All indications are that Carolina will roll the dice on Auburn QB Cam Newton with the first pick. There are three primary reasons for the choice.
One, the Newton NFL QB project provides Panther GM Marty Hurney with job security for the coming year, probably the next, and possibly a third. That is an epoch in NFL time. Two, the franchise is in desperate need of a face and a salesman after last year’s horrid 2-14 dumpster fire and owner Jerry Richardson’s serial public implosions. Newton has star power to burn — even if Newton might need to burn three time-outs to call an NFL play. And three — call them 3A and 3B — Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Freeman. Richardson has long fancied the Panthers as Steelers South and Big Ben’s body of work as a big, physical QB has made a big impression on the Big Cat. Reinforcing that impression is the fact that division rival Tampa Bay had a big, physical project of a QB turn it around (25 TDs, 6 INTs) in just one season. Freeman positively abused Carolina last year (118.3 passing rating), with Panther defenders bouncing off him like BBs as he converted third down after third down.
More broadly, the Panthers are convinced that NFL rule changes give TE-sized QBs a distinct advantage in what has become a big-play league. Carolina was outscored 408 to 196 last year, or 25 to 12 per game. The Panthers literally could not compete against most NFL teams.
There remains a chance the Panthers trade out and down of the first slot, but the offer would have to be crazy good — and probably from a team not looking to draft Newton. You never say never on Draft Day — especially given the gaping holes up and down Carolina’s near UFL roster — however Hurney seems pretty wedded to Newton.
From there, Carolina is mostly in best-available player mode — even though the Panthers lack a second rounder (which is another argument for trading down to add picks.)
Only S, LB, and RB are remotely staffed to NFL starter-quality levels — and that assumes that free-agent RB DeAngelo Williams does not return. The Panthers have long indicated that they thought that RBs Jonathan Stewart (2,739 career yards) and Mike Goodson could carry the backfield load, making DWill yet another Pro Bowler the Panthers are willing to let walk rather than pay.
Both interior lines are train wrecks, with little reason to believe that former first-round earthmover Jeff Otah will return to his stellar work at OT after chronic knee and now shoulder issues. OL then is absolute need, so look for a third rounder to be used on OT James Brewer (Indiana), G Orlando Franklin (Miami) or C/G John Moffitt (Wisconsin.) But so is DL, so maybe DTs Drake Nevis (LSU), Jurrell Casey (USC), or DT Marvin Austin (North Carolina) will get the call.
Then again, the Panthers kissed off their most consistent CB in Richard Marshall (32 games started, 7 INTs over the last two years), who will not re-sign with the team. You need three good CBs in the today’s NFL. So CBs Johnny Patrick (Louisville), Curtis Brown (Texas), Marcus Gilchrist (Clemson), Chimdi Chekwa (Ohio State), and Shareece Wright (USC) will all get looks.
In the fourth round, Carolina will still be looking for trench help — OT/G Jason Pinkston (Pittsburgh), OT Joseph Barksdale (LSU), DT Jerrell Powe (Ole Miss) are all possibilities, as are more CBs and some depth at WR, particularly if Pro Bowl WR Steve Smith has seen his last days as a Panther — and Smith probably has. In the fifth, CB Kendric Burney (North Carolina) got caught up in the NCAA snafu in Chapel Hill and dropped down the board as a result. If he is still around and CB is still a need, Burney is a no-brainer.
In the out rounds, maybe Carolina takes a flyer on RB Mario Fannin (Auburn) to both add RB and special-team depth and give Newton a familiar running-mate during the whirlwind Cam is about to step into.
Although Panther officials will deny it, picking Newton will task the young man with nothing less than saving an NFL franchise from extended mediocrity and fan indifference.
— Jeff A. Taylor is a contributing editor to the Carolina Journal.