Okay, it looks like it’s going to be a long, slow, frustrating off-season for the fans with the looming labor strife. Talk of lockouts, union decertifications, and protracted legal battles leaves me at a loss. Without the possibility of free agency if there is no CBA, then there isn’t going to be the usual player movement and fodder that comes every March as teams try to upgrade their rosters to discuss. It has me focusing more of my attention on the draft, and not just the Falcons and who they will ultimately pick, but potential options for other teams around the league.
And with that in mind, for this entire month every day I will try and post an article discussing what each team is going to do with their first round draft pick, from what potential targets and options they will have, to whether or not they’ll be looking to trade up or down. And there is no better place to start with our division rival Carolina Panthers, who hold the top spot.
In the end, I think the overwhelming evidence suggests that the Panthers will take Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the top pick. I’ll fully explain my reasoning after the jump, but the short version is that with a new staff coming in and the team needed to establish a foundation for success to compete in the tough NFC South for years to come, quarterback is the only pick that makes sense.
The Panthers had a dismal 2010 campaign, where poor quarterback play and numerous injuries across their offense hampered their ability to score points. In the end, the Panthers finished 32nd in both total and scoring offense and 31st and 32nd in passing and rushing offense, respectively, in Football Outsiders DVOA-based efficiency rankings.
Relative to that, their defense was actually fairly tough. While they finished 26th in scoring defense, they were 18th in total defense. That included an 11th ranked passing defense, and 10th ranked rushing defense (based on yards per attempt) with Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings putting them at 8th against the pass and 21st against the run.
And the reason why I point these things out is to indicate that the Panthers really need to upgrade their offense more than anything. If their offense can begin to generate points, they have every reason to believe their defense is solid enough to win a fair share of games.
And this is why I believe that the Panthers want to take a quarterback with their top pick. Sure, a year ago they used their second round pick on Jimmy Clausen. But Clausen played poorly this past year, and there was nothing in his performances in 10 starts to give the Panthers any strong semblance of hope that he is the guy that can lead this franchise for the next 5-10 years. Clausen should get better, but it’s hard to imagine the Panthers coaches and staff reviewing the tape objectively and thinking that they are fine at quarterback. And without free agency and trades, there isn’t a good veteran option to fix that issue.
That is why the Panthers from this point until April 28 will scout all of the quarterbacks heavily. And if they find one in this bunch that they think is a guy that can be a franchise passer, then they will target him. See, the Panthers lack a second round pick, so if they don’t take that passer with their top pick, they aren’t going to get him at all.
So the key is finding that player. Most of the talk basically narrows it down to two players: Blaine Gabbert (Missouri) or Cam Newton (Auburn). If all the homework the Panthers do over the next eight weeks indicate either of these two players are their guy, he will be their pick.
If not, then they are in trouble and it’s where their issues on the defensive side of the ball could come into play. The Panthers definitely have a need at defensive tackle. And they may feel that Nick Fairley (Auburn) or Marcell Dareus (Alabama) are good options to plug that need. Fairley has the higher upside of the two because of his pass-rush potential, but Dareus is arguably the safer pick and is a bit more versatile. Dareus is a better option if the Panthers want to beef up their weaker run defense since he’s more of the widebody at 319 pounds.
The Panthers could also take a defensive end like Clemson’s DaQuan Bowers, who has been compared at times to ex-Panther Julius Peppers. But contrary to popular belief, the Panthers don’t have that big a need at defensive end. Charles Johnson was very good this past year. And the team has some young, promising still developing ends in Everette Brown, Greg Hardy, and Eric Norwood. So unless they lose Johnson between now and April (which is doubtful sans free agency), and/or Bowers just blows them away at Clemson’s pro day, it seems like Bowers will be on the back burner with the top pick.
Many experts believe that Georgia wide reciever A.J. Green and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson are arguably the two best athletes in this draft class. The Panthers will certainly do their homework on both, particularly Green because they have a need at wide receiver with Steve Smith on his last legs in Carolina. But teams rarely invest top picks in non-quarterbacks or non-offensvie or defensive linemen. The last time that happened it was in 1996 with Keyshawn Johnson and 1995 with Ki-Jana Carter, neither of whom had the careers that would likely have the Panthers bucking the tradition this year. Especially when there is quality to be had among the quarterback and defensive line positions.
But let’s get back to the quarterbacks, who would the Panthers pick between Gabbert or Newton? I believe they are leaning towards Gabbert. While Gabbert isn’t exactly pro-ready because of his conversion from a spread offense in Missouri, he’s much more so than Newton is. And the facts are that if the Panthers use their top pick on a passer, he will be expected to play right away going up against the likes of Jimmy Clausen, Tony Pike, and/or Matt Moore. And the success of Sam Bradford this past year in St. Louis coming from a similar offense at Oklahoma reduces the stigma against the spread offense usually has when it comes to translating to the NFL.
Gabbert is a good athlete, has a strong arm, and is accurate. Newton is a gifted athlete and has a strong arm, but his accuracy is erratic at this point because he’s still pretty raw with his mechanics and footwork. Making NFL reads and throws is still something pretty new to him.
And when you consider that a lockout may threaten the opportunities a rookie quarterback will have working in OTAs and minicamps, the more polished candidate takes precedent.
But that raises another question: Can the Panthers afford to invest in a quarterback if they won’t be able to hand him a playbook and start installing an offense until later in the summer? In that sense, the more pro-ready candidate is going to be a non-quarterback like one of the defensive tackles.
It puts the Panthers in a tough spot and is a difficult question to answer. But you have to think that with a new coaching staff coming in, the Panthers will think more long-term with their decision. And thus, fixing their need at quarterback makes the most sense.
It’s similar to the decision the Falcons faced in 2008, when most expected their draft pick at No. 3 to come down to Matt Ryan or Glenn Dorsey. The Falcons needed a quarterback, and Ryan was the correct choice. The Falcons ultimately decided on Ryan because he had all the tools they were looking for in order to turn this franchise around. I’m not completely sure that the Panthers will similarly fall head over for heels for Gabbert, but it does seem that most of the context clues suggest that he has a similar makeup as Ryan to have success at the next level.