NFL Intrigues: The Combine Edition

With all the flurry of mock drafts and posts coming up (and I gotta give props to all of you gunning for author -- I think I wound up completely missing out on it because I missed the email for three days after it arrived, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve been able to read and keep up with, and this will be my own little submission of sorts for everyone‘s perusal), I felt it was time to look at some possibilities with the coming combine. Depending on how that goes, we may see the Pro Day Edition come next, and then finally a Draft Edition to close out this prospective series. But enough of that talk, let’s get to the nitty-gritty after the jump...
This time last year, we were bombshelled with possibilities (or the perceived lack thereof, in certain respects). AJ Green, Patrick Peterson and Nick Fairley seemed to be leading the way to being a prospective #1 pick for the Panthers, with Von Miller, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Mallet hot on their heels. Yet, a lot of things changed between the announcement of Andrew Luck returning to school and the draft: Cam Newton not only appeared on the radar, but became a lock for the #1 pick in the process -- and like many now, I wouldn’t trade the Cam pick for anything in the world, not after how he electrified our offense in conjunction with Chud, Smitty, Shockey and the rest.

But that was last year. This year, we’re looking at a whole new crop of faces and names that could potentially fit the bill in some form or another: Morris Claiborne, Matt Kalil, Dre Kirkpatrick, Justin Blackmon, Michael Brockers, Brandon Thompson, Quinton Coples and more. Never mind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, since we aren’t shopping for quarterback. But we do have positions of need that could be filled, and we could possibly still see that happening in spite of losing the toss and getting the #9 pick, as it’s been reported earlier today. Additionally, there’s some free agent speculation going on, as well as off-season Panthers moves, and I’ll touch lightly on it as I go along: however, the main thrust of this article will be centered on the current draft class.

So, where’s the intrigue, you say? Let’s begin:

Quarterback: Okay, so I lied about quarterback not being important. But, the question still on people’s minds is where things will stand after the dust settles: it’s almost a given (not quite, but almost, depending on potential trade scenarios) that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III won’t make it out of the top three, if not the top two -- Indianapolis will get one of them, and some team (Cleveland being the most likely prospect, given their ammunition from last year’s killing on the Julio Jones trade) will get the other one in very short order. From there, it’s a combination of need and BPA that we have to navigate through in considering who might just fall to us come draft day, and those waters are murky. Never mind Ryan Tannehill’s name cropping up, and there’s really no telling what will happen: will another team take a chance on Tannehill and trade up? And how will that impact everyone’s board in terms of where they select?

As to the Panthers off-season, Derek Anderson is a free agent, and it’s currently anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll return for another year. Likewise, Jimmy Clausen’s name is back in the limelight, if only because he’s due an estimated $1.3-1.4 million, between his initial salary and a roster bonus that’s due at the end of March -- with Rivera’s insinuations for looking for another QB in the mold of Cam (more a dual-threat, really, since some will argue that there is no way of finding another version of Cam with his athleticism and skills), coupled with Clausen’s inactive status for virtually the entire 2011 NFL season, it looks more and more like Clausen will be cut in the off-season as a cap-saving measure in addition to making room for another backup QB.

Running Back: While it seems like adding another running back to a corps that has Double Trouble seems worrisome, especially given Jonathan Stewart’s penchant for being as much a receiving back as he is a ground-pounder, there is that possibility still for another addition. Mike Goodson being placed on injured reserve after being deactivated for more fumbling problems leaves him in limbo, and Coach Rivera’s already said he’d like to have a back in the Darren Sproles mold on the roster. The question is, what possibilities do we have? Do we look long and hard at the likes of LaMichael James out of Oregon? Or is this a “want” that we may have to hold off on? Only time will tell.

Wide Receiver: Justin Blackmon may be considered the #1 WR in the draft, but there’s other names to watch. Alshon Jeffery will be getting looked at long and hard to see about whether those rumored weight issues are true or not, and his numbers in the combine may very well influence his standing in the mock drafts leading up to his pro day performance. Another names to look for: Rueben Randle out of LSU, who’s trending upwards -- some see flashes of a new Smitty in the making with him. And the quarterback situation will impact us here in the first round: is there a chance Blackmon might just slip enough for us to nab him, or will we trade back (like James Hurney did in his mock draft) to get a potentially slipping Alshon Jeffery or a surging Rueben Randle?

