With the Carolina Panthers organized team activities underway and minicamp is right around the corner, the team’s focus turns to the roster, specifically which players will make the 53-man roster after drafting six players and signing several free agents and undrafted free agents earlier this month.
The off-season got off to a hot start with the Panthers resigning star kicker Graham Gano and franchise tagging All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, but quickly cooled with contract extensions to reserve roster players that barely made print and several uninspiring free agency signings to add roster depth.
The team rebounded from a slow off-season with a relatively strong draft. The Panthers not only secured a large, gifted target for quarterback Cam Newton in wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, but got an incredible value pick in defensive end Kony Ealy while adding depth to the offensive line and secondary by selecting guard Trai Turner and defensive backs Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere, the latter of which signed their rookie contracts this week.
Carolina rounded out the draft by selecting Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney and then signed several undrafted free agents, including wide receivers Philly Brown (Ohio State) and Marcus Lucas (Missouri). Lucas, Ealy’s college teammate, is also a giant receiving target at 6’5” 220-pounds. For in-depth analysis on Gaffney and also Brown, Lucas and other undrafted free agents read my colleague Scott Braswell’s article on the subject.
The question is, with all of the newly signed free agents and such a strong draft class in the early rounds, which of these draft picks and undrafted free agents has a shot making the team’s 53-man roster? I analyze the Carolina Panthers first five-draft picks here in terms of making the 53-man roster:
- Kelvin Benjamin, wide receiver. The case for Benjamin is pretty clear: the Carolina Panthers desperately need him. Without belaboring the point yet again, the Panthers lost three of their top four wide receivers from last season, and unless the team plans to go the New England Patriot way of passing only to tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers, the Panthers need both a deep threat and a Red Zone target. Benjamin takes care of both situations as the 6’5” 240-pound receiver has giant hands, an insanely long reach, and 4.61 speed. Benjamin has the potential to rival Calvin Johnson in Red Zone situations due to the mismatches he creates. Benjamin will need to learn quickly, but as the team’s number one pick, he makes the team.
- Kony Ealy, defensive end. As I discussed last week, Ealy will make the team, and he could make an immediate impact. Not only does Ealy possess the size, strength, and off-the-charts athleticism and quickness necessary for defensive line success in the NFL, he benefits from the recent issues suffered by Hardy. If Hardy faces any discipline, especially in the form of a suspension, Ealy will slide right in and fill in for the All-Pro. Many draft experts considered Ealy the best pass rushing prospect besides draft darling Jadeveon Clowney. Ealy makes the team and makes noise.
- Trai Turner, guard. Turner is one of those rare talents on the offensive line that possesses athleticism, quickness, and strength, yet he could have benefited from an additional year at LSU. Had Turner come out one year later many draft experts had Turner billed as a first round draft pick. However, due to Turner’s inexperience and lack of technique, he dropped to the third round. That couldn’t have worked out better for the Carolina Panthers in my opinion, as the team was able to draft a first round talent with raw abilities in the third round. Turner could become an important reserve lineman as soon as this season, and could be starting in no time on a line that’s better than reported, but not without questions.
- Tre Boston, safety. Boston might be the most questionable of the Panther’s draft picks in terms of making the 53-man roster, but it’s certainly not due to a lack of talent or potential. Boston is a big, strong, athletic run stopper with great speed, but the defensive back has questionable cover skills. Boston can be overly aggressive, which can hurt his run game at times, but he has good run instincts and the Panthers are convinced they can improve his ball skill and cover techniques. Safety was a bit clogged recently with the signings of Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in addition to players like Charles Godfrey and Robert Lester, already on the roster, but Godfrey agreed to move to cornerback, increasing the likelihood Boston makes the team.
- Bene Benwikere, cornerback. The Panthers traded up in the fifth round with the Minnesota Vikings to select Benwikere, giving them their seventh round draft pick to do so. The Panther’s have had their eye on Benwikere, even holding private workouts for him, so one has to imagine Benwikere would have to stink up the joint in order to lose favor with the team that gave up a one of their seven draft picks to get him. Not a burner or the biggest cornerback, what Benwikere lacks in size and speed he makes up for in spades with athleticism and ball skills. Benwikere had the second-highest vertical in the combine for defensive backs and tied the San Jose State record with 14 interceptions. For more in-depth analysis on Benwikere, check out Scott Braswell’s article next week.
A case can be made for all five of the Panther’s first five draft picks to make the team. Each player possesses a skill set that could be utilized immediately and each player was selected because of a specific team need, with the exception of Kony Ealy, who was selected based on his talent level relative to his availability at the 60th pick in the second round. The Carolina Panthers could simply not pass on taking yet another dominant force on the defensive line.
Time will tell as organized team activities turn into minicamp and minicamp turns into preseason, but the Carolina Panthers 2014 draft class is a strong one, and every player selected has a chance to make the team. Situations like Hardy’s and ever-present injuries remind teams that they can never have enough depth. The chances for this entire draft class making the team is strong; to see what kind of chance some of the team’s undrafted free agents stand, check out Scott Braswell’s analysis.
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