Will Cam Newton have more protection this year? via farm8.staticflickr.com
Recent mocks suggest the Carolina Panthers' draft flavors of the month are wide receivers or secondary help. Reasons include "Steve Smith is old," "Cam Newton needs more weapons," and "Chris Gamble is gone." All worthy justifications. But after watching the Panthers struggle over these last 2 years, the play of the wide receivers and secondary is hardly Carolina's biggest weakness; but rather, the play and depth of the lines. In this case, I argue for drafting linemen with the first two picks. Here is why.
The return on investment in the run game was poor in 2012, contributing to a lot of lost leads. via farm9.staticflickr.com
1) Close losses = poor running game and pass rush down the stretch
Anyone following the Panthers knows that the majority of the losses the past two years were a result of games they let slip away. The Panthers were not only in nearly every game, but they also led at the beginning or at the half of almost all losses. Why is that?
Quite frankly, it comes down to how to manage the game when leading. Rob Chudzinski seemed to have the magic ability to play call the beginning of a game to early success, but falter when he had the lead.
This is a direct result of a few things. One, the run game (though much of our salaries are dedicated to it) could not be depended on to "run out the clock" or shorten the game. Three and outs were frequent because of the inability to gain tough yards when the opposition knows when the Panthers would call a running play. This led to plenty of third and longs for Cam Newton, which is tough to convert for any quarterback, let alone a young one.
In turn, the three and outs really gassed our defensive line. Games where the D line was dominant early, (@CHI, @ATL) seemed to disappear at the end of the game. Why? They were on the field so long! Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy eventually lost their effectiveness as the game wore on. And let's not forget the other games (v. NYG, @PHI) where opposing "no name" running backs were able to gash through the defense.
The common denominator? We have a below average offensive and defensive lines. Yes, we have our share of stars (e.g., Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, Johnson, Hardy) but the depth behind is way below an NFL standard. With Newton running for his life more times than not, and running back after running back having career days, the team can use an infusion of talent on the line. It can be argued that aside from the stars, the other linemen would not be able to crack the starting lineups of the other teams in the NFC South.
Steve Smith and the WR corps had a good, not great, year. via farm9.staticflickr.com
2) The wide receivers and secondary are good enough to win!
Could these units be improved? Of course they can. But are they the main culprits for the losses over the last two years? Hardly.
Let's start with the wide receivers. In my opinion, it's a solid unit. Yes, Smith is older than we would like, but do not tell me he is no longer productive or capable of game breaking plays. He still commands double teams, inspires his teammates with his fiery play, and could score on any given reception. His "fantasy numbers" dropped off last year, but it was not because he "lost a step."
The rest of the receivers are more than enough weaponry for Cam Newton. Brandon LeFell has emerged in two ways: a dependable 3rd down receiver and huge YPC guy. Why is everyone always down on him? With an incredible TE in Greg Olsen, and the dangerous Ted Ginn, Jr., Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams, Armanti Edwards, and David Gettis, backing them up, is there really anything this draft has to offer in the position that we don't already have? I'll give you Tavon Austin as the only unique player out there, but everyone else is not THAT much better than out current wide receiver group.
The secondary is a little more understandable. We lost a Pro Bowl cornerback in Chris Gamble, and potentially another of our best in Captain Munnerlyn. To lose players from an already weak unit seems like more than enough reason to draft someone in the secondary!
While it is a area of an improvement, I do not think it is as necessary as the line. With Gamble out and Josh Norman benched, there seemed to be a rebirth in the position. James Dockery and Josh Thomas did an incredible job in the second half of the season, never giving up the big play, and at times, made game changing plays that did not show up in the box score (Thomas' stop of RG3 on 4th and goal). They did an admirable job.
If I could bolster the unit, I would start with a slot cornerback or safety to guard the TE's in our division. It appeared that in every division game the tight ends dominated (Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, and even Dallas Clark.).
Star Lotulelei could bring a mich needed upgrade to the defensive line, if available at pick #14. (Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE) via cdn2.sbnation.com
So I plead to the Panthers to draft linemen in the first two rounds of this draft. It also helps that this the best class in a while in regards to linemen. If I had any input, I would go with any of these combinations:
1st Round: Star Lotulelei/Shariff Floyd/Sheldon Richardson
2nd Round: Larry Warford/Terron Armstead
1st Round: Lane Johnson/Chance Warmack/Jonathan Cooper
2nd Round: Jesse Williams/Sylvester Williams/Kawann Short
They can use the other 3 picks for WR and secondary help. But drafting the "heavies" in the first two rounds will go a long way in correcting the real problems that caused so many losses these last two years.