Entering the 2007 season, the Carolina Panthers had to upgrade at linebacker and, most notably, add protection for oft-injured starter Dan Morgan. The injuries that Morgan endured over the years were finally catching up with him, and addressing the need in the draft was the Panthers main focus.
The draft got off to an interesting start for Carolina, as they traded back in the first round from No. 14 with the Jets, after the San Francisco 49ers selected the Panthers first option, Ole Miss’ Patrick Willis at No. 11. In trading back, the Panthers were able to accumulate more selections, but they also missed their chance to select Florida State’s Lawrence Timmons. That didn’t matter much to the Panthers, because they wanted a player who could eventually command the middle, and Timmons was strictly an outside linebacker. With that said, the Panthers had their eye on another linebacker from the State of Florida at No. 25, Miami’s Jon Beason.
Fortunately, Beason was still available for the Panthers, because he’s been a beast on defense since he entered the league and is unquestionably the No. 1 prospect in the organization. The 6-foot, 235-pound Beason started all 16 games in his first year, initially on the outside, until Morgan was placed on IR halfway through the year and then was moved inside. He recorded an amazing 140 tackles and an interception, and finished second to Willis in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. In his second year, Beason remained in the middle and showed his durability by starting in all 16 games once again. There were no signs of a sophomore jinx, and it was obvious that Beason was getting more comfortable in every start. His numbers last year were nearly identical to his first year statistics as he finished with 138 tackles and three interceptions. But the numbers and his play had more of an impact with his peers as he was voted to his first Pro Bowl and was named first team All Pro. Known more for his lockdown ability as a linebacker rather than his playmaking skills, Beason enters the ’09 season as one of the elite middle linebackers in the NFC. Ironically enough, Willis is Beason’s rival when it comes to being the top inside ‘backer in the NFC, and for the next five to seven years, the two draft classmates will battle for that distinction.
On offense, the Panthers have their own battle, a battle in the backfield between two tremendously talented running backs: the NFL’s leading rusher in ‘08 DeAngelo Williams and second year standout and the organization’s No. 2 prospect Jonathan Stewart. The situation isn’t really a battle, but more a showcase between two productive players vying for more touches. Williams is the featured back and will get a majority of the carries, while Stewart has the ability to be a lead runner, but is forced to share the load in a limited capacity. With teams going toward a two-back attack, Stewart’s presence is valuable to the Panthers not just in the sense of being a compliment to Williams, but in case of an injury, he has the ability to be a featured runner. The action figure-like, 5-foot-10, 235-pound chiseled specimen, Stewart, had just 184 carries, rushed for 836 yards (4.5 YPC) and scored 10 touchdowns in his first year. The Panthers don’t utilize their running backs much in the passing game, but to get Stewart more involved in the offense, they could have both Williams and Stewart in the backfield at the same time. That dynamic would be hard for any defense to combat and makes the Panthers offense very explosive.
The Panthers did well for themselves in the 2008 draft with the selection of Stewart and the man they envision opening holes for him on the right side for a long time, offensive tackle Jeff Otah. The third rated prospect in the organization, Otah, is a massive right tackle that mauls the opposition at the line and had a tremendous showing in his first year in the league. He started 12 of 16 games; he missed four games due to an ankle injury, but returned and performed very well and helped the Panthers become the third best rushing attack in the league. The starting five on the offensive line is a solid unit and one of the strongest areas on the team. But the Panthers lack depth, and if any one of the five starters goes down with an injury, there will be problems.
Over on the defensive side of the ball, an area that lacks depth is in the secondary. After the Panthers released veteran Ken Lucas, it elevated fourth year corner Richard Marshall into a starting role. Marshall, 24 [he won’t turn 25 until December], has served as the team’s nickel corner the last few years and has performed very well. In his first two years in the league, the durable corner averaged seven starts, 86 tackles, a sack and three interceptions. Last year, Marshall played in all 16 games, but didn’t start a single contest and still contributed 75 tackles, two sacks and an interception. The fourth rated prospect in the Panthers organization, Marshall is in the final year of his rookie contract and has a chance to be an impact player. He has good size, speed and instincts and is an emerging playmaker in the making. With opposing teams likely to shy away from throwing toward Chris Gamble, Marshall will be tested in his first year as a starter, and judging from his play in his first three years, he will be up to the test.
Being up to the test and playing with a chip on his shoulder is 2009 second round draft pick, defensive end Everette Brown. A top 20 talent that fell into the second frame of the draft, Brown had a monster junior campaign at Florida State where he amassed 36 tackles, 21.5 for a loss and 13.5 sacks. The fifth rated prospect in the organization, Brown is a dynamic rush end who plays with a high motor and has tremendous quickness. He has an elite first step and a few signature moves that allow him to get up field. He's incredibly strong, featuring a 480-pound bench press, and uses quickness and strength to his advantage. He uses his hands effectively, demonstrates good balance and coordination, and transitions well with the action. He’s a streaky performer who gets his sacks in bunches, and can be overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage. Being an undersized end may have affected his draft status, but he’s extremely explosive and will be a contributor this season. Brown will compete for the starting left end position with Tyler Brayton this preseason, and if he were to win that job, the attention that Julius Peppers receives on the right side will free up Brown to rage havoc in the backfield.
Rounding out the top 10 is a mixture of second and third year players who are on pace to take the next step in their evolution: center Ryan Kalil, free safety Charles Godfrey, defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker Dan Connor and wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett. Just missing the cut were second year guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and two 2009 draft picks, running back Michael Goodson and guard Duke Robinson.Kalil enters his second year as the starting center for the Panthers after being selected in the second round of the 2007 draft. A solid all-around lineman who possesses great awareness and leadership skills is a year or two away from being a Pro Bowler. In another year, Godfrey will be much higher on this list. He’s a versatile defender who covers like a corner and has the hands of a receiver, but happens to lineup at safety. After starting all 16 games last year, look for Godfrey to have a breakout season this year. Johnson was buried on the depth chart as a rookie and only appeared in three games, but last year he played in all 16 games and flashed his true potential by collecting six sacks. A tremendously gifted situational pass rusher, Johnson offers great depth to the defensive line. A steal in the third round of the ’08 draft, Connor played in just three games as a rookie before he tore his ACL. Connor is back to full health this year and finds himself in a backup role. Barring any injuries, Connor will see most of his action on special teams and in certain packages on defense this season. A second round pick in the ’07 draft, Jarrett has been slow to contribute; he’s been inactive for 15 games in his first two years. This year, the former USC standout hopes to have a shot at a starting job, but it’s most likely that he will line up in the slot.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.