As the debate and discussion continues over who is worthy of our first-round pick, another thought has stood out to me. Injuries at key positions have become a huge factor in determining our perceived needs in this year's draft. Injuries are a major part of every NFL season, and nearly every team has to go through a period of time missing a key player due to injury.
Though the effects of injuries to the Panthers seems obvious overall, I wish to examine how injuries will have a deeper effect on our draft than what meets the eye...
In a perfect world, this year we would have found out exactly what we have in David Gettis. Is he a legitimate #2 WR who can replace Smitty as the #1 one day, or do we need to look for another? If he did not appear to be the answer, this year would be ideal because we could trade back to draft Michael Floyd or Kendall Wright to add to Cam's arsenal. Instead, because of an ACL tear in training camp, we have to wait until Gettis's third year to find out what we really have. I personally have high hopes for the Newton-Gettis connection next year, as Gettis seems to be an ideal receiver for our vertical offense. Cam airs it out, Gettis runs it down, Touchdown Panthers! Unfortunately due to injury, these projections can only be based on faith and speculation, and not on performance after 2 years of experience.
I doubt Ron Edwards would have been our savior, but I believe the defense would have been a lot different if he had not missed the entire season due to a torn triceps. A solid season from Edwards, or improved play from the rookies being able to play next to Edwards could have easily changed our evaluations and perceptions of the DT position. Edwards being healthy would have also allowed McClain and Fua a chance to develop more naturally instead of being thrown to the proverbial wolves. Now because of the lackluster performance from the DT position and questions about the development of the two rookies, Michael Brockers dominates draft discussions despite two third round picks being invested into the position last year.
The most obvious issue is on the weakside with Thomas Davis missing significant time again this year after a third ACL tear. As a result, the serious consideration for using a high draft pick to cover his position is warranted. In a perfect world, our former 1st round draft pick would have had several good years left in him. Now our draft board has to take into account the reoccurring freak injuries to Davis.
Jon Beason's ruptured Achilles should not be an issue as far as him playing next season, but there should be a viable option backing him up just in case. In recent seasons Dan Connor filled this role admirably, but it is very likely that another team will make him an offer in free agency that we simply cannot match. Because of the injury risk Beason carries, the front office may need to consider drafting a potential back-up plan at MLB if Conner leaves. To make matters worse, even our corps of reserve linebackers was hit hard by injury. This makes it slightly more difficult to evaluate O. Gaither, J. Phillips, T. Williams, and J. Williams to decide their effectiveness and future in their respective back-up roles. Again, this may be something on the backs of the Panther's minds during the later rounds of the draft.
A chance was taken last year on drafting an injured Brandon Hogan because we knew the starting corner spot opposite Gamble was going to be hazy. Unfortunately as expected, the recovery from his torn ACL kept Hogan on the PUP list for most of the season. We got a glimpse of him at the end of the year, but not nearly enough to be certain of his potential as a starter. In a perfect world, Hogan would have been able to have played in a few more games this season. Some solid starts from Hogan would have certainly slowed the speculation of us taking Dre Kirkpatrick with our first-round pick. Again our draft board has potentially been affected by injury, even an injury that did not occur while that player was a Panther.
Lastly and maybe most importantly, we consider how injury has affected the right tackle position. In 2008 we gave up our second and a fourth-round picks and a first-round pick the following year to jump back into the first round and select Otah. In a perfect world, our first round investment at tackle should have allowed us to be "set" at that position for the next 10 years. Now after 4 years, despite being dominate when healthy, Otah has struggled to play a full season because of various injuries. Despite our relatively recent investment, an injury issue has forced us to give serious consideration to addressing this position again early on in the draft. Cam's protection is vital in order for our vertical offense to be successful.
All teams face injuries, and I would not go as far to say that the Panthers have been affected worse than any other NFL team. However, the total effect injuries have had on our potential draft is astounding. Several high draft picks that should have been productive for a long time may need to be replaced. Fortunately we have a good chance this year to find some good players to fill these potential holes. However, instead of being able to make some "luxury picks", the holes in the team caused by injuries may force us to make more "need picks" instead.