For the Panthers, a lot of eyes are going to be on Gettis and LaFell, as well as Pilares and Armanti Edwards. Armanti in particular has a lot to prove to justify remaining on the roster aside from punt return duties and the prospect of being the third-string quarterback behind Newton and Anderson. This year might just be the last we see of Armanti Edwards in a Panthers jersey, unless Rivera comes out of nowhere with a decision to try and convert Armanti back to being quarterback again to save drafting another quarterback in Cam’s mold (so to speak) or finding one in free agency -- and at this point, two years into a QB-to-WR transition, the ship has likely sailed on this option.

Offensive Line: I’m merging this together with tackles and guards, admittedly, but here’s another intrigue for you. Matt Kalil, brother of Panthers center Ryan Kalil, is undoubtedly still the #1 consensus pick for the offensive line overall, at least right now. Yet recently, rumors have begun to swirl that Kalil might be passed over in favor of the likes of Riley Reiff, Jonathan Martin and even David DeCastro, depending on whether teams go with a mix of BPA and need, or favor need over BPA in the coming draft. Is this a sign that Matt Kalil will slip, or rather other teams taking it as a given that Kalil will round out the top three in the draft and looking at alternative possibilities? Likewise, watch for Mitchell Schwartz, another brother to Panthers offensive guard Geoff Schwartz -- while he was originally sitting at a third- or fourth-round draft selection, the Senior Bowl seriously bolstered Mitchell Schwartz’s stock, to where some mock drafts are seeing him fly off the boards as high as late first round to very early second round. Schwartz is someone to eye with the combine and coming pro day, to see whether he can capitalize on his Senior Bowl draft rise, or whether he’ll sink back down towards the original third-to-fourth round estimate that he was originally slated to see.

As for the Panthers themselves? We have a conundrum in Jeff Otah. Despite being a dominant presence when he’s on the line, Otah’s proven to be an inconsistent presence at best, due to his ongoing injury struggles; by and large, he’s spent more time in injured reserve than he has playing football. While many hope Otah will back in form and be dominant once again in 2012, I have concerns that the Panthers cannot count on him lasting an entire season; likewise, my concerns extend to whether Byron Bell can really handle being backup on the offensive line, given his performance in 2011. This makes the draft even more important: do we look harder at DeCastro, Martin and Reiff ourselves, or go on a wing and a prayer that Otah can actually hold up this year? And what about the prospect of finding a new tackle and moving Otah to guard? Will that help Otah, and more importantly, will it help the new tackle and/or Byron Bell?

Defensive Line: Like the offensive line, I’m merging tackles and ends here. Michael Brockers is the trendy choice here, after a rather monstrous season overall for LSU, but mock drafts have him anywhere from top-ten lock to late first round pick. Quinton Coples is also in the mix, with a lot of similarities to former Panther defensive end Julius Peppers being made, and not all of them good given his inconsistencies in alternately dominating one game, only to disappear the next -- the interviews and combine numbers will have a significant impact here, as will the pro day. And let’s not forget Devon Still from Penn State, Whitney Mercilus out of Illinois, Dontari Poe from Memphis and Courtney Upshaw from Alabama. However, there is another name that looks to be favorites for a possible Panthers pick outside the first round: Brandon Thompson out of Clemson seems to be the favorite for our second-round pick, at least for the time being.

As for the offseason -- we’re seeing some controversy (at least here on the blog) as to whether Hardy is really as good as we think he can be, or if we’ve overestimated him. Depending on how we handle the cuts and contract extensions/restructuring this off-season, though, there are free agent possibilities for defensive ends: namely, Mario Williams, who’s already been franchised once (last season), and is rumored to have a desire to return to the Carolinas and play for the Panthers. This particular intrigue will bear closer watching, but I am leery of the chances of managing to acquire Williams in the off-season, at least until we have a better idea of what cap-space we’re actually looking at having once the extensions and restructured deals are done.

