Oct 8, 2011; Birmingham, AL, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive lineman Fletcher Cox (94) tackles UAB Blazers running back Greg Franklin (24) from behind at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIRE

Top Rookies for Panthers Top Pick

Assuming all-world LSU CB Morris Claiborne is off the board at #9 overall, the Panthers should be able to pick the #2 or #3 overall defensive player there. Unless Justin Blackmon is available at that same spot, there should be a group of 3-5 prospects that Ron Rivera & co. will be eyeing very closely, with each highly-touted youngster having some question marks. The idea is A) not to completely miss on your top-ten choice and B) get the guy who will make your team better the most. I don’t see Michael Floyd, the ND WR, going to the Panthers even considering Steve Smith is entering a contract year and the Panthers really have no other good WRs on the roster. I’d be very surprised if Smith stays in Carolina after 2012 with his age and likely salary demands, so there’s a lot to consider.

The press likes to highlight the measurables and harps on them constantly, I think the Combine is seen more as a way for players to show what NFL officials already know from the tape, and all else being equal, the tape wins out. After all, games aren’t won or lost on a player’s 3-cone drill time and the interview process is largely ignored unless someone makes a big splash one way or the other. Claiborne had a whopping “4” on his Wonderlic test and it won’t hurt his draft stock at all. Makes me wonder why they even give the thing.

Here are my own choices, in descending order of likelihood of being drafted by the Panthers in the first round:

Michael Brockers, DT, LSU – He is the best pure run-plugger of any of the DTs in the draft. The fact that he did so in college in the SEC on a regular basis overcomes his average at best measurables at the NFL Combine. I’ve always said game tape trumps the Combine, and the Combine can be as much of a trap for some players (Remember Vontaze Burflict’s poor performance, then his whining that ‘the coaches done messed me up’ afterward? He’s an example of exactly how NOT to act) as it puts some players on the map (Dontari Poe, Stephen Hill) or solidifies/answers questions about others (Luke Keuchley). Brockers is a case where it did neither one. While his results in the physical drills were more remarkable for his lack of ability than supporting what was seen on tape, it means the game tape is still the best indicator of how well a player should perform at the next level. “Cat-quick” agility that he does possess would certainly fit in with the Panther meme, wouldn’t it? The old saying describes this guy “The greatest players perform their best in big games.” Brockers had 7 tackles (a LOT for a DT) in the BCS Title game, one of those for a loss and added a blocked FG. He can play any position in the Panthers’ 4-3 defense and his natural pass-rushing ability is starting to develop. He plays through to the whistle and when you add in no off-field issues OR injury history along with his youth, he’s as close to a can’t-miss prospect as there will be on the board.

Luke Kuechley, MLB, Boston College – This tackling machine wowed at the combine, coming in heavier and faster than thought. He also did extremely well in all the drills, showing team officials exactly why he’s led the BC Eagles in tackles the past three seasons. Comparisons to Zach Thomas, the former Dolphin standout, abound and if he can play at that level he should go a long way to solidify the middle of the Panthers’ defense against the run. Since Ron Rivera is a former linebacker, there’s a very real chance they could take this special MLB up here and address the DT position in round two since the class is so deep this year. This is where draft strategy and knowledge of overall talent levels could work in the Panthers’ favor, as I don’t think they’ll find a MLB with this sort of ability in the second round and could grab Keuchley while hoping a Jerel Worthy is around for their second-round choice.

Fletcher Cox, DT, MSU – Another kid who plays hard through the whistle, his interior pass-rush skills are more developed than are Brockers’ and he’s similarly young like the LSU product. He can play any position in the 4-3 also like Brockers. However, he was suspended for the team opener for violating “team rules,” but came back to play hard the entire season to prove his dedication to his craft. He’s a better gap penetrator than is Brockers, but relies too often on the bull-rush than some of his toolbox moves and that’s not going to work in the NFL. He has good quickness but not elite explosive power off the ball to knock back so it will be harder to knock NFL linemen off-balance so he can use his agility to take advantage of situation to get by them. He doesn’t hold up as well as Brockers does against the run, but pressures the pass pocket up the middle better than Brockers. This kid actually has some growing to do as well, so he could be quite imposing by his 2nd or third year, but has a few more question marks than Brockers does.

Quentin Coples, DE, UNC – this is the most enigmatic one of the group. He is a top-ten talent who may slide because of questions on his motor, but the Panthers really need an edge rusher opposite Charles Johnson. Coples has the athletic ability, burst and explosion to be a force in the Panthers’ scheme, but I think he has too many concerns over his desire/attitude to take this high. If he can put those to rest through the interview process, there’s a chance he could be Carolina’s #9 pick, but I think he’ll slide a bit further at this point. Anything is possible, though.

All the questions of who goes where will be answered in a few weeks, but then another set of questions will arise: “What were they THINKING?” Fans are rarely satisfied and love to “Monday Monrning Quarterback” the moves their favorite team does, but this writer feels that either of the two tackles or the MLB would all be productive and SAFE top-ten picks.

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Tags: Fletcher Cox Luke Kuechly Michael Brockers Quentin Coples

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