Now that the Panthers 1-6, only the most diehard fans still think this season isn't over, so let's move on to something that still matters, the 2013 draft.
Let's start with the bad news for the off-season, the Panthers are over the likely salary cap, so the new GM will have his work cut out for him, re-working contracts to get under the salary cap, and create enough cap room to sign the draft picks.
However, the real crunch comes in 2014. The 2 big players to re-sign this off-season are RFA DT Andre Neblett, and URFA DT Dwan Edwards, both of their UT's. The Panthers got a bargain in Edwards, by signing him to a 1 year contract for only $1.5 million, so he will want a raise, but he will be 32 years old next season. Edwards has 26 tackles so far, 15 of them solo tackles, with 4.5 sacks (great for a DT), in 7 games so far. The Panthers have to re-sign him (the 2013 draft really doesn't have any good pass rushing DT's), because it's unlikely they will have the cap room to make a run at the Bears 26 year old DT Henry Melton (4.5 sacks, 7 sacks in 2011).
So the draft will be the Panthers route to filling their needs this off-season, along with signing some UDFA's (they may add a few players during the rest of this season, to replace injured players). However, the Panthers are currently without a 3rd (traded for the pick used to select DE Frank Alexander) and a likely 7th round pick (traded for WR Louis Murphy).
What are the Panthers Draft Needs & How Might Those Needs be Filled?
1. Talent & Depth - The Panthers have more major needs than they they have draft picks. I suggest the Panthers follow the Rams example from this years draft, trade back, and acquire more picks. The Rams traded their #2 pick to the Redskins, for their #6 and #39 picks, along with the Redskins 1st round picks in 2013 and 2014. This draft doesn't have and RG III, so the price will be lower, but the Panthers should be able to trade back a few spots, swaping 1st round picks, and gaining a 2nd round pick. The Rams then traded the Redskins #6 pick to the Cowboys, for their #14 and #45 picks. The Panthers are currently tied with the Jaguars and Chiefs for the fewest wins, with only 1 win each. The drafts top 3 players are Ohio State's NT Johnathan Hankins (6-3, 320, 4.85-5.32-40), Utah NT Star Lotulelei (6-3, 320, 4.90-5.15-40), and Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones (6-2, 242, 4.50-4.74-40), the drafts best pass rusher. However, teams needing a QB may draft QB's Geno Smith and Matt Barkley ahead of those defenders. In my mind, the Panthers would be far better off to trade down, and get 2 additional 2nd round picks (they might even get an extra 4th or 5th round pick and a 7th as well, but I won't count on it).
2. RG (Improved O-Line Play) - The poor play of the Panthers O-Line is killing the RB's production, and making Cam the most pressured QB in the NFL. The O-Line must be improved next year, and Ryan Kalil's return will help, but much more is needed. My siggestion is Alabama senior C (played OG his first 2 years, and LT as a junior) Barrett Jones (6-4, 305-311, 5.10-5.28-40), who's currently projected to go in the mid 20's (WalterFootball.com's Charlie Campbell - 28th, Walt's - 27th, NFLDraftScout.com's rankings - 25th, Robert Rang - 23, and Dane Brugler - 26th). Jones is great at both run and pass blocking. Jones would be an instant starter at RG, or LG, moving Amini Silatolu to RG, which would give Cam solid blindside protection. If Jones were to go before the Panthers pick (maybe to the Cowboys), then they could select RG's Dallas Thomas (6-5, 310, 5.08-5.15-40) of Tennessee, in the first half of the 2nd round, Larry Warford (6-3, 343, 5.31-5.34-40) of Kentucky, in the late 2nd round, or James Wilson (6-3, 315, 5.07-40) of Florida, in the 5th round.