Linebackers: Honestly, there’s not much really to look at here. Some people keep looking at the likes of Vontaze Burfict out of Arizona State, though some others (Pantherboy76 brought up this name, and I’ve seen it more than once) have looked more at Vinny Curry, a OLB/DE out of Marshall. There’s also Luke Kuechly out of Boston College who’s looked at as a sleeper pick -- at least, more attention has been paid to the likes of Burfict and Curry than Kuechly thus far. Most of the intrigue, however, centers around what will happen with our linebacker corps: Dan Connor has been given permission to test free agency, and it’s almost a sure bet at this point that if a team bites, he’ll be gone. That leaves us without a bona fide backup to Jon Beason. Also, Jordan Senn is up for free agency as well, unless we can give him another contract, and after his performance this past season, we’re likely going to be looking at giving him a bit more of a payout to keep him on the roster. And, of course, one can’t forget Thomas Davis, who’s fully intent on returning and is more than willing to restructure his contract in light of his third ACL tear in the last 2-3 years. How much will Davis be able to give at his position, and will it be enough?

Secondary: Cornerbacks and safeties both get packaged together here. In the draft. Morris Claiborne is being touted as the #1 consensus pick for the secondary overall. Dre Kirkpatrick took a hit recently with his marijuana possession charge, which has since been thrown out of court, but Dre-K has a road ahead of him with the combine, interviews and pro day to re-establish the competition with Claiborne to be the first cornerback taken in the draft. And then, there’s Chase Minnifield out of Virginia and Janoris Jenkins from the University of Northern Alabama (by way of the Florida Gators) who are aching for a chance to have the limelight as well. Look for George Iloka of Boise State, Antonio Allen from Georgia and Mark Barron out of Alabama to get some attention as well.

As for the Panthers themselves, we have a bit of a mess in the secondary: five cornerbacks, of which only Chris Gamble is a true #1 corner (and, I dare say, one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL right now) -- the rest, so far, haven’t shown signs of being the answer at #2 CB, and most of them would be better suited to the nickelback position anyway. Captain Munnerlyn’s got a lot to prove after his performance overall as the #2 corner, especially if we somehow manage to get Claiborne or even Kirkpatrick in the draft, and we still have yet to see just how good Brandon Hogan can be at the next level to see if he can be a #2, or better yet a #2 who can move to #1 when Gamble slows down. As for the safeties, I think most everything that can be said about their performance has been said. It’s a given that any acquisitions made in the draft will automatically be competing with Sherrod Martin for the starting job at free safety, and have a chance to take it outright. The big question now becomes whether Steve Wilks, the new secondary/passing defense coordinator, can breathe new life into a struggling Carolina secondary, and what he can do to improve it as well as help make Sean McDermott’s life easier as defensive coordinator.

Kicker/Punter: For all the bashing the CSR fanbase (and beyond) have given Olindo Mare for his misses at clutch moments and how awful a move it was to go to him over John Kasay (even though it did save us a roster spot to put elsewhere), I think it’s safe to say we’ll still have Mare on the roster for 2012. Jason Baker, however, has seen a rather precipitous decline in his performance this past season, and it may be time to start scoping out prospective kickers and punters for eventually replacing Baker. Don’t be surprised if the scouts pay attention to kickers/punters to acquire in the later rounds of the draft.

Special Teams: One thing that cannot be overstated at this point is that we will have to look long and hard at who can make an impact on special teams. If there’s one thing I can be critical of Ron Rivera’s first season, it’s how gutted special teams became, especially in the wake of losing Beason and Davis, as well as ultimately having to play people in both defense and special teams with little rest to try and compensate for what all we lost. I think Rivera will learn that lesson and take it to heart. With the return of Beason and Davis, there will be some help for a special teams unit that has been ailing for virtually the entire 2011 season -- and the acquisition of Richard Rodgers to assist Brian Murphy on special teams will hopefully further bolster the unit and bring them together. Certainly, the onus will be on Armanti Edwards to prove he has improved at punt return duties and that it was a breakdown of special teams that held him back, as well as see what Pilares will be able to do for the unit at kick return with a more experienced special teams unit.

Overall, I think the Carolina Panthers are definitely at a crossroads. Whether we focus on bolstering the defense and continuing with the offensive faces we’ve come to know and love (all over again, in some cases) from last year, or give Cam more weapons while also trying to rebuild elements of the defense, it’s definitely going to be an interesting ride to see what happens. I don’t think we can magically fix everything and replicate our two-year turnaround under John Fox that took us from a 1-15 season in 2001 to a Superbowl appearance and NFC championship in the 2003 season, though it’s a nice dream. Most likely, we’re looking at another year before we really become a true contender.

At any rate, I think we can just sit back and enjoy the ride, because the future’s so bright... I gotta wear shades.

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