After the 2015 offseason wrapped up, it appeared the Panthers had some glaring weaknesses in their roster. The team was deep at some positions, while appearing thin at others. It's never good when you don't know who will be starting at key positions going in either. In the draft, Dave Gettleman went "Best Player Available" with his first pick, while trading up to acquire guys at positions of need. The last two picks were compensatory picks that could not be traded, so Gettleman drafted players at positions that were pretty deep already, going with a running back and linebacker. Let's take a look at how the draft shook down following all 16 games.
Bill Voth of BBR kept a running snap count all season for the rookies, so I also used that for reference.
Shaq Thompson-25th overall pick, 1st round
Most analysts weren't sure what position Thompson was going to play in the NFL, but the Panthers figured it out pretty quickly early on. The original plan with Shaq was for him to split time with AJ Klein, who had a good camp and seems to be a legitimate starter on just about any other 4-3 defense. However, with Kuechly going down with a concussion in week one, AJ Klein took over at middle linebacker and the Panthers got an extended look at Shaq for the first four games, averaging about 40 snaps per game. In those games, he often played alongside Thomas Davis in nickel packages and played weakside in base packages, where he logged 20 total tackles and a sack. After that, Thompson was inactive due to an injury and it seemed the Panthers eased him back onto the field, as he didn't break 20 snaps until week 13 against New Orleans. In his last four games, he totaled 20 total tackles and a pass deflection.
Throughout the season, Shaq Thompson made an impact both defense and special teams, making the kind of hits that make you cringe and showing excellent form tackling technique. It's clear that Shaq has settled into his role as a linebacker, and while the pick was more of a luxury pick Shaq clearly will have a role with this team in the coming years. And for a team that relies so heavily on it's front seven, you can never have too many impact players on defense, and with Thomas Davis on the back end of his career Thompson will have time to learn the mental aspects of the game behind two of the best in the business. He didn't make many of the "splash plays" (sacks, interceptions, touchdowns) but that's not something that many could reasonably expect from him this year. The Panthers play primarily nickel defense, meaning two linebackers tend to be on the field. When you have four linebackers who are at least starter caliber, it happens. I like the pick based on who else was available. Usually when you're at the back end of the first round there isn't going to be much variety on first round graded picks without reaching into the second round.
Breshad Perriman could have been the "need" pick here but he hasn't played a snap this year. Stephone Anthony proved to be a good pickup for the Saints, but I think the Panthers liked the athlete in Shaq for their defense with Luke Kuechly locking down the middle.
Other available players: CB Byron Jones, LB Stephone Anthony, S Landon Collins, OT Donovan Smith
My Grade: B+
Devin Funchess-41st overall pick, 2nd round (acquired via trade)
This was the first of two shrewd moves by Dave Gettleman to grab players he was high on in the 2015 draft. This pick was prior to Kelvin Benjamin's injury, so the Panthers weren't looking for a guy who necessarily needed to step in right away and start. The idea was to have two guys with good size and length for Cam to throw to, as both had the ability to go up and get the ball. In my opinion I felt Funchess was a bit more polished in his fundamentals in college, as he could run pretty much the entire route tree at all three wide receiver positions. He was also less prone to drops, but his college tape was difficult to evaluate at times due to inconsistent QB play. What he lacked was the incredible athleticism and build that Kelvin Benjamin had, and I think most of us knew he wasn't going to have the 1000 yard season KB had.
Funchess was relatively quiet his first 5 games, though he did have a crucial catch against Seattle to keep the final drive going. In his first seven games, he only totaled 170 snaps, which isn't a whole lot for a receiver if you consider him a starter. Then, Funchess had his coming out party against the Green Bay Packers. While a 3 reception, 71 yard performance by a rookie isn't overly impressive, if you look at the plays you see a much better receiver than his earlier games. He came down with a long deep pass from Newton, and a touchdown on a slant where he literally dragged a Packer into the endzone with him. In his last eight games, he totaled 24 receptions for 383 yards and 5 touchdowns. Not bad for a rotational wide receiver.
I think trading up for Funchess was a good pick. Next season, the Panthers will have Kelvin Benjamin back and will be able to move Funchess around to create mismatches, probably in a similar way to Greg Olsen. Funchess is a good fit for this offense as he can block pretty well too. Trading up for him wasn't a bad idea and after Benjamin went down Funchess became a need pick.
