Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, April 27, 2019 7:33 pm

Hot take on the Panthers’ 2019 draft

Filed under: Panthers — Lex @ 7:33 pm
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GM Marty Hurney abandoned his usual best-player-available approach to fill specific needs — because if this year’s team doesn’t go deep into the playoffs, he, head coach Ron Rivera, and a number of other coaches will be out on the street.

If you had any doubt that the Panthers will be playing more 3-4 defensive sets in 2019 than they have since 1997, you need only look at their first- and fourth-round picks: LB/DE Brian Burns from Florida State and LB/DE Christian Miller from Alabama. They come from the SEC and the ACC, probably the two fastest conference in the nation. Carolina had to improve its edge rushing after an abysmal 2018 and the retirement of future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers, and they may well have done it here. That’s important because the Panthers’ defense is predicated on both stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, reducing strain on their secondary, which, historically, has not been the best part of their D. (And more on that in a minute.)

Another big need for the Panthers was an O-line that can keep Cam Newton healthy — the team, which started strong in 2018, finished 1-7 after Newton was injured in the Pittsburgh game. Second-round pick Greg Little, a tackle from Ole Miss, certainly understands the high expectations the franchise has for him, telling fans bluntly, “I’m going to keep Cam safe.” With the re-signing of former Pro Bowl right tackle Daryl Williams, who returns from an injury-truncated 2018 at right tackle, the Panthers’ tackles appear secure, with third-year man Taylor Moton available to step in at either position if Little or Williams goes down.

The third-round pick addressed the team’s desire to 1) improve the quality of depth behind Cam Newton if QB1 does get injured, and 2) begin exploring options for a quarterback of the future with Cam on the cusp of turning 30. They turned to Davidson Day School product Will Grier from West Virginia, who will be competing against Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen. (The latter played a great game in 2018 in his only appearance but was injured and didn’t finish.) The team insists that Newton remains QB1 for the foreseeable future, and I see no reason to doubt that.

I confess that the Panthers’ fifth-round pick, RB Jordan Scarlett from Florida, puzzles me: I’m not at all sure that he’d be any improvement on Cameron Artis-Payen, currently RB2 behind Christian McCaffery. The Panthers also have Elijah Hood from North Carolina and Reggie Bonnafon from Louisville on the roster.

The sixth-round pick, OT Dennis Daley from South Carolina, appears to have been a depth pick. And as noted before, if either starting tackle goes down, Taylor Moton probably gets the call.

With their last pick in the seventh round, the Panthers drafted Georgia wideout Terry Godwin. Godwin does not have game-breaking stats, but he averaged 16.8 yards per catch his junior year, and, to prove it was no fluke, he averaged 16.7 yards per catch his senior year — more-than-respectable numbers.

The pick puzzles me only in this sense: I kept hearing analysts say the Panthers needed WRs, especially to replace Devin Funchess. But honestly? I’m not seeing it. DJ Moore, drafted in 2018, lived up to his yards-after-the-catch hype and, if not for injuries, likely would have been mentioned in rookie-of-the-year conversations. Jarius Wright provided not only experience but also a reliable possession receiver. Curtis Samuel blossomed in his second year in the league in 2018, particularly as a deep threat, and figures only to get better this year. Veteran Torrey Smith, another reliable wideout, returns as well. Do the Panthers have a wideout with Funchess’s specific skill set — height, jumping ability, bulk? No; at 6’2″, Andre Levrone is the tallest receiver on the roster. But Funchess was drafted in the hopes that he would be a Cris Carter receiver — “all he does is score touchdowns” — and he never became that. And, frankly, given the talent on the roster now, barring a rash of injuries, I think the Panthers are all set at this position.

Which brings me to a few positions they’re not set at.

Perennial Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil retired, and I had thought the Panthers might try to draft a center of the future. In point of fact, probably the best center available, N.C. State’s Garrett Bradbury, got picked up by the Vikings two slots after the Panthers drafted Brian Burns, and the Panthers simply had more pressing concerns. So Tyler Larson remains the presumptive starter, with Matt Paradis and Parker Collins also on the roster for now. Whether Larson can both lead the run game and protect Cam Newton from blitzes up the middle consistently remains to be seen.

In other news, a gaping hole remains at safety. Eric Reid is set, but who the other safety will be definitely remains to be seen — six other safeties currently occupy roster spots, including players who saw time last year like Cole Luke and Rashaan Gaulden, but it is entirely possible that the Week 1 starter isn’t yet on the roster. (Colin Jones, nominally a safety, is perennially a key special-teams player who likely wouldn’t be called on to start.)

And I had thought the team might try to address linebacker depth in the draft, given the retirement of Pro Bowler Thomas Davis. Not this year, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they snap up an LB or two among the team’s signings of undrafted free agents in the next day or two.

The experts gave the Panthers an “A” for their Day 1 and Day 2 draft (the first three picks). I’m not sure yet what grade they’ll give the team for Day 3 and overall. On paper, at least, it looks as if the team addressed some pressing needs, as it had to.

My concern goes beyond that. As a Panther fan from the beginning, I know that this team’s successes rise and fall with the quality and consistency of its O-line. We added what appear to be quality parts, but a lot of questions remain: Will Daryl Williams return from injury at or close to his former Pro Bowl performance level? Will Greg Little be able to keep his promise to keep Cam Newton safe? Can guard Trai Turner continue to perform at a high level — and who will be the other starting guard? And can Tyler Larson at center shoulder Ryan Kalil’s mantle, leading runs up the middle and protecting Newton from defensive surges over his position?

If the answers to all or most of these questions are positive, the Panthers will be able to hang a lot of points on people. That might not translate to wins, but it’ll mean they’ll be both competitive and fun to watch.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers must, as always, 1) stop the run, and 2) pressure the quarterback. Adding two edge rushers appears likely to help with pressure, but the Panthers’ previous experience with the 3-4 in late 1996 and 1997 was that it couldn’t stop the run. Maybe, with younger talent, that will change. It had better.

And the Panthers’ secondary remains a question mark. CB1 James Bradberry remains a middle-of-the-pack cover corner and, arguably, a liability against the run. Corn Elder and Donte Jackson came on last year, but neither has yet shown the greatness needed to be a real NFL cover corner. And I’ve already talked about my concerns at safety.

In conclusion, the Panthers definitely helped themselves in the draft, but so did their divisional rivals. This team is going to have to work very hard, and be lucky to avoid many injuries, to achieve its short-term goals. And if it does not, it will face a massive rebuilding project in what likely would be the waning years of Cam Newton’s career. The stakes are always high in the NFL, but in the particular case of the Panthers, they might be higher this year than at any other time in the franchise’s history.

 

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