15-day milestone alert: Let's discuss this year's draft class

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Every year I'm met with the realization of how dumb this process really is. I've been enamored with it, nonetheless, since I was 7 years old (the TD year). Fandom itself is quite inexplicable, yet my obsession has developed from simply pulling for the Panthers in a pre-season bout with the Giants in 2004 from the nosebleeds as a 6 year-old to evaluating NFL Draft prospects and projecting their respective fits, not only as Panthers, but as members of the other 31 squads in the NFL.

As we close in on Draft night, I'll digress from questioning our collective sanity and spew some thoughts I've gathered over the past several months regarding this year's class.

Best Player in the Class

The correlation between a team's ability to rush the passer and a team's overall success is nothing to harp on nor scoff at. While it doesn't guarantee success (i.e. Minnesota), getting after the QB is absolutely imperative; Vic Beasley of Clemson can do so in a variety of ways.

Vic's frame certainly isn't ideal but the relative lack of length is compensated for by not only elite burst off the snap but a very dynamic first step that is complemented with speed to run the arc and exceptional bend. Vic has a filthy swim and spin move and plays with ideal leverage when bull-rushing. As a run-defender, size and slightly un-refined hand-usage limits him a bit, but he's very instinctive and consistently works to get in to position, clogging holes and setting the edge. When dropping in to coverage, Beasley displays impressive fluidity and change of direction skills and is very sound above the shoulders.

He'll be an absolute terror in the league. Jacksonville has no reason to pass on him with the 3rd overall pick. If they do, let us hope he doesn't land in the hands of Tom Dimitroff in Atlanta.

Strongest Position Group

It's the same story as last year. It's another strong group of receivers, both in terms of top-tier talent and overall depth. There are 6 receivers in this class I could make a case for going in the 1st round. While it might not be in the 1st Round, I do believe the Panthers can find their #2 receiver in this draft in day 2 or even day 3.

Higher on - DeVante Parker, Louisville & Chris Conley, Georgia.

Parker's frame, release, pure speed, leaping ability, body control, and reliable hands simply translate. I can understand why people prefer Amari Cooper but I believe Parker is the best receiver in this class because of his rare foundational skillset. Clean up his propensity to waste movement at the top of his routes and he has top-10 receiver potential. He won't make it past Houston with the 16th pick but I don't believe there's any reason he should last that long to begin with.

Conley's opportunities in Athens were limited due to execrable quarterback play and playing in an extremely run-heavy offense that featured two of the best running backs in college football, yet he still managed adequate production. Boasting prototypical size, Conley's an athletic specimen, recording a 45" vertical (highest vertical leap of any prospect this season), 11'7" broad jump, and 4.35 40 yard-dash time. As a football player, there's plenty to like as well. His length, leaping ability, flexibility, and body control, like Parker, is exceptional and should allow him to be a terror to cover in contested situations on Sundays. As a route runner, I'd like to see more overall effort beyond the line of scrimmage in terms of dropping his hips at the top of his routes to maximize the explosiveness out of his breaks we all know he's capable of. He also has a habit to pull up on routes -- simply failing to finish them much like Kelvin Benjamin. He also needs to work on his hand-fighting technique to prevent stronger lengthier corners from re-directing him. Despite an immense catch radius, Conley tends to struggle with concentration drops. Knowing that we cannot guarantee prospects are going to turn weaknesses in to strengths, we must look at what Conley already offers which is plenty and worth gambling on mid-late day 2. Early on, he be a threat to blow the top off of a secondary on any given play and to Moss any corner in the league in jump-ball situations. With some refinement as a route-runner and improved hands, Conley could be a WR1 in the NFL. If the Panthers could snag him in the late 5th, it would prove to be one of the steals of the draft.

Lower on - Jaelen Strong, Arizona State

To quote an Irishman I've indirectly learned a ton from, Cian Fahey who writes for Bleacher Report and Rotoworld among other sites:

"What's most concerning with Strong is the variety and consistency of his failures at the catch point. Despite the rare standout play where he makes a reception on a pass that is above his shoulders, he doesn't have good ball skills.

