Looking Ahead To Draft Day (Part I)

"Change is the only constant." This is always the thought process during the NFL off season for all teams. Players come, players go. The same can be said for coaches, their staff, and others in the front office. As far as players go, the Carolina Panthers know this firsthand. For the past two seasons, players like Muhsin Muhammad, Deon Grant, Will Witherspoon, Brentson Buckner and Marlon McCree have chosen to move on from this organization.

The initial loss may sting, but with the departure of these names, comes the influx of new names and faces to the lineup. Players like Mike Wahle, Ken Lucas, Maake Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig and Keyshawn Johnson are now important pieces that will push this team another step closer to the goal of bringing a Super Bowl victory to the Carolinas.

Along with free agency, the Entry Draft will send the winds of change blowing through the Charlotte area. On April 29th and 30th, the Panthers will fill in the other areas of need via the draft, which is the true cornerstone to any successful NFL franchise.

The Panthers enter this draft with no gaping void at any one position and are able to select the best player available with their 27th overall pick. However, there are a few positions that do deserve attention earlier rather than later. These positions are outside linebacker, free safety, and offensive line help. Some could also make an argument that running back is an area of concern with the durability issues of DeShaun Foster and the question mark that is Eric Shelton. In this first of three articles, let's explore the potential targets Carolina will be aiming for with their first round pick.

First Round (#27 overall) :

Safety

Darnell Bing : Southern Cal : 6'2'' : 227 lbs
Following the legacy that Troy Polamalu left at USC, Bing has playmaker written all over him. Always around the ball and loves physical contact. Great size to go along with adequate speed (4.6 40-time). Some question his coverage skills, but his football intellect always puts him in position to be near the ball. Was a huge part of that vaunted Trojan defense.

Daniel Bullocks : Nebraska : 6'0'' : 212 lbs
Twin brother of Saints' safety Josh Bullocks. Daniel has great speed and a solid build. Puts himself in great position to make interceptions and is a sure tackler. Has a great vertical leap and provides excellent support against the run. Though he was great at forcing interceptions, Bullocks' coverage skills need lots of improvement. Remember Thomas Davis' coverage skills this past season at safety.... yeah it's like that.

Ko Simpson : South Carolina : 6'1'' : 209 lbs
Might be the most talented of the three. Only played two seasons for the Gamecocks, but shined as a ball hawk in the secondary. Like Bullocks, Simpson is solid both against the pass and the run. He is a very instinctive player and this helps him always be around the ball. He should probably hit the weight room and add some muscle to go with his solid 40-time ( 4.45).

Summary:
Free Safety is a glaring hole in the Panthers' secondary. Minter is the field general at SS and Carolina boasts two of the top lockdown corners in the league with Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble. If Thomas Davis' move to OLB works out the way it should, then our front seven should alleviate a lot of the pressure on our secondary. The platoon of Colin Branch and newly acquired Shaun Williams should be a good enough band-aid that it won't require use of our first round pick on a safety.


Offensive Linemen

Marcus McNeil : Auburn : 6'7'' : 338 lbs
A true "beast" of an offensive lineman. He is massive and very hard to move off the point of attack. He has long arms and quick hands that allow him to get the initial push necessary to move the line of scrimmage. Is equally menacing as a run blocker as he is a pass blocker. He was the bulldozing force that opened holes for former top-10 picks Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. A knock against him is that he lacks the nastiness you look for in a man this size. He would be a great LT to help our running game and closing the open gate that yielded so many sacks and turnovers by Jake last year.

Eric Winston : Miami (FL) : 6'6'' : 310 lbs
Like McNeil, has a solid frame and long arms to help with the initial punch. Has amazing footwork and is pretty agile for a man his size. Is excellent at pulling, which might make him more appealing to us, since we use a lot of counters and tosses that require our linemen to pull. He could add some more weight to his body and also had a serious injury to his knee in 2004. Not sure if he will lineup as a LT in the NFL, which isn't good since we've got Gross as our starter on the strong side.

Summary:
The Panthers have three solid starters in Mike Wahle (LG), Justin Hartwig (C), and Jordan Gross (RT). Travelle Wharton had a mediocre season at left tackle, though it was his first as the starter. Growing pains aside, Wharton could prove to be a solid starter at that very important position. The right guard position will be earned by either Evan Mathis or Geoff Hangartner, with the early lead to Mathis. Odds are Carolina doesn't use this first round pick on the offensive line either, but if a talent like Marcus McNeil drops to 27, it could be a consideration.


