My Two Cents: On The Panthers' 2012 Draft Strategy

So, it's been awhile since I chimed in here at Cat Scratch Reader. Life has kept me busy. But, everytime the NFL Draft rolls around, my thoughts turn to all the ways in which I hope the Panthers' front office will address the needs on the Carolina roster. I've read many of the quality articles and suppositions here. I've checked out various mock drafts from different sources. And, I've listened to any number of pundits on NFL Network, ESPN, and WFNZ radio here in Charlotte. From all of that, I've come to my own stategy for how I'd like to see the Panthers approach the #9 pick in the 1st well as some general thoughts on which positions they should address in the rounds that follow. If you're interested in my two cents on the subject, I'll get into it...after the jump...

Where it concerns the 9th pick in the 1st round, I think the Panthers should adhere to the following strategy:

1) Trade Back - Carolina can still get a decent DT or CB by trading further back in the 1st round with a team who wants to jump ahead and pick up a player who drops beyond where they were proejcted to go. In addition, this move should net the Panthers an extra pick in the 2nd and/or 3rd round. And, we could actually use those even more than the 9th pick in this year's draft, because we've got a LOT of holes on defense to plug. The more quality players we can grab in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd rounds, the better. Those are usually the prospects who can help your roster the most.

2) Draft a DT - Really, if you can't trade back from #9, go for the BPA at the DT position as rated by your film-watching scouts. Rivera is already on record saying he wants an impact player, not a developmental prospect or someone who'd potentially sit behind our starters. He needs his 1st round pick to play. As such, I don't think it makes sense to go LB here. As much as Kuechly looks like he'll be available at #9, you've got to figure that either Beason or Davis (and possibly both) will make it back from their injuries. You've already got James Anderson and Jordan Senn who can round out the rest of the 1st string LB'ers. And, if one of them goes down during the year, you should still be able to pick up some serviceable guys from waivers or take one of our smaller DEs (like Norwood, etc.) and still play your scheme. So, why DT? Because the Panthers' Achilles' heel right now is stuffing the run and generating a push up the middle as a disruptive force in pass-rushing situations. Someone like Fletcher Cox, Dontari Poe, or even Michael Brockers (in that order of preference) should be capable of occupying blockers so our existing LB'ers can flow to the ball. And, in passing situations, if our DT prospect can bring pressure up the middle, it'll make both our DEs and our existing secondary that much better. By targeting a productive DT, you help the rest of our problem areas on defense. The secondary plays better. The LBs don't get caught up in the wash of blockers at the second level in the running game. And the DEs can take more risks on the edge in rushing the QB. This is why drafting from the inside-out makes the most sense when you're building a defensive unit. You start with the core and work your way back.

3) Draft a CB - Arguably, if you can't find a DT worthy of the #9 pick (i.e., because someone else already grabbed the better ones), you again seek to trade back. But, failing that, you take the best available CB on your draft board. If by some weird twist of fate, Morris Claiborne falls to #9, take him. If you think Stephon Gilmore is equally as good or better, take him. Sadly, these guys can only cover one side of the field for you. But, paired with Chris Gamble (and with Brandon Hogan playing nickel and Munnerlyn in the dime), you'll be pretty formidable despite the inability to upgrade the interior D-line with your first round pick. Meanwhile, the Panthers very next priority after using their 1st round pick on a CB should be to target the best available DT in the second round (i.e., maybe a Devon Still kind of guy). Or, dare I say it, look to trade back into the bottom of the 1st round and go after a DT like Brockers or Poe if a lot of teams pass on them. So why CB? Well, if you can't upgrade the DT, at least you can upgrade your coverage unit to buy your pass-rushers more time. Honestly, this is a bit of a toss-up between drafting a CB or a DE, because both can help you in equal measure in this regard. So, option #3 here and option #4 which follows, are really more like #3a and #3b in my mind. I'd be happy either way.

4) Draft a DE - If you can't trade back, and you can't find a DT or CB worthy of the #9 pick, go ahead and add a DE. This is likely Quinton Coples territory, as I don't think Melvin Ingram's profile fits our scheme very well and I'm not excited about any other DEs this high. Besides, we've already got some guys on the roster with roughly the same size/build/skillset as Ingram. But, if you take Coples, bear in mind that he'll be more of a developmental prospect. He doesn't come without risk. But, much like Cam Newton last year, he comes with a pretty high ceiling. The question is whether he can reach it under the tutelage of Rivera's coaching staff. The potential beauty of adding Coples to the Panthers defense is that he could be an every down player (provided he doesn't take plays off like some other former Carolina DEs). He could even slide inside to play DT on 3rd and long, generating enough havoc with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy at the end-positions that it should upgrade the Panthers pass-rush across the board. But again, that's only IF Coples plays his heart out.

5) Draft a WR or OG/OT - If you can't trade back, and you don't like any of the defensive options as much as an offensive player who becomes available to you because he drops way further than he was projected, go ahead and upgrade the WR2 or OG/OT position. Personally, I like Michael Floyd a little better here than Justin Blackmon. And, I don't think Blackmon will be there at #9. The same may be true for Floyd. Most people I've heard from don't like the idea of drafting a WR this high. None of the current crop are Megatron-quality in this year's draft. So, you're not going to get THAT much of a game changer here. And, much like CBs, a WR can only help you so much. He's one guy running one route. When you look at the Panther offense as a whole, however, you begin to realize that they're loaded at just about everything except the WR2 and OG/OT spot. They've got their franchise QB. They've got two all-world RBs. They've got a young, dynamic TE. They've got a Pro Bowl WR1. And, they've got a pretty good O-line as long as it stays healthy. Sure, we could use more depth there, but, honestly, we could use a much stronger starting WR2 a bit more. That might be David Gettis returning from injury. Or, it might be the emerging Brandon LaFell. Or, it could be the #9 pick in this year's draft. Making the offense stronger begins to turn Carolina into a "catch us if you can" team. The strategy in most games would become "outscore the other team by getting more possessions than they do." In that recasting, the Panthers defense doesn't have to be the top-rated unit in the league (though their numbers would become very inflated if the Panthers' offense dominated time of possession or amassed a big enough lead to make a team one-dimensional). Instead, they just have to be opportunistic and force turnovers. Same deal with the special teams. This kind of strategy can work. It's just more risky and nail-biting. But, it's made less so as you continue to use future draft picks and free agency to improve your defense. This model might not vault the Panthers into a Superbowl contender this year...or even into the playoffs. But, it could lay a serious foundation for doing so next year. And that would come in only Rivera's third season as head coach. Not too shabby if they decide to go this route.

So, what do I think will REALLY happen? The Panthers will either trade back or take a DT who can contribute right away. Then, they'll use their second round pick to address CB, LB, DE, or the WR2 position...and they'll keep working from there for the rest of Day 2 and Day 3. I expect somewhere in the mid-rounds, they'll probably take a BPA for the offense. Probably some O-line depth. Probably some LB insurance. And maybe even another TE if there's value on some prospect who's still on their draft board. Everyone else will be late round and compensatory picks spent on training camp bodies and longshots to see how much competition can be created to push the other guys on the team (e.g., at the safety position, special teams, etc.). All in all, I actually like where the Panthers pick this year. I also like the amount of talent available on defense, especially with how much the stars have aligned so the teams picking ahead of us will be focusing on offensive needs. That frees us up to take the top-rated defensive player for at least one of our positions of need. We just have to trust Hurney, Rivera, and our scouts to identify who that is. Considering the due-diligence they demonstrated on Cam Newton last year, I'd say we're in pretty good hands.

But that's just my two cents,


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