2014 NFL Draft: Is it time for the Panthers to pull a big move and take Sammy Watkins?

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Slow and steady has been the Dave Gettleman model, but is it time to swing for the fences?

The Carolina Panthers have holes, there's no questioning it. Needs at offensive tackle, wide receiver and defensive back loom large but selecting 28th creates a situation where any player would require a leap of faith, all options are risky and this team needs sure things. The idea of pulling an Atlanta Falcons-like trade will cause some to bristle, but there might be a player at a need position who's worth it.

Vestiges of the Marty Hurney era have made Panthers fans naturally fear trades, and rightfully so -- but when the right player arrives there are times it makes sense. There's one thing the top five teams in the draft have a chance to do, draft Sammy Watkins, the problem? None of them can afford to take a top wide receiver.

Everyone has their personal preferences, but Watkins has long been regarded as the next "great one," a wide receiver with a possibility to lift the play of the offense around him. That's a characteristic few have, guys like Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and Julio Jones immediately come to mind. Greg Cosell of NFL films sees the same thing, believing he's every bit as good as those aforementioned elite receivers.

"To me, there is no debate here. I think Sammy Watkins, based on what I've seen, is the best receiver in this draft," Cosell told the Midday 180 radio show in Nashville (8:40 mark). "And I think you can make the argument that he's the best wide receiver to come out since the A.J. Green, Julio Jones 2011 draft. I mean, he's got size, speed, hands, shiftiness, explosion. I think Sammy Watkins is hands down the best receiver in this draft."

This is no faint praise if you understand Cosell's body of work. He typically skews towards sensibility and cautiousness over pejoratives, so to hear him praise Watkins effusively turns heads.

There is little doubt Watkins is the complete package. He has decent size for the position, great speed and natural route running, the perfect player to have on the roster for a season as a No. 2 before transitioning him into Steve Smith's top receiver role. Make no mistake, the situation at wide receiver is dire. Carolina must find a replacement for Smith, and the odds of getting that at the 28th pick are next to none.

Don't believe it? You probably should. Take a look at the last 10 years of wide receivers taking between picks 25 and 32.

Year Player Team
2004 Michael Jenkins Falcons
2004 Rashaun Woods


2005 Roddy White Falcons
2006 Santonio Holmes Steelers
2007 Robert Meachem Saints
2007 Anthony Gonzalez Colts
2009 Hakeem Nicks Giants
2009 Kenny Britt Titans
2011 Jonathan Baldwin Chiefs
2012 A.J. Jenkins 49ers

Note: 2013 is omitted because it's too early to evaluate, but DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson were selected.

Do you like this list of names? Because that's who you're likely to see the Panthers able to take with the 28th overall pick if they take a wide receiver. Forget "gut feelings" or scouting, because all these guys were studied, vetted and had someone bang the table for them. The only hands-down No. 1 receiver on the list is Roddy White, while a lesser argument could be made for Hakeem Nicks and Santonio Holmes.

Enter Watkins, a supposed sure thing. Now compare the above list with the players taken in the top five picks at wide receiver over the same time span.

Year Name Team
2004 Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals
2005 Braylon Edwards Browns
2007 Calvin Johnson Lions
2011 A.J. Green Bengals
2012 Justin Blackmon Jaguars

Three home run hits and two misses, both of which came from two of the NFL's most dysfunctional franchises at the time they were selected. To put it in simple math, 60-percent of receivers taken in the top five picks went on to be franchise players and lock No. 1 receivers, 10-percent of receivers taken 25-32 did the same.

There's this belief that every time a trade is made a team is "throwing away" a pick, without understanding that keeping that initial selection and risking it on a player is a wasted pick anyway. If you execute a deal and it works, then you made the right decision, miss and it's disastrous.

It's unlikely the Panthers would find a beneficial trade like Atlanta did in 2011. The Browns were, for lack of a better term, suckers. It was clear the Falcons were a playoff team, meaning the picks they received in exchange would all be at the latter part of the draft. This helped turn Julio Jones into Phil Taylor and Brandon Weeden... yeah.

Let's imagine for a second that the Falcons didn't execute the trade. They would hold onto their pick and almost certainly take Gabe Carimi at offensive tackle -- a bust. However, let's imagine they took the best wide receiver available, then addressed their need at interior offensive line in 2012 (which they did in the second round of that draft).

The result is a two-draft result of Jonathan Baldwin and David DeCastro, nothing special, nothing to write home about. Instead they got one of the best young receivers in the league. Critics will try and pin the Falcons problems on this trade, citing that's why they struggled last year -- but it's not true. A lack of depth and aging players is what caused the team to struggle, not a handful of traded picks.

There are no guarantees in the NFL draft, but if you can reduce your risks you should. It's easy to say the Panthers can't afford to lose picks, but far more damaging would be to take the wrong receiver and realize it in two years when Steve Smith is done.

The best teams don't always hold all their picks for a rainy day, they pick their spots. Making a huge move to acquire Watkins would cost the Panthers a better part of two drafts, but it might be time to go all in.

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