The 2012 NFL draft is still a long ways away, but the Carolina Panthers are currently 3-8 and are looking like they are poised to finish as one of the worst 10 teams in the league. If that happens it means the Panthers will pick up a top-10 draft pick for the second year in a row.
There are plenty of holes that the Panthers need to fill, however, they have shown improved play this season and look like a much better team than a year ago. Yet in the the NFL the only thing that matters is the amount of wins you finish with.
But for the Panthers this season, being competitive is just as important as the number of wins that they compile in the win column. There are a number of quality prospects in this year’s draft class, and with the quarterback position solidified, the Panthers can turn their focus elsewhere.
Here’s a list of seven prospects that Carolina will seriously consider—if available—when April’s draft rolls around.
Matt Kalil, OT, USC
The top offensive tackle in the draft would get to play with his brother Ryan if he was selected by the Panthers. If Matt ends up in a Panther uniform it means that Carolina ended up with a top-five pick.
There’s a lot to like about Kalil’s game, but what is most impressive is how he excels in both pass protection and run blocking. At 6’7″, 295 pounds, Kalil has the size and mobility to be a dominant tackle at the next level.
Carolina lost oft-injured right tackle Jeff Otah for the season earlier this year and now there are concerns about whether or not his knees will hold up over the long haul. It was the third time in four years that the big tackle ended up on injured reserve.
With long-term concerns about Otah, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Panthers took Kalil to help bolster the offensive line.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
The biggest riser in this year’s draft is easily Claiborne. Despite his lean frame the LSU star is a pure cover corner who has scouts raving about his potential.
If you haven’t noticed, the Panthers need help across the board on defense. Right now, Claiborne is the best defensive player in the draft unless you consider the inconsistent Quinton Coples to be better.
With Chris Gamble getting up there in age, and a lack of depth at the position, the Panthers would be wise to take the budding star. Don’t be fooled by Carolina’s relatively solid numbers against the pass, as far as yardage goes.
This unit has been torched routinely when tested, but the porous run defense has meant fewer pass attempts for opposing teams. Bottom line is that the Panthers desperately could use Claiborne’s cover skills at the position.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Depending on who you talk to, Jeffery is the best wide receiver in this year’s class. His unique size and hands make him a load to handle.
By no means is he a finished product yet, which makes him an even more fascinating prospect. Jeffery needs work on his route running and doesn’t possess breakaway speed necessarily. But he finds ways to get open and brings back memories of Calvin Johnson at Georgia Tech.
If Jeffery had a consistent quarterback at South Carolina his numbers would look much better. Instead, his production doesn’t always match the talent he possesses due to poor quarterback play.
The Panthers have a terrific wide receiver in Steve Smith, but he is going to be 33 years old next season. Pairing him with Jeffery would make for a dynamic duo and would give Cam Newton a big target to go to in the red zone.
Coples has drawn comparisons to former UNC star Julius Peppers even though his play hasn’t warranted it. The two possess similar frames but not statistics. In college, Peppers was a dominant player who racked up sacks over his tenure with the Tar Heels.
The same can’t be said for Coples, who has been inconsistent this season and struggled at times. Nevertheless, he projects to be an impact player in the NFL. At 6’6″, 285 pounds, there’s no doubting that Coples has the body to be a big-time pass-rusher; he just hasn’t shown it at the college level this year.
If he lives up to what scouts are expecting him to be, it would be a great addition for the Panthers defense. Coples would be paired with dominant pass-rusher Charles Johnson. The two differ greatly as Johnson is more power than finesse.
Having two dangerous pass-rushers would help the Panthers secondary out and cause opposing quarterbacks constant worry.
Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona St.
The emotional linebacker out of Arizona State has shown on the field this season that he has great potential. Thomas Davis and Jon Beason both went down with season-ending injuries this year for the Panthers, and it has exposed the lack of depth Carolina has.
Adding Burfict would give the Panthers a dynamite linebacker who has Pro Bowl potential if he can channel his emotions into playing disciplined football. Where he gets into trouble is getting wrapped up with other players and taking poor penalties.
Whoever gets this dynamic linebacker is going to get a guy that has a great passion for the game.
One of the areas the Panthers need to address this offseason is the run defense. Burfict excels in stopping the run and isn’t shy about laying a good hard hit on an opponent.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma St.
If Jeffery is the top receiver in the 2012 class, Blackmon is a close second. The production that Blackmon is currently putting up is ridiculous. He routinely finds the end zone, racks up receptions and yards but doesn’t have the size that Jeffery possesses.
The ball skills are there for Blackmon and he has great body control. At this point in his career he is the most complete wide receiver in the nation. Carolina has a need for another receiver as mentioned earlier, and it would be getting potentially the next Terrell Owens sans drama.
Come April, Blackmon will get a long look from the Panthers.
Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson
The Panthers are downright terrible against the run this year. Of course the absence of Davis and Beason has hurt, but it’s been the struggles of the defensive tackles that have been Carolina’s biggest problem.
Terrell McClain and Sione Fua were both brought in via the draft to bolster the defensive line for the Panthers. The only problem is that they don’t have enough experience under their belt to make a difference at this stage of their careers.
Bringing a high-level prospect at defensive tackle would give Ron Rivera’s defense an instant boost. Thompson has a high motor and is best at playing the run. The Panthers desperately need a big body to eat up space in the middle and help stop opposing running backs.