Why Take A Defensive Tackle In The First When The Offensive Line Is So Bad? It Is Still Their Biggest Need!

Al Messerschmidt

This was asked as a comment/question response to my Why The Panthers Need To Focus On Both Lines In The Draft fanpost and it is a very good one. My response was so long that I decided to make it into another fanpost.

Now in my opinion, the Panthers are better off at DL than at OL. At DE they are quite good with Greg Hardy (24 years old) and Charles Johnson (28), who combined for 33.5 sacks last year, plus Frank Alexander has potential as a backup. DT is another story, but Dwan Edwards is a quality starter and Sione Fua will be a good rotation/depth guy once a frontline caliber DT is added.

By contrast, at OL you have Jordan Gross, who honestly may not be on the team after 2013 due to age (32) and salary issues. There is also Ryan Kalil. Yes he is a great center and is 28, but it is far better for the Panthers to be very good at center for $25 million than great at $49 million (difference: $4 million a year!) which is something that Hurney didn't know but Gettleman surely does, and will certainly act accordingly as soon as the $18 million signing bonus that Kalil got in 2011 allows him to. Yes, Kalil has restructured his contract, but he is still due $17.5 million in base salary in 2014, 2015 and 2016 in addition to however the $10 million in signing bonus money that he will get in 2013 will carry over. And those are the two proven players.

Now paying Kalil and the tailbacks all that money might be justified (not very wise, but still justified) if the result was the best between the tackles running game in the NFL. But you aren't going to have that with Geoff Hangartner - a guy that not even the Bills wanted even for a mere $2 million a year - and Amini Silatolu at the guard spots. (Granted, Silatolu might improve, but is he a LG or a RT? At this point no one knows, which is why the Panthers should have gone for more proven major college talent, especially since they could have traded down and still gotten a guy like Ben Jones - who started 12 games, including 2 playoff games, at RG for the Texans - in the 3rd and picked up another 4th round pick. Yes folks, Hurney is gone for a reason). And despite all the good things that can be said about Byron Bell, no one should want an undrafted free agent with 2 years under his belt as their starting RT, especially if he is going to be playing next to Hangartner at RG.

So yes, OL is a mess, and can become even more so if A) salary cap realities force their hands on Gross and Kalil and B) Silatolu becomes the last Marty Hurney second round fiasco. So then, why not use the #14 pick on the best OT prospect on the board and add multiple DLs later? Simple. In retaining the coaching staff and both RBs, the Panthers are in a "win now" mode (albeit with making the playoffs being the immediate goal instead of a Super Bowl) rather than rebuilding. Gross and Kalil - and the 3 tailbacks that they will block for - will in fact be on the team next year. Add that to the fact that the Panthers can't give up on Silatolu quite yet, and it means that OL (whether RT or RG) isn't their biggest need right now. It is their biggest need in terms of the future and depth, which is why they honestly should use their 2nd rounder on a guy to start next year and their 4th rounder on a guy who will ultimately replace Kalil should he become a salary cap casualty or Silatolu should he not pan out. No sense trying to find the next starting LT in the 4th round ... it would be better to just go with a rookie 1st or 2nd rounder that you get in the 2013 draft or even a free agent should you be forced to let Gross walk.

Also, this is another reason why DT is the biggest need. Basically, the Panthers were a middle-of-the-road team on both sides of the ball last year. On offense, a major reason for that was - let's face it - a 2nd year QB going through his sophomore slump. Meanwhile, the defense was a mostly veteran unit and they still had problems to the point where a rookie that a lot of guys felt was drafted 10-15 spots too high wound up being their best player. Also, if you look at this offseason, the defense has lost Chris Gamble, James Anderson and Ron Edwards. Even though the added depth in the secondary will help, it is difficult to claim that they are better on that side of the ball than they were in 2012 at this point. Meanwhile, the only player that the Panthers lost on offense was Louis Murphy, who was replaced by better players in Hixon and even Ted Ginn when you add in his special teams impact.

So unlike the offense, the defense needs a big time addition in order to be better than the unit that finished #17 in scoring defense in 2012. And even that is a bit misleading. While the stats say that the Panthers' defense was better than the Browns and Jets and a little behind the Cardinals, but when you consider how much less those teams got from their QBs and offenses than the Panthers did, then you realize that their defenses were better than the Panthers' also. I will throw the Chiefs in also ... no way they give up 26 points a game if they didn't have the #32 scoring offense in the NFL. By the way, the Cardinals were #31 and the Jets were #28. The Jets, Cardinals, Chiefs, Browns and Rams all had similar defensive numbers to the Panthers despite scoring 3 to 9 fewer points per game. Add it all up, and as many problems as Cam Newton and the offense had last season, the defense was just as bad, and after losing Gamble, Anderson and Edwards they're worse still!

I say that the best scenario for the Panthers would be to trade down from #14 to where they can still get NT Johnathan Hankins of Ohio State, who was originally rated as a top 15 pick - but now seems to have surpassed in the ridiculous offseason process by guys who weren't as consistent, had better players around them or just aren't as good - and pick up a 3rd or even 2nd round pick. Why? With Johnson, Hardy and Edwards also on the DL plus all those great LBs, the Panthers really don't "need" another guy who poses a true pass-rushing threat like Star Lotulelei or Sheldon Richardson. A huge pocket collapser and run stopper who can free the other guys is all they need. That being said, they still need to remain in position where they can do better for their starting DT than Jesse Williams and Sylvester Williams, and as Hankins offers similar athleticism to both despite being bigger and stronger (with NFL strength/conditioning Hankins can get to 350 lbs without losing much speed/quickness) he certainly qualifies. But if the Panthers can't trade down and still get a true difference-maker at DT, then staying at #14 and taking Lotulelei or Richardson and winding up with one of the best front 7s of any 4-3 team in the NFL is fine.