Running Backs

Laurence Maroney : Minnesota : 6'0'' : 217 lbs
Explosive is the best word to describe Maroney. He has excellent vision of the field and is a threat to score on any play. Good at shedding tackles and is hard to bring down with the first hit. He has that sixth gear that he can throw on that enables him to dust defenders, though his 40-time was in the 4.5 range. There are questions about him as a receiver out of the backfield and Maroney isn't the physical runner that Carolina likes to utilize.

LenDale White : Southern California : 6'0'' : 238 lbs
Possibly the most NFL-ready of the big four running backs. White has the frame that coaches drool over. He hits the hole with power and is not going to go down on the first or even second hit. Has good footwork, speed and is agile for a back with his weight. Reminds some of Deuce McAlister or Stephen Davis in his running style. Probably doesn't have as much mileage on him because he shared the workload with Reggie Bush at USC. Some question marks have been raised about his work ethic and off the field problems.

DeAngelo Williams : Memphis : 5'9'' : 214 lbs
Productive runner out of Memphis. Williams is the NCAA all-time leader in all-purpose yards and is a superstar in waiting. He has elusive speed and is a shifty runner due to his low-profile running style. He makes people miss and is quite patient at waiting for plays to develop. He can run around the ends and take it up the gut as well. He is a great receiver and is a threat to take it the distance at any point. DeAngelo has some past injuries in 2004 and 2005, plus he's carried the ball so much, that he's already got a decent amount of mileage on the odometer.

Summary:
The starting job will be DeShaun Fosters to lose. When healthy, he has the potential to be a top 10 back in the league, but injury woes have the Panthers with their finger near the panic button. Eric Shelton is also a question mark, but there is a lot of faith put in him to bounce back this season and could be the answer to Carolina's backfield concerns. That doesn't mean that the Panthers wouldn't jump at a chance to grab LenDale White. Williams should be off the board as the second back taken in the mid-teens to early twenties, so he's probably not an option. Maroney is likely to be there at 27, but probably not the type of back that the organization would want to go after. White fits the style of play and could turn out to be the best back in this draft, if he keeps focused. If White is still hanging around in the early twenties, don't be surprised if Carolina packages some mid to late round picks to slide up a few notches and select the former Trojan.


Outside Linebacker

Bobby Carpenter : Ohio State : 6'2'' : 256 lbs
Another standout linebacker from Thee Ohio State University whose play was overshadowed by A.J. Hawk. Has explosive speed and outstanding football intellect. Flies around the field and is always in position to make the play. Extremely athletic, tough as a tank and a great pass rusher. Great in coverage as well as against the run. May over pursue at times and his tackling skills are mediocre.

Thomas Howard : UTEP : 6'2'' : 239 lbs
Arguably one of the fastest of the outside linebackers that has been climbing up draft boards of late. Amazing closing speed and burst off the ball. Excellent coverage linebacker that uses his speed and athleticism to wreak havoc in the opposing teams' passing game. Hits like a freight train and excels in blitzing the quarterback. His tackling leaves a little to be desired. He is a converted safety that may still be learning all of the nuances of the position.

Manny Lawson : NC State : 6'5'' : 240 lbs
Imagine Julius Peppers as an outside linebacker and you have a better picture of Manny Lawson. A freak of an athlete with height, weight and an eye-popping 4.4 40-time. Lawson explodes of the line and gets into opposing teams' backfields quickly. He is quite agile for his size and is extremely smart. Rumor is that his vertical was so high that it couldn't be measured with the machine because he surpassed the highest measurement. Manny is probably better suited to a 3-4 scheme though. Not very good against the run either.

Demeco Ryans : Alabama : 6'1'' : 236 lbs
A very productive and highly intelligent field general is the best way to describe Ryans. He just gets it. He's solid in pass coverage, pass rushing and stopping the run. He has good speed in space, which is more important than 40-times. Ryans' frame could use some muscle though to help against the larger linemen in the NFL.

Summary:
Players like A.J. Hawk, Ernie Sims and Chad Greenway will be off the board when the Panthers are on the clock, so I steered away from mentioning them. Although, Greenway's workouts were lackluster and there is injury concerns with him, so he could slide on draft day. I doubt he makes it past the Giants at 25. Outside linebacker appears to be the route Carolina is leaning towards for their first round pick. That being said, nothing in the draft is what it seems, so it shouldn't be a surprise if the Panthers choose a different avenue. Of the linebackers that should be available, Bobby Carpenter and Thomas Howard seem to be the best fit. Carpenter has a motor that won't stop and gives it all on the field. Howard adds that element of speed to the linebacking corps. Both are excellent coverage guys, which would upgrade our average coverage linebackers. Either one of these two guys would make the most sense and would be great additions to the organization.


In the next installment, the second round pick (#58 overall) will be put under the microscope.

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