The Carolina Panthers were one of the National Football League‘s big surprise teams during the 2011 season, but entering this year, all eyes will be on them. Rookie of the Year quarterback Cam Newton proved to be well worth the number one pick in the draft last year, but the Cats may have even topped themselves this year.
First round pick (overall No. 9) Luke Kuechly (left and below) of Boston College had three outstanding seasons in the ACC. He was one of the most prolific tacklers in major college football history. NFL analyst Mike Mayock said, “I call him Clark Kent, and he can turn into Superman on Saturdays and Sundays. He’s one of the cleanest players in this draft. His instincts and his pass-coverage ability might be the best of any linebacker I’ve seen come out of the draft.”
ESPN analyst and two-time All-Pro linebacker Tedy Bruschi loved the first round selection. “He’s smart. He’s instinctive. This guy is going to be a star.”
Carolina general manager Marty Hurney’s draft strategy has always been to take the best available player, regardless of position. Kuechly was rated higher on the Panthers’ board than any other player, including several defensive linemen, the perceived biggest need on the team.
His versatility was lauded by Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera after the draft. His primary position at BC was middle linebacker, but he also played outside at times.
The Panthers already have a proven middle backer, Jon Beason, and he too has played on the outside. During the 2010 season, Beason moved outside due to the loss of Thomas Davis to the second of three knee injuries. This allowed the Panthers to put their three healthiest linebackers in the lineup together (Beason, James Anderson and Dan Connor).
In 2012, this will again be the goal. Beason, Anderson, Davis and Kuechly will be the top four. Beason and Davis are still recuperating from injuries that cost them nearly the entire 2011 season, so adding a healthy, young linebacker like Kuechly was important to the team. Connor, the Cats’ third-leading tackler in 2011, signed with Dallas as a free agent in the off-season. Depth, obviously, is something that the Panthers now have at linebacker.
In the second round, with the 40th pick, the Panthers choose a 6’4″, 314-pound offensive lineman from Division II Midwestern State. Many fans may not have been familiar with Amini Silatolu (left and below), but if you followed any of the mock drafts, the name should be. Pro Football Weekly ranked Silatolu as the 22nd-best prospect entering the draft and Peter King of Sports Illustrated rated his selection as the best offensive pick of the entire draft. King stated, “GM Marty Hurney got a great value here. He’ll bring an attitude and versatility to the Panthers and should be a 10-year starter wherever Carolina needs him.”
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay also said Silatolu was a great pick. He called him the most impactful player in the Panthers’ draft. “I think he is a phenomenally talented offensive guard. Should be a starter Day One.”
Mayock was also very high on Silatolu. “That is a good football player, my beast from Midwestern State. He’s tough, nasty, a finisher. He’s a little bit raw. He’s a gifted player, but he’s raw. But I’m telling you right now that he’s a starting guard with Pro Bowl potential. This is a good move by Carolina.”
The Panthers offensive line should be stronger this year. Jordan Gross will be at left tackle, Ryan Kalil at center, Jeff Otah at right tackle (as well as Byron Bell who replaced the injured Otah for much of last season). Bruce Campbell, acquired in a trade from the Oakland Raiders, adds more depth.
Right guard Geoff Hangartner returns after starting every game last year. He will be joined by Silatolu, Mike Pollak, a free agent with starting experience (Indianapolis Colts) and Garry Williams, who started 11 games at right tackle in 2010, and who was set to start at right guard last year before being injured.
Depth, again, is an outstanding thing to have, and the Panthers have that on offensive line. Getting five of the best lineman together as a unit is the objective. My thoughts are if Silatolu does not start to open the season, he still will get a lot of playing time and will gain valuable experience. Look for him to be a starter by early October.
In the fourth round (No. 104), the Cats chose Frank Alexander (left and below), a defensive end from Oklahoma. The 6’4″ 271 pounder was a good choice. Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network described him as one of the top 12 value picks of the entire draft. “Alexander has great arm length and inside quickness and he seems to have a knack for making plays. The ex-Sooner should be able to contribute to the Panthers defensive right away.”
Analyst Bucky Brooks of nfl.com said, “Alexander gives the Panthers another hard-working edge defender to add to the rotation. He offers some pass-rush ability as a situational player.”
The Panthers already have Charles Johnson, a pass rusher who has proven track record (20.5 sacks over the past two seasons). Defensively, the Panthers need improvement if they are going to make noise this season and contend for a playoff spot. The team averages less than two sacks per game since the beginning of the 2010 season, and that must improve. Facing outstanding quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice, plus one game against Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Robert Griffin III, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick and Philip Rivers, will be a challenge. It is easy to see why the D-line needs to get pressure on the quarterbacks. And…to warm up for the regular season, the Panthers scheduled games against Houston Texans (Matt Schwab), New York Jets (Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow) and the final pre-season game at the Pittsburgh Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger).
Having a second pick in the fourth round (No. 105), the Panthers may also have chosen a gem in the rough. Joe Adams (wide receiver, Arkansas) according to Pete Priscoe, senior NFL columnist for CBSSports.com, was the Panthers’ best pick and did so without noting his exceptional ability as a punt returner. “Fourth-round receiver Joe Adams (left) is a nice player. He has the look of a good slot receiver.”
The former Razorback was described this way by Brooks: “Adams adds an explosive dimension to the Panthers’ passing game. He will contribute as a No. 3 receiver initially before occupying a bigger role down the road.”
Fifth round pick (No. 143), cornerback Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina), was McShay’s choice as the Panthers’ most intriguing pick, saying he could be a steal. Priscoe called Norman (left) a “Third-Day Gem”: “(He) comes from small-school Coastal Carolina. He impressed during the season, but didn’t have a great Senior Bowl week. Some scouts think it was too big for him. But he has the ability if he can adjust.”
And Brooks said he, “is a terrific pick for the Panthers. He is a natural corner with outstanding length and athleticism. His superb ball skills will certainly improve the Panthers’ ability to create turnovers.”
In the 6th round (No. 207, a Compensatory selection), the Panthers took a flier on 6’2″ 213- pound Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman (left). This is a huge need for Carolina and Nortman has been a steady, reliable punter for the Badgers, with a strong leg and consistency. He routinely kicked more than 45 yards and is accurate in placing the ball inside the 20-yard line. Every now and then, however, he has a tendency to let the ball get away from him and shank one off to his left, but this is a problem that the Panthers’ coaching staff will address.
“Nortman is a strong-legged prospect capable of punting for distance or touch. He addresses a huge need for the Panthers,” according to Brooks.
Round 7 (No. 216) saw California free safety D.J. Campbell (left) become a Panther. Brooks’ analysis of the last pick for the Panthers: “Campbell could emerge as a surprise for the Panthers. His size and athleticism helps him function in the deep middle.” And that’s a place where opposing quarterbacks will definitely be attacking .
Experts have given the Panthers draft grades ranging from mostly B’s to an A-. That’s the great thing about a draft…you really cannot analyze it until a few years down the road. If what I have written here comes through, the 2012 NFL Draft will be one to remember for the Panthers.