While the Panthers have multiple holes to fill without a 3rd-round pick this season, they’re going to have to make the best out of each choice. I can even see them as one of the top teams looking to trade back into the middle of the first round in order to pick up that 3rd since they’re going to get help whether they pick 9th or 19th overall. Unless Morris Claiborne is still inexplicably around at 9, the Panthers would probably do well to find that trading partner. Carolina’s defense last season was equally porous against the pass and the run, so they need multiple starters just on defense alone. The offense will be able to score as Cam led them from 32nd all the way up to fifth in the NFL in terms of yardage. While the offense has needs, they aren’t nearly as glaring as the defensive ones, and Ron Rivera is a Defensive guru having been a linebacker on probably the most dominant defense of all time, the 1985 Chicago Bears.
With that in mind, it must gnaw at him that they simply couldn’t stop the run last year. With all the whiffing the Miami Dolphins have done with their coaching searches, the failed Manning chase and Free Agency in general think about this: the Panthers had one of the Dolphins’ 2011 7th round rejects manning (gah! I cannot escape that word!) one of the DT spots – Frank Kearse. The kid actually played okay, all things considered, but they need an infusion of talent everywhere on defense but the interior line in particular. There appears to be three top-tier DTs that should all go someplace in round one, so they can trade back and still have at least one of the three available. The interesting thing is each one brings something a little different to the table:
Dontari Poe, 6-4 346, Memphis: Edgar Allen errr I mean Dontari would look awesome in a Ravens uniform, but there’s zero chance he’ll fall to them. ALL players have SOME question mark whether it’s tiny or gaping, but Poe showed incredible athletic ability at the NFL combine with his combo of speed in the 40 and quickness in the shuttles for a man 350 pounds in size. It’s just not quite right that he should be able to move like that and comparisons to the agile and massive true Raven, Haloti Ngata, run rampant. The one obvious question mark is his ability to hold up and play at a high level consistently as he faced lesser competition as a Memphis Tiger in college and his game tape didn’t really match up with his freakish combine skills. There’s a small but very real possibility he’s a Workout Warrior and I’m thinking his interviews with teams at the Combine will shape his ultimate draft position as much as anything will. Specifically, he’d be the run-stopping plug at the 3-technique in Carolina’s 4-3 defense and a significant upgrade as a rookie. If he’s at all coachable, Rivera should have him up to speed by midseason if not earlier. If he goes to a 3-4 team, he’d be more of an asset as an end with his combination of size, strength, and overall athletic ability which would be somewhat wasted at the 0-technique. I think he’d really shine best as a 3-4 end setting the edge against the run and putting occasional pressure on enemy QBs, but in the Panthers’ 4-3 he’d be the run-stopper with a dash of penetrating ability. The ‘rub’ on this guy in my opinion will be his ability to adjust to the level of competition and I think he’s got the biggest chance at being a bust of the three. Moderately high risk/reward guy simply due to playing at Memphis.
Michael Brockers, 6-5 322, LSU: If Poe is the Workout Warrior, Brockers is the Workout Wuss. He put up terrible measurables at the NFL Combine, running an Eisenesque 5.36 40 and only put up 19 bench reps. 19 reps for a DT? Not so hot when you consider the woeful Dolphins’ drafted a 205 lb corner named Vontae Davis who did 25 reps at the 2009 combine. However, Brockers really helped himself at his Pro day by weighing in at 316 pounds and running a bit better 5.15 40. He put up 21 reps this time, and what all the small improvements mean is that he’s been training since the combine. That helps show he’s got a good work ethic. However, this kid has several things to consider aside from his still-pedestrian measurables. First, his arms are 35 inches long and players with very long arms generally don’t bench press as well as others do. Look at short-armed Melvin Ingram who posted 28 bench reps while being 50 pounds lighter than Brockers. Brockers is also only 20 years old and likely hasn’t finished filling out his frame. The biggest positives he has are his game tape and his instincts. You can’t look at his tape and not be impressed and you can’t coach either one. Even against Alabama in 2 games, he dominated the first meeting and played pretty well in the BCS title contest. He’s rarely fooled and indeed often diagnoses plays very quickly, which can give him a step or two quick start to help mask his lack of footspeed. He can play either the 0 or the 3-tech but I think he would be a better 0-tech than Poe. When he doesn’t want to be moved, he generally doesn’t get moved and stands up quite well to double-teams. Then there’s the SEC, so you know he shined brightly against top college competition. Poe is rated slightly higher, but I’m going to go out on a limb a tad and say Brockers will wind up being the better of the two talents by his 2nd or 3rd season. The Panthers would be lucky to have him if they trade back and I think they’d ultimately be better for it. Brockers is akin to Poe in that he’d be the run-stuffer on the 4-3 line that the Panthers use, but that’s where the similarities end between he and Poe.
