Panthers Draft Strategy

With one week to go before the NFL draft, all signs indicate the Panthers will go after a running back with the 27th pick. Almost every draft board out there has the Panthers going after USC's LenDale White and that's hardly an unreal scenario. White is the only big bruising back projected to go in the top three rounds and his style would fit perfectly in Carolina's offense.

It makes sense for a number of reasons because he'd be the perfect complement to the smaller and faster DeShaun Foster and would give them a great goal-line and short-yardage back, as well as much needed depth.

The team's confidence in Eric Shelton, last year's second-round draft pick from Louisville, is shaky at best and privately some inside Bank of America Stadium wonder if he's a bust.

Shelton struggled to pick up defenses last year and coaches realized he was running too upright during training camp last year, both major problems, but still fixable. Shelton came up with a convenient "season-ending" injury (wink, wink) in the final preseason game and the team put him on injured reserve last year.

About a month later, Shelton declared himself at full health and said he could have contributed to the team. Shelton hit the weight room and has really bulked up, which could do him more harm than good.

In any event, if the last two seasons have taught the Panthers anything it's that you can't have enough depth at running back. That position has been devastated by injuries to Stephen Davis and Foster.

Nick Goings, who had a fine second half of the season in 2004, is second on the depth chart behind Foster with Shelton third and Jamal Robertson fourth.

The Panthers have shown plenty of interest in White, and sources say the team advised him not to run at the USC Pro Day and risk further injury. He also met at length with Panthers coach John Fox and running back coach Jim Skipper over dinner while they were in California to see him run.

There's no reason to believe the Panthers would advise him not to run if they didn't have something to gain by doing so. White's torn hamstring or sudden weight gain doesn't appear to bother the Panthers.

And if they've already fallen in love with him based off his performance in the Rose Bowl, then don't be surprised if they try to move up in the draft.

That's where getting an extra third-round draft pick for cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. would actually help.

In 2004, the team traded up from No. 31 to 28 to take Ohio State cornerback Chris Gamble.

There could be other options for the Panthers as well at No. 27, including Memphis' DeAngelo Williams, Minnesota's Laurence Maroney and UCLA's Maurice Drew, but all of them are smaller backs.

TEAM NEEDS

Running back -- The Panthers have learned the last two seasons you can't have enough good running backs. Getting stuck using Jamal Robertson in the NFC title game shoved that fact down their throats. And now with Stephen Davis gone, the team must fill this position in the NFL draft to give them some depth opposite starter DeShaun Foster.

Tight end -- The Panthers very easily could spend that first-round draft pick on a tight end. After all, teams drafting in past seasons have gotten great value picks at the end of the first round by going the tight end route. Starter Kris Mangum has nine years under his belt and neither Mike Seidman or Michael Gaines has shown much. A good receiving tight end would open things up for Steve Smith.

Offensive line -- The Panthers have met with numerous offensive linemen during recent weeks and could have an offensive lineman pegged for the second or third round.

Defensive back -- Panthers head coach John Fox has said he really likes the depth in the secondary in this draft, so look for the Panthers to spend either their second or third-round pick on a defensive back. The team's need for a cornerback has increased significantly now that the Bears have decided to sign restricted free agent Ricky Manning Jr. to an offer sheet. If the Panthers lost Manning, they would pick up a third-round pick (88th overall) from the Bears, giving them two third-rounders they could parlay into a mid second-round pick by trading up. Safety is also an area the team will look to address at some point in the draft.

Kick returner -- At some point in the draft look for the Panthers to take a chance on a player who has outstanding return skills. It's one area where they remain near the bottom of the league.

DRAFT NOTES

--The Panthers may want to think twice about trading down in the second round. In two of the last three years, that strategy has failed miserably.

In 2005, the Panthers moved down from No. 45 to 54 and picked up two fourth-rounders from the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle would use that 45th pick on back-cracking linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who was a big reason the Seahawks were able to beat Carolina last year in the NFC Championship game.

The Panthers meanwhile got running back Eric Shelton, who didn't play last year and could be a bust, and fellow Louisville product Stefan LeFors with one of the fourth-round picks. The team then combined the other fourth-round pick and its own original fourth-round pick to move up into the third round to draft defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison. Ellison became the highest-drafted player to get cut last year in training camp.

In 2003, the Panthers traded down five spots in the second round with New England and then took guard Bruce Nelson with the 50th pick. Nelson started only one game for the Panthers before hip injuries ended his career.

The Patriots took receiver Bethel Johnson that year at No. 45.

--The Panthers have seven picks in this year's NFL draft with none in the sixth round and two in the seventh. They lost their sixth-round pick in the trade last year that brought wide receiver Rod Gardner to Carolina.

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