Other players available: CB Jalen Collins, LB Eric Kendricks, S Jaquiski Tartt, CB Eric Rowe, RB Ameer Abdullah
My grade: A
Daryl Williams-102nd overall pick, 4th round (acquired via trade)
The second move by Gettleman, it eliminated all other non-compensatory selections. The Panthers brought Williams in for a visit during the offseason so he was on a lot of our draftniks' radars. Unfortunately he suffered an injury early on during the season, while Remmers and Oher stayed healthy all year. The Panthers still got Williams involved in jumbo packages as an additional blocker, but for the most part he only played special teams or rotated in. Nobody really expected the Panthers tackles to play well, so there's time for Williams to grow. I'm going to give him an incomplete grade, he was a selection at a position of need who played well when he was in. But you can't really grade an offensive lineman all that well without an extended look. The Panthers could have gotten a gem in Jamison Crowder or Kwon Alexander, but hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to the draft.
Other players available: WR Jamison Crowder, WR Justin Hardy, RB Jeremy Langford, RB Javorius Allen, OLB Kwon Alexander
My grade: Incomplete
David Mayo-169th overall pick, 5th round (compensatory)
A lot of people were kind of scratching their heads at this pick. The Panthers just took a linebacker high, have two great players at that position, and a guy in AJ Klein who was at that point a decent spot starter. Jason Trusnik had been signed for special teams play, but it appears the Panthers cut ties with him and used Mayo as their ST ace at linebacker. Mayo totaled 9 tackles on 224 special teams snaps. He didn't see the field once on defense.
In retrospect I can see why the Panthers would like him. They were able to cut ties with Trusnik and save themselves a little money. Paying rookies for special teams is usually cheaper. There aren't many players I see drafted after him that would have made much of a difference. There were a few good players drafted before Mayo, like Rashad Greene, David Cobb, and Stephon Diggs. But at this point in the draft Gettleman would be trading away future picks and we all know he wouldn't do that. With 5th round picks there's often a chance they don't even make the final roster much less contribute, so at least Mayo filled in for a veteran who might have cost more.
My grade: D
Cameron Artis-Payne-174th overall pick, 5th round (compensatory)
The Panthers used their last pick on a running back, such as Gettleman has done every year since becoming GM. So far, each other RB hasn't remained on the roster for very long. This time appears different for CAP. Artis-Payne didn't really see any significant playing time until week 15, with Jonathan Stewart sidelined. During that time, he totaled 33 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown, while catching 5 passes for 58 yards. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry over the course of those games and did pretty well when called upon. The Panthers only loss came when their running backs weren't getting the ball much, as CAP only logged 5 carries.
I actually really liked this selection. Based on the tape you could see a patient runner with good vision and fundamentals. He's not going to blow the doors off anybody or carry multiple defenders into the endzone, but he keeps his feet running and is an excellent one cut, down field runner. The Panthers had to let go of Jordan Todman to keep both he and Brandon Wegher, which is a good problem to have. Artis-Payne should have a bright future as a change of pace back who can start when called upon, especially with a change of the guard coming in the next few years.
My grade: B
Other notable rookies
- Ryan Delaire was a midseason acquisition following the injury to Charles Johnson. He ended up beating out Wes Horton for a spot on the 53 man roster as a pass rushing specialist once Johnson returned. Delaire totaled 2.5 sacks, where 2 of them came against Tampa Bay. Think he's going to be a second Mario Addison for the Panthers and should see a decent amount of snaps during the playoffs, unless they bring Horton back to the 53. Horton has done well in the past against Seattle.
- The Panthers have kept Brandon Wegher and Dean Marlowe on the 53 man roster all season, meaning they do not want them to go to the practice squad in fear of another team signing them. Marlowe has appeared in four games and Wegher in one. Both have yet to really get an opportunity to shine, but Wegher did an excellent job in the preseason and will likely get his shot soon. Both have a chance to contribute more next season.
Gettleman always tends to find gems in the UDFA pool. This season he really hasn't needed to with a loaded roster on both sides of the ball. Delaire is the only UDFA to make any sort of impact this year, and that's okay after years of UDFA rookies stepping in to be major starters.
What do you think of my grades Panthers fans? Are they fair? How do you grade this rookie class?