As usual, it has been a struggle to prognosticate how the NFL Draft will fall and my own impression is that, once again, NOBODY will get the top-ten right. Just look at the drafts since the rookie wage scale was instituted and the increase in trades as a result.
Top-ten rookie salaries were really getting out of hand by the end of the last collective bargaining agreement. I think St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford was the last of the money-raking top rookies, pulling in around $50 million with his initial contract. That’s a lot of money to be spending on an unknown NFL commodity.
Case in point: Most current “mock drafts” have the Panthers taking Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson or Utah DT Star Lotulelei (pronounced low-too-luh-LAY), but now that the younger free agents have settled down to their new teams, it appears several teams may be FORCED to trade up at some point.
For example, there’s one glaring need for one of the most active teams in free agency in the offseason: The Miami Dolphins.
Now, they already have the #12 overall pick, so they won’t be trading with Carolina since they’ll be targeting number 6 – those trading-back Cleveland Browns – in order to assure they can nab Oklahoma LT Lane Johnson.
There are 3 top-tier offensive tackles in this year’s draft and the positional value is second only to that of quarterback. However, with no sure-fire top-ten QBs in this draft, other than perhaps West Virginia’s Geno Smith, the OT positional value increases even more. Texas A&M LT Luke Joeckel will likely go first overall as the Kansas City Chiefs have an apparent plan already in motion when they franchised their current LT, Branden Albert, and will probably put Joeckel in to start on the right side while using him as leverage in contract negotiations with Albert next year, or even trading Albert this year and starting Joeckel on the left side.
LT Eric Fisher from Central Michigan looks to go 4th overall to the Eagles, who have Jason Peters coming off a severe injury early last season. That leaves only one top-tier LT in the entire draft, and the Detroit Lions might even take Johnson at 5, so the Dolphins might have to use some of the picks they’ve stockpiled to move up the seven spots to get him.
What does this have to do with the Panthers? Well, nothing directly, but it’s emblematic of the NFL’s overall willingness to trade since salaries are no longer the driving issue.
But…with whom, and why?
The “why” for the Carolina Panthers is the easy part…they have no third-round pick and only have 5 choices for the entire draft thanks to the (valid) Frank Alexander trade last season. With needs at OG, RT, DT, FS, WR, and OLB, they’ll have more holes to fill than they can possibly get through the draft, but one more pick, even further back in the first round, would be a big welcome thing in a draft deep in linemen on both sides.
Who would jump up and grab a pick like the 14th overall in the middle of the first round – and for whom, and why?
One answer is WR Tavon Austin, but I’ve already talked about him in a previous post. He’s “only” a slot WR, is the most explosive player in the entire draft, and the Panthers drafted a similar player last year – the embattled WR/KR Joe Adams. The Panthers since signed WR/KR Ted Ginn,, jr. as a low-cost upgrade at KR and a guy who has the size and speed to play on the outside. The Panthers could still use an upgrade for his WR part, but with the position they’re in right now, that’s not a pressing issue.
Austin won’t go in the top-ten, but if a team falls in love with him, they could well slide up to nab him.
The best indicator of a possible trade is to look at the teams drafting directly after the Panthers…which would be the New Orleans Saints at #15 overall and the St. Louis Rams at #16.
While the Saints’ WRs are aging, they really need help on the defense. That’s where a team could come in and trade with Carolina in order to get a Sheldon Richardson, who is a prototype slasher/penetrator at the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense. Think Fletcher Cox from last year’s draft class as a comparison. The Saints could be targeting Lotulelei as a 3-4 end, so #14 might be the spot to be to get value as well as possibly get in on the “DT-run” that could easily start with Tampa Bay at #13. A team trading up would be able to spend a little less for #14 than #13 while ensuring they’ll be able to get one of the guys they’re targeting.
Remember last season when the top 3 DTs went in 3 consecutive picks.
The St. Louis Rams will almost certainly look to replace departed slot WR Danny Amendola, who went to the Patriots after the Patriots lost Wes Welker to Peyton Manning’s Broncos and Tavon Austin would be an upgrade over Amendola. He ran a sub 4.3-40 at the NFL Scouting Combine, and it’s unlikely he’ll make it past the Rams at 16.
With the Saints having offensive-minded Sean Payton as their head coach, the Saints’ strategy going into the draft could well be to use their first-rounder on offense while using later picks (no 2nd-rounder – forfeited from last year’s “Bountygate” scandal) for defense…the idea being to “top-off” their offense, keeping it explosive with Drew Brees & co. while adding enough on defense to improve enough so they have a good shot of outscoring their opponent in a shootout-style game.
There’s also the fact that the Panthers could be eyeing Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, the head-and-shoulders top safety in the draft. It’s possible the Bucs could grab him at 13, but if not, it gives the Panthers several top-notch players at their position to choose from. All it takes is a single team to feel the need to trade up, and I’m sure GM David Gettleman will be willing to deal – for the right price.
Lastly, there is a 4th offensive tackle from a big-time program that could possibly move up the draft board enough to be a target around the 14th pick, and that would be Alabama’s RIGHT tackle, D.J. Fluker. He’s another guy the Bucs could like and wind up taking, but they only have the one choice. If they take Fluker, that means Tavon Austin, Sheldon Richardson, and Kenny Vaccaro will all be around when the Panthers are on the clock.
The more I look at the possibilities, the better I think things are looking for the Panthers to actually be able to find a trade partner…and get that third pick they really need in the top three rounds so they can get three probable starters from this year’s draft instead of two…and improve that much more over last year.