Fletcher Cox, 6-4 298, DT, MSU: Another SEC product, Cox is the lowest rated on the big board of the three, but not by much. Some analysts have Brockers and Cox essentially equal, but they have different talents. If Brockers is the immovable object, Cox is the unstoppable force…such as it is for rushing the passer from the DT spot. If you want to categorize a DT, there are generally 2 ways: Run-stuffer or slasher/penetrator. Ideally, you want one of each type on a 4-3 where a wiley defensive coordinator can adjust and swap the two tackles around depending on the interior OL of their opponents. The ones that can do it all well (N. Suh, W. Sapp for example) are very few and far between and none in that mold are really in this year’s draft. Cox ran a sub 4.8 at 300 pounds at the combine, demonstrating his explosiveness off the ball. He’s also probably the most polished player of the 3 and might have the highest “floor” of the group. He can get pressure up the middle to throw off opposing QBs and is a nightmare matchup for offensive linemen in single-blocking schemes. Cox can play inside on a 4-3 or end in a 3-4 much like Poe but likely would be more disruptive in the backfield than the other 2. Watch his feet and his hands on tape; both are very, very quick and nimble and if he’s on the inside in a 4-3, he won’t have to deal with fighting off chip-blocks.
If you look at the young talent on the Panthers’ interior DL, you see a lot of big strong young players in the run-stuffer style but nobody Special – thus the need at the position. ANY of the three guys I’ve listed would help improve that in their own way. Poe will need some playing time before he begins to figure out what he can and can’t do at the NFL level but is capable of tweaking his game with his inherent athleticism and size. Cox would be more of a guy who can blow up plays here and there in the backfield, forcing 2nd or 3rd and longs for the other team’s offense and those are often drive-killing plays, but he’s not going to stand up to being run right at over and over again. Brockers is likely the best overall run-stopper and the player with the highest ceiling of the 3, but probably won’t see that ceiling until his 2nd or 3rd year.
The final question relates directly to the Panthers front office, Ron Rivera’s and his defensive coaches scheme, and how they want to build from the inside out. If they really want that DT anchor against the run, Brockers is likely the best choice. If they want a disruptive guy, it’s Cox. If they want the most versatile guy overall, it’s Poe. This is where a good GM and front office will separate themselves from the average ones. I’ve said for a long time now that the NFL draft isn’t just about getting the best talent, it’s about getting the best VALUE. If Poe is who they’re sold on, that means they likely cannot trade back with KC having similar needs defensively at 11. If Rivera & Co. can live with any of the 3, the smart thing to do would indeed be to trade back to the 15th or 16th pick (Philly may want to move up and grab a Luke Keuchley), grab their DT there, and replace the 3rd round pick they don’t have. While I think Cox would also help them, I see him as a bit more of a luxury pick for Carolina. If the Panthers are looking for TWO DTs in the draft, Cox would probably be the choice as really good penetrating DTs are rather rare and other run-stoppers can be found in the 2nd round as they are the more common “style” of DT.
Finally, I’d have to say a week ago I figured Carolina was still a year away from making a good playoff run due to Tampa Bay’s extensive off-season overhaul but Bountygate, as Slate pointed out in his most recent post, means the Saints are going to be hard-pressed to repeat their success of the recent past because there’s no Sean Peyton (gah! First manning, then ‘Peyton’ – there is no escape!) at all this year and he’s known to be an overly-meticulous planner. That sort of personality cannot be replaced, Drew Brees hasn’t signed his Franchise tag, and he’s reportedly furious over his treatment from the brass. The Falcons were relatively quiet, re-signing likely future HOF DE John Abraham but that team is starting to age with Tony Gonzalez at what, 38 now? Michael Turner is entering his 9th campaign and Abraham is going to be 34 at the start of the season so their window is beginning to narrow. The NFC South should have 4 teams with no losing records but the Saints could easily wind up at the bottom looking up without a 2nd rounder until the 2014 draft.
Whatever the case, the NFC South is in for an exciting season.