His catch radius doesn't extend around his body. He struggles to locate the football early. He doesn't always track it through to his hands. He more often than not drifts away from the ball or waits for it, affording the covering defender the first opportunity to play the football."

Fahey hits the nail on the head in his assessment of Strong. Despite having absolute bunnies, I don't see Strong being the same big play threat he was on Saturdays in Tempe as he will on Sundays in the NFL. Aside from his technical inconsistencies in contested situations, Strong's quite average in terms of quickness, agility, and suddenness and it shows in his routes along with stiff hips and sheer faineance. Strong struggled to consistently create separation at the college level, and should continue to do so, even more so in the NFL.

With his speed, bounce, hands, and age, Strong likely goes early. I've seen him mocked as high as 10th to St. Louis. He's certainly in the running for the Panthers' 25th selection; however, I value him as a late 3rd round player. His facial hair, on the other hand is impeccable. Elite 'stache.

Most 'Underrated' Player in the Class

Today's NFL is amidst a drought at the safety position, and is especially lacking in 'center-fielder' type free safeties. Like I clarified when discussing pass rushers, having a great, rangy free safety does not directly correlate to success, and unlike pass rushers, you can win games without one but having a player that can play back in single-high looks and cover a ton of space can compensate the shortcomings of any defensive positional group on any given play. Look no further than the most previous Super Bowl match-up to find the 2 best in the league in Earl Thomas III of Seattle and Devin McCourty of New England -- in a tier of their own. While I don't project Eric Rowe to be a Thomas, McCourty, or even Jairus Byrd caliber player, I do think he's the best safety prospect in this class.

Rowe has collegiate experience starting at FS, SS, and LCB where he was slated for the majority of his senior year. While I think Rowe can be a fine press cover corner at the next level and is a nice fit for the Panthers at that position, I think you maximize his value at free safety, ideally in Tampa 2 but doesn't lack the range to play back in single-high. Rowe reads the quarterback well but this skill is augmented by uncanny instincts, reactionary quickness, and pure speed -- he's always around the football and has a knack for combatting pass-catchers in contested situations, winning with arm length, upper body strength, and the ball hawk mentality I covet in a safety. As a run-defender, he's prone to taking poor angles. At corner he showed the propensity to commit inside and allow big gains outside which is a weakness that can be avoided by sticking him at safety. Rowe can shed blocks and is a sound & sure tackler.

I value Eric Rowe as an early 2nd round free safety; however, in a weak class, I'd heavily advocate him being the pick at 25 without knowing how highly NFL teams value him. From what I've read, he could go as low as the 3rd or 4th round. If the Panthers could get him there, you can come find me on cloud nine.

Best Player at the Greatest Position of Need

It's no secret that the Panthers offensive tackles sucked in 2014, and despite a few additions, suck today. Considering we entered week 1 of 2014 with Byron Bell and Nate Chandler as starters at left and right tackle respectively, Mike Remmers, Michael Oher, and Jonathan Martin is a relatively refreshing group to enter the Draft with; however, we are still without a viable left tackle on the roster and despite the baffling opinions of some, we have an extremely rare talent at Quarterback, yet the efforts to provide him with serviceable edge protectors have been quite pitiful -- borderline non-existent. A damn shame, frankly. I will say I believe we're set on the interior. Ryan Kalil is aging but is still one of the best centers in the NFL. To say Andrew Norwell was a pleasant surprise as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2014 would be a massive understatement -- he looks like a long-term starter at left guard. I still have a hard time understanding how Trai Turner fell to us in the back end of the 3rd round last year. He's a potential all-pro at right guard. His former teammate is a special player as well. The Panthers are a La'el Collins away from being Super Bowl contenders. I firmly believe that.