3. Safety - The knock on FS Nakamura is that he's a special teams/backup S, trying to be a starter. The Panthers need a good starting S to pair with Godfrey, and my suggestion is Syracuse SS Shamako Thomas (5-10, 210, 4.39-40), in the 4th or 5th round. Thomas is currently projected as a mid 7th round pick (#229) by NFLDraftScout.com, but I feel if that 4.39-40 time proves out at the Combine, then he will shoot up to the 4th or low 5th round. WalterFootball.com said this about Thomas, "... loves to throw his body around ... seeks big hits ... plays too aggressive ... tough run defender ...". This is passing up all the "bigger names" at S (Eric Reid, T. J. McDonald, Kenny Vaccaro, Tony Jefferson, and Bacarri Rambo), that will go in the late 1st through 3rd round, but I just feel better about Thomas, and he's faster than all the other S's. If the Panthers miss out on Thomas, then they can try for Nevada's S Duke Williams (6-1, 200, 4.46-4.56-40) in the 5th round, or Faulkner College's (ex-Miami) SS Ray Ray Armstrong (6-3, 216, 4.59-40) as a UDFA. Armstrong was suspended by the NCAA, then transfered to Faulkner College, but the NAIA banned him as well, and NFLDraftScout.com ranks him as the #374 player.
4. CB - Maybe rookie Josh Norman holds onto the #2 CB job, and improves the rest of this season, but what if Chris Gamble is slow to recover from his injury? What ever happens, the Panthers need another good CB, and my choice is Washington's Desmond Trufant (6-0, 186, 4.42-4.49-40), in the 2nd round. Trufant currently ranks a low as #103 in NFLDraftScout.com rankings, and as high as #33 by WalterFootball.com's Charlie Campbell. They could also take NC State's CB David Amerson (6-2, 194, 4.46-4.59-40), in the early 2nd round (CC-24, walt's 37, and NFLDS 41), who had 13 ints in 2011, maybe moving him to FS, due to his lack of top speed.
5. NT - The current Panthers NT, Ron Edwards will be 34 years old next season, and Fua is his backup, enough said. They need to draft a NT early, but for once the Panthers got lucky, this may be the deapest class of NT's ever. NT's Star Lotulelei, Johnathan Hanksins, and Georgia's John Jenkins (6-3, 358, 5.40-5.55) are likely top 10-15 locks, followed by late 1st or 2nd round picks Louis Nix (6-5, 326, 4.99-5.55-40), a Notre Dame junior, Alabama's Jessie Williams (6-3, 320, 5.04-5.35-40), and UNC's Sylvester Williams (6-3, 320, 5.08-5.19-40). Then comes 3 juniors who might decide to remain in school for another year (because this years draft is so loaded at NT), but could be 3rd or 4th round picks, Georgia's Kwame Geathers (6-6, 355, 5.55-40), and Tennessee's Daniel McCullers (6-8, 377, 5.45-5.55-40), and Kentucky's Mister Cobble (6-0, 332, 5.35-40). Then 6th rounder Anthony Reshard-White (6-2, 330, 5.24-40) of Michigan St., followed by likely 7th rounders Brandon Williams (6-2, 328, 5.09-40) of Misouri Southern St., Florida State's Anthony McCloud (6-2, 318, 5.18-40), and Tennessee-Martin's Montori Hughes (6-3, 330, 5.12-5.35-40). My choice is UNC's Sylvester Williams, who's big enough to play NT in a 4-3 defense, and the only NT with a pass rush (he has 5 sacks so far this year), in the 2nd round (Walt - 29, CC - 40, and NFLDS - 82). If they miss out on Williams, then only of the 3 juniors, or Anthony Rashard-White in the 6th round will do. I would also like to see the Panthers sign Washington's Semisi Tokolahi (6-2, 340, 4.98-40) as a UDFA, NFLDS ranks him at #683, but that 4.98-40 speed at his size is like this years #11 pick NT Dontari Poe, so it's worth a shot.
