2013 NFL draft: A year for safety and scheme versatility?

Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

With no guarantees on coaching or scheme in 2013, should the Carolina Panthers play this one safe?

There isn't much Carolina Panthers' fans can agree on when it comes to the NFL draft, but I think everyone would be of the consensus that the 2010 class was an unmitigated disaster. Greg Hardy and Brandon LaFell ease the pain, but there's little coincident that they were the easiest players to plug in to any offense or defense. With no guarantees about Ron Rivera's future, this isn't the year to gamble on developmental prospects, or players with very specific uses.

Dave Gettleman has been extremely complimentary of Rivera publicly. He's talked about how tough the team was down the stretch, the improvements they made from the early season, and how the coaching staff contended with injuries. Despite this praise, it's impossible to imagine Gettleman will retain Carolina's head coach if the team puts forth a third-straight losing season, and with a bevy of connections around the league it wont be hard to find 'his guy'.

Drafting for a possible scenario is a poor strategy. Teams need to look to win now, but only Dave Gettleman knows how much rope Ron Rivera has. If it's so little that a losing streak early could prompt a mid-season firing, then the sensible path to the draft will be to take players who can thrive in any system, work for any coach, and require little tutelage or guidance at the next level. Not every coaching staff is successful at nurturing talent, just as not every head coach is good at managing decisions in game.

Marty Hurney stared down the barrel of this question in 2010, and ultimately made the wrong decision. In this draft 'sticking to his board' meant ignoring his lame duck head coach, and selecting multiple players who could have NFL success, but only in very specific circumstances.

Firmly entrenched in the minority, I still believe Jimmy Clausen can become an effective NFL game manager. In a league where Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart have gotten multiple chances, and David Carr remains a backup -- it's hard to believe Clausen couldn't find a home somewhere. That being said, drafting a QB without a great arm, who needed to learn pocket awareness was a recipe for disaster when paired with a head coach on a one-year loan.

Since it's become clear that Armanti Edwards isn't part of the long-term plans at WR, he was stuck in a bad situation too. As constructed, the Panthers have become size-driven under Rivera, and it appears to continue with Gettleman. They want big, physical players -- Edwards is neither, and needed to learn the position (almost) from scratch. There hasn't been the time, or resources to develop him with bigger fish to fry in the organization.

Eric Norwood was impossible to plug in anything but a 3-4 defense, David Gettis needed to learn route running, and God only knows what the plan was with Tony Pike. The island of misfit quarterbacks in 2010 ultimately bore Cam Newton arriving in Carolina, but they still wasted two draft picks.

Fast-forward to 2013 and now the Panthers have a similar decision. Should they adhere strictly to the board, even if it means taking players who may not jive with a new head coach, or continue to draft for Rivera's team -- hoping everything gets put together?

To this end there are a few players on offense and defense who could fit any coach's system, and other who are very specific. Guys like DeAndre Hopkins can play in anything, but Tavon Austin will require a very specialized offense to support him, while Justin Hunter needs a coaching staff willing to put the time in to develop him. On the other wise of the ball, the top cornerbacks only need NFL instruction, but it will take someone with an eye for defensive creativity to use someone like Tyrann Mathieu or Jarvis Jones.

It's shortsighted to think if the draft plays out being safe and flexible that it's a sign Ron Rivera is on his last chance, but it could behoove the team to ignore specificity in favor of guys who can plug into the team right now, or who can translate to any scheme -- no matter who the coach is in 2014.

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