Feb 25, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Texas Longhorns defensive back Kenny Vaccaro catches a pass during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers Sitting Pretty Despite Low Draft Picks

Despite selecting 28th in the first and subsequent rounds in May’s NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers are in great position to have another “impact” draft under General Manager David Gettleman. [BTW, ignore the cover photo. I didn't want to use pics from the movie "Draft Day" but technology is having other ideas today, it looks like]

Also, unlike nearly every single “pundit” I’ve seen online since the end of the regular season, I don’t necessarily think taking a wide receiver in the first round is a foregone conclusion for several reasons. Keep reading.

First of all, it is highly unlikely that ANY first-round WR will make a huge impact on the Panthers’ offense in 2014. It’s a rarity that rookie WRs make an impact anywhere, regardless of where they went in the draft or what team they went to. In 2013, my own ideas were that Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins and Cal’s Keenan Allen would be the top guys and in that order.

The reasoning was that Hopkins was entering an ideal situation, given the fact that the Texans were SUPPOSED to be a dominant team already and the presence of Andre Johnson on the other side would keep Hopkins facing single coverage against the opposition’s second-best corner. Allen, whom I knew wasn’t a burner but caught everything thrown his way, was already an unusually good route-runner coming out of college and was as polished as anyone at that point. Allen had the “great” rookie campaign while Hopkins started out fine but faded for most of the season…along with the rest of the 2-14 Texans.

Each year it seems to be the same thing – one or two rookie WRs hit the NFL gridiron where they left off in college while the others all take two or three seasons until they adjust, learn the nuances of playing the position at the NFL level, and finally hit their stride. BTW, it’s a great fantasy draft strategy to take, too – looking for WRs on the upswing ready to break out in their second, third, or possibly fourth seasons. Happens ALL the time.

Secondly, this year has a very, very strong class of receivers coming in and Gettleman doesn’t strike me as a guy who likes to gamble on receivers in the first round. Remember, he came from the New York Giants organization and helped in finding a gem of an undrafted free agent rookie WR there…some fellow named Victor Cruz. The man knows how to find good talent without spending precious draft capital to do so.

This isn’t to say he will NOT draft a WR with that 28th overall pick, but if it comes down to someone like a Kelvin Benjamin being the top-rated wideout on the board, he’ll likely “pass” on him, pardon the pun.

Also remember that Benjamin is only a redshirt sophomore coming out of FSU and didn’t even catch a pass in the BCS National Championship game until deep into the second half, and if memory serves, he had something like 4 receptions for 39 yards and wasn’t a factor.

Drafting Benjamin almost guarantees no bump in production over guys like Brandon LaFell or Ted Ginn, Jr. Benjamin is huge and reminds me of Alshon Jeffery, but Jeffery didn’t contribute his rookie season, either.

Cam needs more immediate help, and with Gettleman being a “best player available” type of draft guru, it’s quite possible that he could go for a right tackle to replace Byron Bell, who is a complete liability in pass protection. The team needs a whole new right side of an offensive line and Jordan Gross is starting to get a bit long in the tooth as well, so the plan could be to replace Bell with ideas about sliding the guy over to the left side when the time comes. Gross also began his own career as a right tackle, so a number of possibilities exist on the line for drafting someone with that late first-rounder.

Gettleman could always come back with the second-round pick and get a WR on the back end there while still grabbing someone with some good talent, depending on how the draft breaks. There likely will be a “run” on the position at some point and probably earlier than later, so not grabbing any outside threats until round three would be somewhat risky, but not a terrible idea either.

Remember, rookie receivers rarely tear up the league so Gettleman ideally would probably want some mix of whatever remaining talent he could keep – if at a fair value – along with perhaps a modest free agent veteran along with a couple of rookies. Smitty probably returns and I think Ginn earned a roster spot for next year. Past that? Perhaps ex-Giant Domenic Hixon can hang around as a reserve with a bit of an increased role, but Gettleman already knew him from their days in New York and was a third-stringer on a team without a consistent threat at the position.

That said, I don’t see Gettleman getting more than one in the draft unless the second one is a fifth-rounder at the earliest, but he has to consider replacing Smitty soon, too. Every year, some receivers fall in the draft so perhaps he’s hoping to catch one of those. Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers “fell” to that third round and made more noise than any other rookie WR last year.

I just know that since the modern CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) went into effect, the NFL Draft has been crazier than ever with more teams willing to trade picks because of the rookie wage scale. Prognosticating it accurately is really a fool’s errand beyond about the top five guys anymore.

The team also needs a true #1 cornerback, although they have some talented younger guys back there. Nobody really stepped up to stake their claim as the team’s dominant corner, so if a top CB falls to 28, Gettleman might pull the trigger on one of those.

As I see it, WR isn’t the only “need” area for the Panthers. CB, RT, and RG are likely targets on May 8th. Perhaps a strong safety is there to replace Godfrey down the road, but that’s a remote chance. It’s also possible Gettleman could go ahead and draft a monster pass-rusher at DE, assuming Greg Hardy isn’t back with the team due to his jump in cost, but Hardy was a sixth-rounder when he was drafted. Replacing him with anything higher would still be a net loss of draft capital.

Narrowing that down from those four positions in round one is difficult at best for reasons I mentioned. Gettleman is a “best player available” type of GM and is unlikely to reach for anyone.

The other option for the WR position is free agency, but the Panthers won’t be going after a top-tier guy with the cap issues at hand. Perhaps an Eric Decker could be targeted, but I have a feeling even he might be too expensive to sign. I also found it very, very interesting that Gettleman, being fresh from the Giants organization, showed little to no interest in trading for Hakeem Nicks when he had a chance to last year, when he likely could have gotten him for a low-end pick as his contract was running out.

I’m not sure if it was just because he didn’t want to give up a pick or not, but more production on the outside at WR was sorely needed during the stretch/playoff run last year and Gettleman didn’t budge. I’m not sure if that says more about his NFL “world view” or if he knows negative things about Nicks that we fans do not, but no movement there last year was interesting just as the non-factor that it turned out to be.

Either way you slice it, a deep draft class at WR and a deeper than usual class at CB should play right into Gettleman’s hands.

Stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

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