Apr 28, 2011; New York, NY, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks before the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE

A Look at the First-Round Choices for Panther Needs

The Draft is coming up fast now, and the Panthers are in the home stretch run on deciding how to approach the rebuilding process in year 2 under the Ron Rivera regime.

My previous mock drafts all had LSU DT Michael Brockers going to the Panthers at 9 despite everyone’s ravings about Dontari Poe’s legendary Combine effort. I knew that he would slide when reality set in as it seems to do every season. Some guys get a big initial boost from the Combine and stick but others get the boost and slide down the polls faster than Newt Gingrich did post-South Carolina Primary time. I knew that he had pedestrian game tape from Memphis, a Conference-USA team and even said he’d slide down, possibly to the bottom and/or completely out of the first round.

He’s been slowly but surely pulling his Paul Simon “Slip-Slidin’ Away” impression ever since. The second half of the first round is where he will probably wind up if he gets by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Neither kid will be drafted by the Panthers at ninth overall. I’ve always liked MSU’s Fletcher Cox because of the unique interior/gap penetrating style he had in college. He also answered any “intangibles” questions that might come up with his play. He was suspended for the first game in 2011 for violating unspecified team rules. Normally, this isn’t a huge deal by itself if it only happens once – kids sometimes need to be reminded of their place on the team.

Cox responded by playing lights-out football for the rest of the season. That’s the sort of character GMs WANT to see, and Cox’s tool set makes him stand apart from the other top-5 DT prospects in this year’s draft. He had 5 sacks last season in college and has very good upper-body strength to fight and knock interior OL off-balance enough to use his agility to beat them. He’s also very fast for his size, running a sub 4.8-40 at the Combine.

Sure, Michael Brockers is more stout against the run than Cox, but he’s also 25 pounds heavier. Both have the frame to add a little weight, and I think Cox will eventually play in the NFL at around 310-315 pounds. Cox has good quickness off the snap, has outstanding speed for the position, and can use that pop off the ball along with his elite agility to get by an unbalanced offensive lineman so he can make plays in the backfield against the pass and the run, both.

Rivera knows it’s plays specifically like this that can kill a drive. Turn a 1st and 10 into a 2nd and 13, and you’ve got a nice shot at a 3-and-out. Drive-killing plays are obviously key for defensive stops and that’s what Cox specializes in. Cox is also, specifically speaking, a player that is built from the ground-up to be a 3-technique DT. The Panthers run a 4-3. That checks out, then.

Brockers should be a wonderful run-stopper and probably will fit into the Eagles’ “wide-9″ defense perfectly as one of those 2 tackles in the center. Cox wouldn’t be as effective there perhaps because of more chances of getting double-teamed, and both lack the explosiveness to be as effective a 4-3 DE as they will be a DT, even if either one CAN play DE…but this is not a case of trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

Dontari Poe’s measurables are better than anyone’s at the position, but he’s got the underachiever label and questions around him with his game tape not matching his physical ability. That’s the cause of his sliding, but I wasn’t sold on him from the start at 9, either. If Rivera wants a DT, Cox should be the pick as he’s got a motor that just will not quit.

Tossing aside LSU CB Claiborne, who should be drafted at 9 if he’s still there but very probably won’t be, there are two other prospects that would fit the bill.

One is BC MLB Luke Kuechley. He’s by far the top-rated ILB on the board and he showed up at the Combine bigger and faster than anyone thought he was. They knew of his tackle-machine game tape but weren’t sold on him athletically. Now, they are. However, the nature of ILB as a position decreases the chances of his being drafted in the top ten. He’s now sort of stuck in the middle-first-round category without any chance of sliding out of the first round completely, so he’ll go somewhere in the 10th to the teens area, most likely. Buffalo could use him at ten, but again, that’s a bit high for a MLB these days.

He certainly is as much of a can’t-miss pick on defense as there is and would greatly help the Panthers seal up the middle against the run, which they were woefully inadequate against in 2011. Massive injuries to the Panther LB corps didn’t help, and the rookie DTs they used played like rookies. If not Cox, and if it’s too early for Kuechley, then who else?

South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore has been rising steadily over the past couple of weeks and some people now see him as the #2 CB in the entire draft, surpassing Alabama’s ‘Dre Kirkpatrick and possibly being a top-ten pick. I disagree. While Gilmore has elite instincts, his downside is his man-to-man coverage skills, especially against the deep ball.

He lacks elite speed to recover when he’s beaten and will be burned at the NFL level. His strength is his zone coverage and staying on top of short routes to deliver a hit or break up, but a corner like that is best-suited for a team that can get a good pass rush from their defensive line. Since the DL and secondary are the Panther’s weak spots, I don’t see him as being a good fit in their scheme – not to mention being somewhat of a reach at #9 overall.

He’d be a nice fit if the Panthers already HAD Cox and could pressure the QB with their front four. They’re not there yet.

But what if a Justin Blackmon slides to nine, or if Michael Floyd somehow convinces teams he’s worthy of a top-ten selection with 3 alcohol arrests at Notre Dame? Should the Panthers take one or the other?

No, for several reasons. Steve Smith would have been in a contract year, and I’d have been surprised to see the Panthers sign him long-term after the season at his age. They negotiated, met in the middle someplace, and have him nailed down for the rest of his productive career.

This newly-found stability with Smith at WR and Newton at QB should, along with the Panther running game, be enough such that the franchise decides to help the defense with their top pick. With no 3rd round selection, it’s even more imperative that the Panthers get help for the defense.

The depth in this draft at the WR position is the best of any in the draft, including the defensive tackles, and the Panthers should be able to find WR help in the 4th round as a result.

Fletcher Cox would be my top pick with Michael Brockers and Luke Kuechley being tied for a fairly close second.

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Tags: Dontari Poe Fletcher Cox Luke Kuechley Michael Brockers Michael Floyd Stephon Gilmore

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