Again, there is no guessing who the Panthers take in April. But I can pick some guys who would make sense, and provide some insight into why the team should consider them. At the very least, it gives us guys to keep an eye on as the college season clears the half-way point.
We know we need the fix the offense for the long-term. But the debate rages as to which is more important: the offensive line or the skilled positions? My answer is both. I've seen Calvin Johnson carry a team with a bad offensive line. And I've seen Matt Ryan and Eli Manning struggle behind a bad offensive line despite great wideouts. Your offensive line allows you to be functional and consistent, while your skilled positions allow you to be dynamic. Right now we are neither, though we eventually want to become both. So I say take the best player available at either position of need. Split the baby. Taking strictly BPA gives you good players, but can leave you with holes at spots of critical need (like the crap offensive line we have now). Then eventually you can be put in a situation where you are forced to reach for need. Take Jerry Reese and the Giants: He ignored their offensive line for so long that he was forced to reach on Justin Pugh...ending up with a lower tier player that still didn't fill his need.
Round 1: Cameron Erving, OT Florida State (6-6, 320)
So with that in mind, my early board would start with Jake Matthews, Mike Evans, then Sammy Watkins. And it's likely that all three could be gone by the time we pick. As of now, I'm starting to like Erving as the next LT prospect, above Taylor Lewan and Kouandjio. He's big, he's athletic, and I believe he's been more consistent than some of the OT's "ranked" ahead of him. The biggest thing working against him is experience. He just converted to LT from DT last year, and started every game at LT for the 2012 season (with Raiders 2nd round pick Melinik Watson at RT). So this is just his second full season at the position. But his work at LT has been solid, and his length plus movement ability could cause him to shoot up boards come April, like Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson did last year. In the first-round you would want an LT who could match-up well against premier athletic NFL DE's. I say get Cam to protect Cam.
Round 2: Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi St. (6-4, 340)
Just like last year, put a stamp on this year's draft and turn a weakness into a strength. Jackson has had a stellar career in the SEC against many quality DTs. He overpowers opposing lineman in the run game, and is great in pass protection as well (he didn't give up a sack all of last year). Getting him in the second round would be a coup. With two or three slightly more versatile guards possibly going ahead of him (Cyril Richardson, David Yankey, and Xavier Su'a-Filo all have experience at LT too), it's not out of the realm of possibility for him to last until the second. Plus we know Gettleman likes 'em big. Gabe has the body of an NFL right guard, and would likely project there. But his experience is four years of playing LG. Silatolu could easily miss the start of the 2014 season. Jackson is likely good enough to start at either guard position for game one, wherever the Panthers need him most. He would boost both our ability to run the football and our interior pass protection in a single pick.
Round 3: Odell Beckham, Jr, WR, LSU (6-0, 193)
Fans should be excited about this year's crop of wideouts. Not only because of who's at the top, but because of it's depth. Out of Brandon Coleman, Kasen Williams, Donte Moncrief, Allen Robinson, Paul Richardson, Devante Parker, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham, Jr, at least ONE should be available in the 3rd round. And that one could easily be the BPA out of what's left on the board. As of now, I think either junior wideout from LSU be a crown jewel. After wanting him here a few weeks ago, I'll admit that it appears Beckham and Landry may go much earlier if they decide to declare (which I think is likely). Peradventure Odell falls because of his size. I'd say get him here, and profit from another slightly under-sized, but explosive and play-making WR. If not, then I think several of the above could work nicely.
Round 4: Kony Ealy, DE Missouri (6-5, 275)
I can't speak for how much losing Greg Hardy will specifically affect the Panthers. But I will say this...If the Panthers can't consistently rush the passer, the defense is in a heap of trouble. I like the idea of rotating Alexander, Addison, and Horton (not sure how much Rivera likes Alexander though), but the Panthers are almost forced to take a stud DE if he's available. Ealy has previously had most of the fanfare, but being out-produced by teammate Micheal Sam could cause him to slip some. Ealy is a redshirt junior who actually considered coming out last year, but decided to return to school to improve his stock. Even though his sack stats aren't high (3.5 in 2012, 2 so far this year), he has been good at disrupting the pocket. His measureables make him an instant target for the Panthers. He puts his wingspan to good use by batting down several balls (7 in 2012, 5 so far this year), and was named SEC Defensive lineman of the week in September after a big pick 6. Plus his coaches comparing him to Aldon Smith isn't a bad thing.
Round 5: CJ Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa (6-7, 265)
Cam seemed at his best in 2011 when the Panthers ran 12 personnel groupings (two TE sets). The balanced look kept opposing defenses guessing, improved the running game, improved pass protection, and gave Cam a safety valve on pass plays. But alas in typical Panther fashion, we went away from what worked.
Hartsock is a liability because he never touches the ball. He's a blocker only (and yes, the other teams know this too). CJ is more like a true tight end before tight-ends became over-sized hybrid WRs. He can block, he can get you tough yards over the middle, and he can be a threat in the red zone. He could provide a great balance opposite Olsen to do the dirty work, and be an offensive upgrade over Hartsock. Plus Cam gets a red zone weapon and safety valve. Iowa is under-utilizing him this year, so perhaps the drop in production allows him to fall far enough for the Panthers to catch him here.
Round 6: Daryl Williams, OT Oklahoma (6-6, 321)
(from Giants for Beason)
I'm not sure where this pick will fall, but losing Beason shouldn't be in vain. The Panthers have gone to Oklahoma to find men in the trenches before (Frank Alexander). Now they could get a right tackle who can finally compete with Byron Bell and stabilize the right side of the offensive line. He was an all Big 12 honorable mention last year, despite missing the last few games of the season due to a knee injury. If you pull up tape on Lane Johnson from last year, you can see #79 on the right side doing his thing. Even in the Texas blow out this year, he held up well when I watched him. It almost seemed like the DE going against him started to shut it down since he couldn't make headway. As a red-shirt junior it's no sure thing that Williams declares. But if he does, he should be on our radar.
Round 6: Bennett Jackson, CB Notre Dame (6-0, 195)
Sometimes corners who are solid but not splashy fall in the draft. Jackson has had a very solid career at Notre Dame. His career interceptions won't wow you (5), but he did start this year's season with a pick 6 to seal a game. He also forced a key fumble in the win over Arizona State. He's instinctive enough to anticipate the routes of opposing CB's, and adjust accordingly. In some games, it appeared as if the opposing QB avoided throwing his direction. He is also able to play some solid man-to-man coverage. His coaches like the senior's work ethic and vocality, and Bryan Kelly made him a captain this year. He has racked up a solid amount of special teams plays as well, and could assist the Panthers in that purpose early on. The Panthers need to invest at least one pick into the secondary in this year's draft...a CB, a safety, or both.
Alfred Blue, RB LSU (6-2, 220)
He's a big back that was hurt last year, and is losing touches this year to the dynamic Jeremy Hill. We could use another power back, so give him a shot.
Prince Shembo, OLB, Notre Dame (6-2, 258)
He played rush linebacker and DE for the Irish, and we could use him as a pass rushing wildcard (7.5 sacks last year, 3 so far this year). However he has some serious questions to answer about a rape case that could potentially cause him to go undrafted. He was cleared of wrong doing, but his accuser committed suicide as well. The Panthers tend to stay away from character issue guys, but Coach Kelly loves his work ethic and made him a captain this season. I say he could still be on our radar as an UDFA since he is a Charlotte native. His situation could definitely provide a lot of debate during the draft process.