having two great DEs is terrific, but if you have nothing on the interior of your defensive line, your DEs can chipped and double teamed at will. Second, having only one year of good tape on a guy who was one of the top high school prospects in the country three years ago is a concern.
Bowers played himself onto the list last season.
Mr Quinn was one of several Tarheels who felt the wrath of the NCAA last season. He is slightly smaller than Bowers, but just as athletic, and probably a bit faster. Quinn was only a Sophomore in his final season (2009) at North Carolina, but he was already a dominant force. He plays the run well, and he is one of the premier pass rushers college football has seen in recent seasons. Rarely, if ever, does an athlete get suspended for an entire year and still end up being picked in the top 10 of the NFL draft. Quinn will. Jerry Richardson will not sign off on such a pick, however. Therefore...
Officially scratch Robert Quinn off of the list.
Miller is someone to keep an eye on. 3-4 teams looking for a pass-rushing outside linebacker will look at Miller first. He is explosive and very powerful for his size (6'2", 245). One might contend that a rush linebacker is not an impact player, but that I would refute. The one negative I see is his inexperience defending the run coming from the pass-happy Big 12 conference...this is nitpicking, and Miller looks like an exceptional player. But will he be a Panther? In short, no. The fact that Ron Rivera has elected to keep his base defense a 4-3 rules this pick out almost completely.
Officially scratch Von Miller off of the list.
Smith played primarily in a 4-3 at Missouri. He is a freak, but is projected to be a 3-4 OLB in the NFL. If Rivera wanted to use more 3-4 elements then perhaps Smith (and Von Miller) would be in play. But for now...
Officially scratch Aldon Smith off of the list.
If you could create a cast mold of the perfect cornerback, you would use PP7. He is 6'2" and 215lbs. He is bigger than some Division 1-A linebackers. The kid is fast, quick, and has terrific balls skills. PP7 can cover bigger receivers, he can run with them, and he will make plays in the running game. The negatives you hear about Pat are his less than impressive outings against players like Julio Jones and AJ Green. While these players are first-rounds talents at the WR position, you would like a cornerback who is selected with the first overall pick to be a world-beater. His return ability is elite, and only adds to his value. Oddly enough, PP7 the only player from this article whom the Panthers have met with to this point. Probably just a coincidence since he was the best player (according to the draft boards) at the Senior Bowl.
PP7 stays on the list.
An intriguing player. Most people will tell you that Prince is better technically than PP7, and I tend to agree. He is almost as big, but not as phycially impressive on the size, speed, and strength metric. Prince may be a better pure corner, but he offers less flexibility to a defense. I see him as more of a mid-first rounder, but since we are keeping one corner....
Let's keep Prince on the list for now.
Ladies and Gentleman. After much ado, one of these seven men will be selected by your Carolina Panthers with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft: (in alphabetical order)
Prince Amukamara, CB
Da'Quan Bowers, DE
Marcel Dareus, DT
Nick Fairley, DT
A.J. Green, WR
Cam Newton, QB
Patrick Peterson, CB
(But please, no trading down comments)