6. TE - All 3 backup TE's will be FA's at the end of this season, and the Panthers may decide to replace all 3, with cheaper rookies. With the Panthers O-Line problems, they could really use another TE, for a 2 TE offense again. What type of TE (blocker or receiver) depends upon what the new GM and HC think of Practice Squad players TE Nelson Rosario (6-5 1/2, 225-230, 35 1/2 inch arms, 10 1/4 inch hands, a 4.62-40, "unofficially" a 4.55-40) and WR/TE Lamont Bryant (6-5 3/8, 225-229, 33 1/2 inch arms, 9 1/2 inch hands, 4.39-4.45-40, 1.50-10, 43 inch vertical, 6.78-3 cone drill). If they believe either of these players can be a receiving TE, who splits out, then they may only need to add a blocking TE. If that's the case, then my choice would be Michigan St. junior Dion Sims (6-5, 285, 4.76-4.80-40), if his 40 times hold up (it would be like having an extra OT on the line, and he can catch, 24 catches so far this year), as a late 2nd or early 3rd round pick. If they decide they need both a blocking and receiving TE, then my choice is Stanford junior Zach Ertz (6-6, 252, 4.61-4.79-40), in the mid 2nd round (Walt's - 53, CC - 58, and NFLDS - 118). If they miss out on these 2 TE's, then they could go for UCLA senior Joseph Fauria (6-7, 255, 4.69-4.82-40), in the 2nd or 3rd round (CC - 51 and NFLDS - 150).
7. A Pass Rushing UT - I feel it's best to re-sign URFA DT Dwan Edwards (4.5 sacks so far) and RFA DT Andre Niblett, because the 2013 draft doesn't have many DT's with a pass rush. In fact, I only see 2 pass rushing DT's so far, late 1st or early 2nd round picks, Purdue DT Kawann Short (6-3, 315, 5.05-5.15-40), and Misouri DT Sheldon Richardson (6-3, 295, 4.89-5.17-40). The Panthers could however try to sign NFLDraftScot.com's #337 player, Nebraska's DT/DE Blake Steinkuhler (6-5, 290, 4.92-4.98-40), as a UDFA.
8. OT - With Bell at RT, and Gross at LT, and Campbell as their backup, OT isn't an emergency, but they do need to soon find a replacement for Gross. They could select Virginia LT Oday Aboushi (6-6, 310, 5.09-5.23-40) in the 2nd round, or Florida LT Xavier Nixon (6-5, 292-314, 4.91-5.18-40) and Syracuse junior Justin Pugh (6-5, 298, 5.05-5.12-40) in the 4th round. However, my choice is Tanner Hawkinson (6-5, 300, 4.93-5.04-40) in the 6th round.
9. Backup DE / Backup 3-4 OLB - Antwan Applewhite will be a FA at the end of this season, with Greg Hardy a FA at the end of the 2013 season, so the Panthers may want to draft a backup DE. If so, my choice would be Virginia Tech's junior DE James Gayle (6-4, 268, 4.44-4.58-4.70-40), in the 3rd round (CC - 90, Walt's - 83, and NFLDS - 92).
10. WR - The Panthers need a future #1 WR, to replace Steve Smith, and a #2 WR until then (LaFell is good, but he's more of a #3 WR, because of his somewhat slow speed). They have all the smaller speed WR's they need (Smith, Pilares, Adams, and AE), and possibly big WR's with speed (Gettis, Murphy though he likely won't be re-signed, and Bryant) as well. So the Panthers only need to draft a WR if it's a sure #1 WR, with very good speed (around a 4.40-40). The only #1 WR's I see possibly in this draft are Cal. junior Keenan Allen (6-3, 210, 4.40-4.53-40) in the mid 1st round (CC - 15, Walt - 20, RR - 13, Brugler - 13, NFLDS - 14, and Russ Lande - 9), USC junior Robert Woods (6-1, 180-190, 4.40-4.47-40) in the 2nd half of the 1st round (CC - 29, Walt's - 23, RR - 26, Burgler - 14, and NFLDS - 23), and Clemson junior DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 200, 4.40-4.56-40) in the early 2nd round (CC - 42 and NFLDS - 46). I feel that OG Barrett Jones is a better fit for the Panthers in the 1st round, and that WR can wait until the 2014 draft.
Here again are my draft picks for the Panthers:
1st rd. - OG/C/OT Barrett Jones
2nd rd. - CB Desmond Trufont
2nd rd. - NT Sylvester Williams
2nd rd. - TE Zach Ertz
4th rd. - DE James Gayle
5th rd. - SS Shamako Thomas
6th rd. - OT Tanner Hawkinson
Checkout WalterFootball.com and NFLDraftScout.com to see other players at these positions, and offer your own draft suggestions.