Earlier today the National Football Post did their draft preview for the Carolina Panthers in which they identified the team's primary, secondary and tertiary priorities heading into April's draft. Not surprisingly they highlighted the desperate need for the organization to find a talent upgrade at the defensive tackle position, and to that end single out Michael Brockers and Dontari Poe.
It was the secondary priority that I found most interesting- the need at WR. Thus far we've seen the Panthers single out three positions in terms of their focus on prospects- DT, DE and WR. The receiver position is one that we haven't really spent enough time talking about, but the organization have invested as much time scouting the top prospects as any. They have already met with Justin Blackmon and Kendall Wright, while also seeing mid-level players at the position too. It's clear that the organization are looking for talent at the position, and for what it's worth Joe Person is resolute in his belief that if Justin Blackmon is on the board at the Panthers selection he will be the pick.
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Many fans detest the idea of looking for a WR this quickly, and rightfully so. There's a collective thought that the combination of late round WR gems, and a still flourishing Steve Smith diminishes the need at the position. This is further compounded by Brandon LaFell and David Gettis- both of whom have shown ability at the position. While those are perfectly salient arguments there is also a flip side; the vast majority of late round WRs do nothing in the NFL, most WRs start to slow up after 30 and LaFell and Gettis are still largely unknown quantities.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the time for the Panthers to find a receiver to take Steve Smith's place will be happening in the next 2-3 years. Even in the modern NFL with rules that aid receivers it still takes time for a WR to reach their potential (unless they're an aberration) so the front office will likely need to look at finding that player either in the 2012 or 2013 draft in order to allow them for a year to learn the offense and gel with Cam before being asked to be 'the guy'. Smitty still has a lot left in the tank, he showed that in 2011 but unfortunately he can't play forever.
Personally, I would hope they pass on the position in 2012 just to showcase Cam's ability for another season with Steve Smith. The ideal situation would be for a talented WR entering free agency to buy in to the Panthers' direction and be willing to come on the cheap, similarly to Mike Tolbert. While I don't pretend to know who that player is it's not outside the realm of possibility.
When it's all said and done maybe Joe Person is right. Perhaps the Panthers really are as enamored with Justin Blackmon as we all think, and based on current reports there's a good chance he could be available at the Panthers selection at #9; Mike Holmgren has apparently said he's not in favor of burning his #4 pick on a WR, and I can't imagine Jeff Fisher being the kind of coach to take a WR in the top 10. However, with the Mike Tolbert signing we saw a willingness from the Panthers to keep the strengths strong and give ample amounts of talent to one position, maybe WR will be next.