This presumes that the Panthers decide not to trade Greg Hardy. If they do, all bets are off (if for no reason other than the Panthers would have to use a major personnel move to replace Hardy in the starting lineup, which is a big reason why I am not a huge fan of trading him ... had Frank Alexander shown more this season maybe I would feel otherwise).
With that caveat in place, I really do think that the Panthers should go OT and CB with their first 2 picks as those are the biggest needs on the team. Even if the Panthers are able to convince Jordan Gross to remain, he won't play for more than 2 more years. Since the Panthers won't be able to get a guy who can start at LT immediately in the draft because those guys go in the top 10 picks (unless they trade Greg Hardy for such a pick that is ... and if Gross decides to hang it up they will pretty much have to I guess) they will need to draft an athletic OT at #28 who can start at RT today and move to LT in a couple of years when Gross retires. Waiting until the bottom of the 2nd for a guy who can make the team better as an opening day rookie at RT and ultimately move to LT is asking a whole lot. You could just get a guy in the 2nd or 3rd to play RT only with no plan to move him to LT, but that would just be kicking the can on the LT problem down the road.
Next, for all the talk about WRs, we have to realize that the Panthers have almost no one in the secondary under contract for next season. Quintin Mikell, Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn are all UFA. Josh Thomas won't be back, and the team appears to have given up on Josh Norman. Colin Jones: special teams. So in terms of guys who may actually play coming back we are basically looking at Charles Godfrey returning from injury and a couple of 2nd year UDFAs in Melvin White and Robert Lester. As it is fair to say that Steve Smith and Greg Olsen are better at catching passes than anyone the Panthers will have returning in the secondary will be at defending them, DB is as big a need as WR. I will put it another way: the Panthers can bring back LaFell and Ginn for the veteran minimum and be almost as good at WR as they were last year (gotta factor in Steve Smith declining and pretty much not count on LaFell improving that much). But piecing together a secondary with 1 year minimum guys the 2nd year in a row - with Munnerlyn as the #1 CB again - is just too much. However, bring back Mitchell, get Godfrey back, hit on a 2nd round pick as one starting CB, see if Melvin White can lock down the other starting CB spot and play Munnerlyn against the slot and the Panthers would almost have a good NFL secondary.
So WR? Address that in round 3 and round 4 with Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood. Richardson probably could have used another year to get stronger (only 175 lbs. on a 6'1" frame) and is coming off a serious knee injury that cost him all of 2012, but the guy caught 83 passes and made first team All-Pac 12 on a terrible team. There is little justification for being so much higher on Brandin Cooks (whose team only won 2 more games this year than did Colorado) than Richardson, especially when Cooks' superior stats were due in large part to having a much better QB (Sean Mannion, who could be a 1st round pick with a big year in 2014) getting him the ball. Colorado also played a pro-style offense while Richardson was there, albeit badly. Richardson has been been given a 2nd round grade, but with his injury history and the boatload of WRs coming out this year, the guy is going to drop.
The Panthers should fill out their WR roster with Kevin Norwood, who should be available at the bottom of the 4th round when the Panthers draft. Norwood didn't put up big statistics (38 catches for 568 yards and 7 TDs), but that was because of Alabama's offensive system, where they only threw the ball 336 times but still for some reason spread the ball around so much that they had 8 guys with more than 100 receiving yards (the Panthers by comparison only had 6). Remember: even Julio Jones didn't reach 1200 yards or 8 TDs in Alabama's system, and in his first 2 seasons didn't reach 1000 yards or 5 TDs. Here is his scouting profile from DraftPanthers.com: "Kevin Norwood is a well rounded wide receiver prospect that does everything fairly well. He is a solid route runner, has very good hands and makes good adjustments to the ball. Norwood’s long speed isn’t the best but his acceleration is up there with the top receiver prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft. Norwood should be able to stick in the NFL as a move-the-chains receiver."
