Round 1, 28th overall:
The Carolina Panthers reached in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft Thursday night to get a weapon for franchise quarterback Cam Newton. For the first time since taking Rae Carruth in 1997, the team’s third year in existence, the Panthers used their first overall pick on a wide receiver, taking Florida State Seminole star Kelvin Benjamin. At 6’ 5” 240 pounds Benjamin is a rare physical talent. Few receivers from the draft, if any, have the potential Benjamin has considering his size, athleticism, and speed (4.61 40). It’s a reach in the sense that Benjamin has notable issues – specifically dropped passes, poor route running skills, and sub-par run blocking abilities.
Going into the draft the Panthers had specific needs: wide receiver, offensive linemen, and defensive back, specifically cornerback, all of which were available at the 28th spot. Among the notables were safety Jimmie Ward (NIU), cornerback Bradley Roby (Ohio State), guard Xavier Su’A-Filo (UCLA), offensive linemen Joel Bitonio (Nevada), and probably most notable, wide receiver Marqise Lee (USC). Once considered a top-10 draft pick a year ago, injury concerns kept Lee out of the first round, and off of the Panther’s draft board. My colleague Scott Braswell explains the possible reasoning behind the Panther’s passing on Lee.
Higher rated players were certainly on the board when the Panther’s number was called, but considering Benjamin’s ceiling – literally – he may have been the player with the most potential.
Round 2, 60th pick:
Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Panthers drafted Ealy because he was available, simple as that. Many draft analyzers had Ealy billed as a first-round talent, perhaps the best defensive end in the draft besides Jadeveon Clowney. At 6’ 4” 273 pounds Ealy possesses athletic ability similar to Jadeveon Clowney, and despite a relatively poor 40-yard dash at the combine, he excelled at his pro day. Considered the best pass rusher in the draft besides Clowney and Khalil Mack, the supposed poor combine and questions about the work required to refine Ealy are the only things imaginable keeping him out of the first round, which couldn’t have worked out better for the Panthers. As Gettleman said, “You can never have too many pass rushers.”
Round 3, 92nd overall:
Trai Turner, OG, LSU
Both of the Panther first two draft selections in 2014 could arguably have been early first round selections if not for a few minor details; Trai Turner is no exception. Had Turner stayed in school he may have been the Panther’s first selection in 2015; instead, his off the charts athletic abilities forced him to declare for the draft early and he fell to the Carolina Panthers in the third round. Turner posted the best 40-yard dash, 10-yard split and 20-yard shuttle times of all the guards at the combine and will immediately compete for a spot at right guard. Just as with the Panther’s first two draft picks – much work will be required of Turner, but the sky is the limit with this player.
Round 4, 128th overall:
Tre Boston, SS, North Carolina
The Panthers added depth to their defensive backfield by selecting Boston, a safety with decent size (6’ 204 lbs.), good athleticism (7.04 second 3-cone drill*), and great strength (18 225-lb. reps*). Although Boston dominates aspects of the combine and is an above-average tackler, scouts question his instincts and cover skills. Boston is a fine defensive back and will add needed depth to the Panther’s secondary, but selecting him with the 128th pick may been a reach.
*Top combine performer
Round 5, 148th overall:
Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose State
Carolina moved up 20 spots in the draft to get Benwikere by trading their 5th and 7th round draft picks to the Minnesota Vikings. In exchange the Panthers were able to draft the little-known small school cornerback they had been secretly scouting. Benwikere isn’t the biggest or fastest cornerback, but the senior possesses great athleticism (40.5 vertical jump*), and unlike Boston, has great instincts and incredible ball skills. Benwikere was a two-time all-conference player (WAC and MWC) and should immediately compete for a starting position at slot cornerback. The Panthers may have used two picks on Benwikere, but they got “their man”, which is a credit to the organization considering the additional time they invested in scouting him.
*Top combine performer
Round 6, 204th overall:
Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
Many draft experts had the 220-lb. bruising tailback billed as a 4th/5th round selection, which may explain why the Panther’s decided to draft him. Value seemed to be the name of the game through the first five round of the draft and Carolina certainly got value drafting Gaffney so late. The problem is that the Panthers backfield is already loaded, and a short-yardage back is the last thing they need with Jonathan Stewart and Pro-Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert on the roster. Besides value, perhaps depth and insurance for Tolbert, a large part of their running game, are the reasons for drafting Gaffney, but the Panthers selected running back Kenjon Barner in the sixth round of last year’s draft, making the selection even stranger.
Overall the Carolina Panthers had a great draft. They added a potential big-time weapon for Newton, added much needed depth to their secondary, including a guy they specifically targeted in the late rounds (Benwikere), secured a potential top-notch guard to compete for a starting position, and landed the best defensive end not named Clowney in the second round. The players selected will not handicap the Panther’s salary cap if they sign; in fact, if signed they’ll compete with players making significant money against the salary cap. Overall, a great Panther’s defense got even deeper, while the potential for the Panther’s offense in 2014 could reach new heights.
Overall grade: B
For more player analyses on the Panther’s draft picks and to get the list of Panther’s undrafted free agents signings, check out Scott Braswell’s article.
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