How close are they?
That’s the question “new” Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney (who is really the team’s old GM) has to answer this offseason. Is this roster close to beating the Saints, Vikings, Eagles and other top NFC contenders?
After picking in the top 10 last season, the Panthers rebounded, making the playoffs out of the crowded NFC South. However, they couldn’t handle the Saints on the road in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
Should Hurney be aggressive in pursuing free agents who could help this team win now? Could he trade up to get one of the impact players in a draft that may not have that many? His plan must be predicated on both the short-term and long-term views of the franchise.
A word of advice: Don’t sell out to compete now if that’s not likely, but even if it is, don’t go whole hog to the point of kneecapping the future of the team. Cam Newton is likely to be in his prime for five to eight more years unless his body breaks down.
There are some clear holes on the team at receiver, along the offensive line, and in the secondary. Plus, is Christian McCaffrey capable of being an every-down back? Do the Panthers want him to be? These are all questions that must inform the offseason process.
Here’s a look at a draft class that could help this team get closer to once again contending in the NFC.
First Round, Pick 24 — Isaiah Wynn, OL Georgia
Andrew Norwell could leave this spring as a free agent, but even if he doesn’t, this offensive line needs to be remade. Paying Matt Kalil was a disaster the minute the ink dried on the contract, but the Panthers can get off the deal with minimal damage (less than continuing to start Kalil at least) after the 2018 season.
Wynn can play guard or tackle. He fits the profile the Panthers like in an offensive lineman with his outstanding size and surprisingly nimble feet. Wynn could slide in seamlessly at left guard, or be a swing lineman until the Panthers can get off the Kalil deal. In a soft offensive line draft, the Panthers have to act early to get one of the few impact players at the position.
Second Round, Pick 55 — James Washington, WR Oklahoma State
Speaking of deals that were puzzling the moment they happened, trading Kelvin Benjamin didn’t make sense at the time, and whatever Benjamin’s deficiencies were, the Panthers weren’t in a position to simply give him away in the middle of a playoff run.
This offense was at its best with Ted Ginn Jr. busting open defenses with his ability to make plays down the field, which is exactly what Washington could bring. Norv Turner is still going to want to chuck it all around the yard, so getting someone with Washington’s skills — he showed better route running ability than expected at the Senior Bowl — provides a perfect complement to the big body of Devin Funchess and the superlative veteran savvy of Greg Olsen.
Third Round, Pick 85 — D.J. Moore, WR Maryland
With the pick Carolina received from Buffalo, why not double down on a position of need? Moore has the speed to be a dynamic threat, while also possessing the quickness to get open underneath and from the slot, where he’d likely play often in this offense.
Moore and Washington excel at different kinds of things despite their relative similarities in size and stature, making them complementary pieces rather than duplicative.
This pick doesn’t mean giving up on Curtis Samuel. For a team with a dearth of playmaking options, adding one more can never hurt and the value is too good to pass up.
Third Round, Pick 88 — Kemoko Turay, DE Rutgers
Carolina doesn’t have a problem with its pass rush, finishing 2017 with the third-best adjusted sack rate in the league. But Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers can’t do it forever, not to mention Peppers doesn’t even have a contract for 2018.
Turay provides the ideal size (6-foot-5, 252) and straight-line athleticism you want from a pass rusher. He shined at the Senior Bowl against other top talents. He’s not ideally skilled yet and can be stiff at times, but the upside is there and he won’t be asked to come in right away to carry this pass rush.
Fifth Round, Pick 161 — Kameron Kelly, DB San Diego State
The Panthers love hybrid players. Kelly, a former safety who converted to corner, fits the bill. At 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, Kelly can play corner or safety, making him a valuable backup and special teams player as he transitions to the NFL game.
Sixth Round, Pick 197 — Dorian O’Daniel, LB Clemson
Speaking of hybrid players, O’Daniel is listed as a linebacker, but at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds with excellent athleticism, he looks more like a safety. This is all about special teams. O’Daniel did start a season for the Tigers, but he’s a terror as a special teamer — those glue guys help make Super Bowl teams.
Seventh Round, Pick 213 — Bradley Boseman, C Alabama
Yes, this is the guy who proposed to his girlfriend after winning the national title. Boseman started 31 games for the Crimson Tide, including two runs to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. He is the smart, experienced player teams like to have as a backup.
Seventh Round, Pick 216 — Jack Cichy, LB Wisconsin
Always take a flier this late. Cichy could have been a Day 2 pick if he had been able to stay healthy last season for the Badgers. He showed tremendous instincts, motor, and playmaking ability despite not being ideally athletic. I would honestly be surprised if he lasted this long.