We should add to that writeup that Norwood has good size (6'2", 195), decent speed (runs about 4.5 in the 40) played 4 years in a pro-style offense that heavily featured a power running attack, which means that Norwood's adaptation to the Panthers' scheme - including doing things like blocking - would be much easier and quicker than it would be for the products of spread or pass-happy offenses. Now if that doesn't blow you away ... honestly it isn't intended to. But considering that the Panthers will be selecting from the bottom of each round now instead of near the top (a decent problem to have) it is all about finding guys who can stick on a roster and contribute. It is safe to presume that all the guys that are perceived to be better than Norwood will be long gone.
Neither guy may light up the NFL next year, but both may help fix what was the Panthers' 2nd biggest problem on offense last season: an extremely thin - and beyond Smith and Olsen one dimensional - group of pass catchers that really limited what the Panthers were able to throw at teams last season. Yes, there was a lack of creativity, but it was primarily caused by a lack of personnel needed to be creative, as the Panthers only had 6 guys that were ever real threats to catch the ball, and 4 of them were 1-dimensional (LaFell, Ginn, Williams, Tolbert) in that they were really limited in the number of ways they could make plays in the passing game and defenses knew it. So, adding a couple more guys with size who can go over the middle and play the ball in the air - one very productive for a bad team and one underutilized for a great one - might open things up. So even though Norwood in particular might not be a world-beater, if his presence allows the Panthers to do things like - gasp! - line up with an empty backfield and Cam Newton can either get the ball out quickly or run a QB draw based on the pre-snap read then that is the kind of guy that the Panthers need to look for in the middle rounds. Kevin Norwood or Martavis Bryant? Worth thinking about.
Still not sold on Norwood, at least not before Round 6 (he is considered a 7th round prospect by NFL Draft Scout)? Well how about door #3: Bruce Ellington. Ellington wasn't a world beater, at least until the bowl game against Wisconsin's hapless secondary. But he was a good solid performer: 89 catches for 1375 yards and 15 TDs. Similar to Norwood he may be a diamond in the rough, as South Carolina didn't exactly have Philip Rivers throwing the football. Plus Alshon Jeffrey, Ace Sanders and Marcus Lattimore leaving early for the NFL in consecutive seasons left Ellington as the guy that everyone was focusing on. Another thing: Ellington wasn't primarily focusing on football during his Gamecocks' career as his true goal was to become a starting NBA point guard. But to his credit he realized that it wasn't going to happen and is now focusing on football. Ellington is only 5'9", but he is also nearly 200 lbs. He is also returned kickoffs for South Carolina, but he wasn't dominant in that role. Still, despite his small size, he was willing to go over the middle and make tough catches, as well as make plays on the ball in the air. He is considered to be a 3rd to 4th round pick, and considering the depth of WRs in this draft unless he blows up the predraft process he should be available for the Panthers in the 4th round. Ellington isn't another Steve Smith, but could he be another T. Y. Hilton? The Panthers should be willing to roll the dice to find out. Bruce Ellington or Martavis Bryant? I would take Ellington any day of the week, as Bryant put up lesser stats while playing in a much more talented spread offense against less capable defenses. In a thread about Bryant this week, I suggested that the test for any big WR should be if you would still be interested in the guy if he were 4 inches shorter; if not don't draft him. Well Ellington is 8 inches shorter than Bryant and was a much better player, not just a better player this year than Bryant was this year, but a better player LAST YEAR than Bryant was this year. (Not saying that the Panthers shouldn't take Bryant AT ALL ... they did get a 7th round pick in the trade for Beason after all. So if Bryant is there in the 7th, or even the 6th or maybe even the 5th ... have at it. But no higher than the 5th.)
There you go, 3 guys that the Panthers should consider in the middle rounds that could really improve the passing game, especially if the Panthers get a RT to give Newton more time to throw the football and help them actually exploit the talents of Double Trouble in the running game. (Speaking of the OL, does anyone think that Byron Bell could be in the mix at OG if Silatolu/Kugbila/Garry Williams/Jeff Byers don't wow anyone? Just saying, if he was able to start for 3 years at RT, maybe he can help the team at OG. Just something to think about.)