The oft-cliched adage states that it takes three years to be able to fully evaluate a draft class. While this may be true in some cases, not all classes are created equal. After all, it hardly took three years to work out Everette Brown was a disaster, or that Jimmy Clausen wasn't all he was cracked up to be. Just over 18-months ago the Carolina Panthers took part in their touchstone 2011 draft-- the first of Ron Rivera's tenure in Carolina. Now we are looking back on the class, and seeing if the selections were all promised.
Cam Newton, QB (1.1)
Despite recent cooling on Newton and his ability, make no mistake-- he's a franchise quarterback. Sure there are reports looking to compare the Panthers QB to Vince Young, and any other overly-emotional, failed quarterback, but they're not accurate, nor fair.
The truth about Cam Newton? He's a QB in his early twenties, who despite making us believe Carolina's rise to prominence would happen sooner, rather than later, it was Cam who told us that development would be more like collard greens, not instant grits. He still has a lot to learn, as all young QBs do, but mechanically, talent wise, and ability he has all the trappings of a 15-year franchise QB, he's just in a funk right now.
Terrell McClain, DT (3.65)
In the Panthers' draft class there was not a more desperate move than selecting McClain at the top of the third round. A selection that reeked of fear, not confidence, Carolina simply settled for the next best defensive tackle on the board, rather than adhering to any semblance of best player available. For what it's worth, I had the BPA at the time as Justin Houston, the defensive end/linebacker out of Georgia. Houston was selected five picks later, and has 11.5 sacks as an 3-4 OLB for Kansas City over those two years.
On film McClain had a good bull rush, and looked to keep his feet busy, however it seems that apathy and laziness were his calling cards in the NFL-- two things this coaching staff will not settle for.
Sione Fua, DT (3.97)
On paper this should have worked perfectly-- grab your pass rushing under tackle 32 picks before, then add your nose tackle of the future with the compensatory pick received from losing Julius Peppers. So far that has been an abject failure. The Carolina Panthers (and myself, for that matter) do see sparks from Sione Fua, but it's impossible to argue this pick has been worth it so far. Flirting with inactivity each week, he has not developed as hoped from year one to now.
Perhaps with time to learn from Ron and Dwan Edwards this will change, but right now it's hard to argue that this pick was the right one.
Brandon Hogan, CB (4.98)
This was another of those picks that made infinite sense on paper. Hogan was a corner with 2nd-3rd round talent, sitting at the top of the 4th round-- how could a team in need of a CB pass that up? The Panthers took the bait, and it seemed this would be a move that wouldn't have immediate implications, but over time would prove to be one of the most important selections in the draft.
While it still may prove that with time and healing the decision to take an injured Brandon Hogan made sense, right now at 1-4 it was the wrong move.
Kealoha Pilares, WR (5.132)
A wider scouting net, paired with fresh blood in the front office brought the diminutive WR from Hawaii to Charlotte. Early he garnered unfair comparisons to Steve Smith, setting the bar higher than anyone could reasonably match. However, the game hasn't been too big for Pilares, and while he's still trying to find his ground as a kick returner, he appears to be the kind of offensive x-factor who makes a difference when he touches the ball.
At this point fifth round picks are mostly misses, and only very rarely do you hit on one. Pilares may not have been a homerun, but the flashes he's shown makes him a solid double.
Lawrence Wilson, LB (6.166)
A talented player who became a cautionary tale for the Carolina Panthers. Wilson had moments in preseason, and training camp where it looked like he could develop into a solid special-teamer, but when he was arrested outside of Charlotte for possession or marijuana that killed any chance of him having a future head. First-time coaches need to make statements, and cutting Wilson was a statement.
Zack Williams, C/G (6.203)
Williams remains on the team... that's something, right? In training camp this year he had some positive moments as the third-team center, but overall being couched behind Ryan Kalil makes his future in Carolina difficult to project. Zack Williams certainly has the size and ability needed to play right guard, but he needs to really work on his technique. Perhaps another year of seasoning on the practice squad will help this, or maybe he'll be a camp casualty in ten months.
Lee Ziemba, OT (7.244)
Currently on injured reserve, Ziemba had a really nice training camp from what I saw. Obviously the Panthers see something too, electing to place Cam Newton's former left tackle on IR, rather than cutting him outright. The problem with him is trying to project a true position-- Lee doesn't quite have the athleticism to play offensive tackle, or the base to play offensive guard. He's a true jack of all trades, master of none who reminds me a lot in his play-style of Geoff Schwartz, but with considerable less experience to show his ability. His future position may be at offensive guard, provided he can recover, get strong and improve his technique.
2011 as a whole
Newton is enough of a hit to justify the entire draft class, but the lack of production from the remaining six picks is staggering, and terrifying. This was the last draft under the old guard of scouts, and now Don Gregory's new team who were responsible for the 2012 class look to have made a lot better selections.
First and second round picks make highlights, third-through-seventh round picks win football games. The lack of depth is why the Panthers have struggled, and this is due to lackluster late rounds dating back to 2009. Thankfully this looks to be on the upswing.
2011 class grade: C-