What does that leave them with at OL in the 2nd round? Sadly they won't be in position to get D.J. Fluker, whose stock is rising, but say that they can get a Menelik Watson of FSU or Kyle Long of Oregon at RT. (Sorry Terron Armstead fans, but Silatolu is enough for players with no major college experience on the OL for now.) That allows them to move Bell to from RT to LG, shift Silatolu to RG and transform Hangartner from being a liability as a starter to being an asset as a backup.

An alternative? Trading out of the 2nd round to pick up a 3rd and a 4th round pick, or preferably both 3rd rounders of a team that has them. That would allow them to consider a trio of former SEC prospects at RT in Xavier Nixon (Florida), Dallas Thomas (Tennessee) and particularly Chris Faulk (LSU) who would be a 1st round prospect were it not for an injury. ACC partisans may prefer Oday Aboushi of UVa instead. The extra pick could be used to get a developmental interior OL like C Khaled Holmes of USC or Larry Warford of Kentucky in case Silatolu never develops or Kalil has to be jettisoned for salary cap purposes. Even if they don't pick up an extra 3rd or 4th round pick, their existing 4th round pick should go to those purposes. If they do get an extra pick, it should go towards a developmental DE, as Charles Johnson also has a huge contract and Greg Hardy is in the final year of his contract also.

What about WR or CB? As for WR, I will be honest, Da'Rick Rogers, who was kicked out of Tennessee for off-the-field problems is a real talent, and if he is available in the 4th round, or in the 3rd if the Panthers trade down, they should take him as Steve Smith's heir apparent. Otherwise, the odds of finding a WR in the 3rd or 4th round that is likely to supplant Hixon (2 NFL seasons with nearly 600 yards), LaFell (468, 611 and 677 yards the past 3 years), and/or Ginn (who did average 40 receptions a year for Miami) are small. Want WRs of the future? That would mean giving up on Joe Adams and particularly David Gettis, who has size and speed but just needs to stay healthy, at least a year too early. The Panthers don't have a great WR group, but they have one that is good enough for now, especially if Steve Smith stays healthy and keeps producing. When it is time to look for Smitty's replacement, that should come with a 1st round pick in the draft, or as a free agent making $5-$6 million a year when Gettleman finishes dealing with the Kalil type contracts. CB? More of the same. Though a CB with more size would be nice, don't expect a 4th rounder - or even a 3rd rounder should the Panthers be able to get back into that round - to come in and beat out veterans like Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore, Captain Munnerlyn etc. for playing time. Another Josh Norman would be as good as it would likely get in a down year for CBs.

They could improve their safety situation with a 3rd or 4th rounder, however. Haruki Nakamura now has the contract of a special teamer, and that is likely to be Mike Mitchell's role also. The Panthers could chose to let one of the CBs that they acquired play safety - especially if it is Drayton Florence - but if they were to pick someone up at that position in the 4th round that wouldn't be horrible. Neither would be picking up a 2nd TE to try to recapture what they had in Cam Newton's rookie year with Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey (and possibly to ultimately replace Olsen, whose contract balloons to $5 million a year in 2014). The 4th round - or an additional 3rd rounder obtained via a trade down - would also be a good spot for a developmental DE as Charles Johnson has a big contract and Greg Hardy will want one very shortly. Basically, the Panthers need a lot of help, both starters and depth, and this is why they have gone 2-14, 6-10 and 7-9 in the last 3 seasons.

But the areas of biggest need are at RT and DT. And DT - specifically the nose tackle/nose guard/over tackle or whatever the Panthers call it in their scheme - is the biggest single need. If the Panthers feel that they can get Kalil's contract down to a reasonable number, can hold onto Jordan Gross for at least 3 more years and have a higher opinion of Silatolu than I do (or if they feel that at least two of those will work out) then maybe using picks 2 and 4 on offensive linemen is a bit of overkill.

So, a mock draft:

1. DT (Hankins if they can trade down, Richardson if they can't ... I honestly believe Lotulelei will be gone.)

2. RT (Watson or Long)

4. I say C Khaled Holmes of USC. For 2013, he may well beat out Silatolu for an OG spot. For 2014 and beyond, he would be a very capable option at center for far less than the $17.5 in base salary alone than Kalil would get. Play Kalil and Holmes in 2014, release Kalil in 2015, move him to center and give Silatolu another shot at OG, and in 2016 you will have Kalil's contract totally off the books, his replacement a veteran, and you will know whether Silatolu is a player or should be replaced in the starting lineup by then. It is a "win now" AND "build for the future" pick.

But for those who honestly disagree ... then get the best safety (since Charles Godfrey can play both strong and free safety) available.

5. Interior OL depth (sorry, a polished guy without elite natural ability who can contribute right away, not a developmental player) if you took a safety in round 4, best safety available (ditto, polish over potential) if you didn't.

6. DL who can play both under tackle and DE.

7. If they can't fill this need earlier then a favorite player of mine, TE/H-back Levine Toilolo of Stanford. If he is not available, then the best safety available.

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