La'el Collins is the best offensive tackle prospect in this class without much of a contest. As a pass-protector, the first thing that stands out is his undeviatingly sound technique, in terms of footwork, hand-placement, and proper base. He simply does not get beat one-on-one despite consistently being matched with the best pass rushers each team he faced had to offer. Collins is a plus-athlete with extraordinary balance and projects to be a solid pass-protector in the NFL. My lone qualm with him in that regard is while he usually exemplifies acceptable patience, he has a slight tendency to punch too early which can lead to whiffs, and hence, over-extensions, a very correctible issue. As a run-blocker, La'el will display some 'wow' plays, for example, pancaking 3 defenders in a single play against Ole Miss. La'el is a very mean man, always attacking targets with perfect leverage and rolling his hips through contact.

La'el is the consensus top tackle amongst us fans; however, it seems as if NFL teams aren't as high on him and even some may actually prefer Andrus Peat, T.J. Clemmings, Ereck Flowers, and D.J. Humphries to him. I'm not going to pretend to have sources besides following people who actually do on twitter. Also, especially this time of year, the talking heads of "Big Draft" such as Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay, and Mike Mayock begin to compose their mock drafts, big boards, and positional rankings based on what they're hearing from team scouts and execs. Based on the second-hand information I've gathered, I'd refrain from saying it's out of the realm of possibility for La'el Collins to be there for the taking at 25. If it were me in Gettleman's s position, I'd promptly give Philadelphia a call to discuss what they would take in exhange for the 20th pick to possibly steal him from Cincy as soon as he fell past San Diego. I'd place cash bets against Gettleman doing such a thing, though.

Like I said, the addition of La'el Collins would take this team to the next level. Let the position battle play out at RT because he's ready to start at LT week 1.

Some Realistic Options at 25 I'd Advocate

-La'el Collins, OT, LSU

Day 1 starter at Left Tackle with All-Pro potential. Should be towards the top of Carolina's board.

-Marcus Peters, CB, Washington

A press cover corner with remarkable ball skills. Character concerns could easily initiate a Draft night slip. Top-5 corner potential.

-Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

A rare RB talent. If injury concerns and positional value allows him to slide to 25, he should and would likely be the pick.

-Owa Odighizuwa, DL, UCLA

A versatile edge rusher whose stiff hips are compensated for with length, strength, and polished hand usage. A terrorizing power rusher who can win inside and out. Injury concerns may allow a top-10 talent in this class to land in Gettleman's lap.

-Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon

Nimble feet, ideal length, and fundamental refinement. A franchise LT caliber player.

-Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington

Reminiscent of the player Marty Hurney selected with the 14th pick in the draft that spurred my interest in the process. Shaq's a rangy player with a nose for the football and viable playing speed. Immediately he's a player you'd likely have to focus on finding a role for, perhaps similarly to how TD was used in his rookie season, and long-term could be his eventual replacement. Potential high-quality starter at WLB.

-Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State

To quote a phrase coined by one Panther fan Josh Norris, it's about "where he wins" and to reference a number crunched by another Panther fan who's doing incredible work on 'Backyard Banter' with "Reception Perception", Matt Harmon, Devin Smith recorded a SRVC rate (success rate versus coverage) of 90.5% when running the 9 route in the 5 games he charted. That is just absolutely absurd and proved to be un-matched by any other receiver in Matt's charting. Dev's a deep threat that can consistently win vertically and either track over his shoulder or win at the catch point if necessary. Very compatible with a QB with the arm talent that Cam possesses. He's a player that should be higher on Carolina's board than he's generally valued. Devin Smith makes a ton of sense in the back end of the first round.


Big Boards are dumb. But whatever. For me, I'm simply ranking players according to projected success at respective position. This is not team-specific nor is it a value board, meaning positional value does not impact said rankings whatsoever. For example: Todd Gurley is my #2 overall player and Jameis Winston is 13th. Let me know which players' ranking you disagree with the most and/or agree with the most so we can discuss.!149&authkey=!AP83qBqJNNLDMDw

The positional rankings are color-coded to denote how highly I value players.!153&authkey=!AGpZ_foZE70Z6z4

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