Despite their title as reigning NFC champions and Super Bowl runners up, and in keeping the majority of that roster together, the Panthers entered the draft with some clear needs to address in order to make another push to go one step further this time around. They were not the first, and won’t be the last to have struggled to protect their quarterback from the Broncos’ pass rush, but protecting Cam Newton better off the edge with some younger talent at offensive tackle looked a good position to target. In addition, they needed help opposite Josh Norman and alongside Coleman even before their star corner departed for Washington; it instantly became an even bigger need that would have to be focussed on during this draft, as it did indeed play out.
Day 1 – Vernon Butler, DL, Louisiana Tech (Rd 1, #30)
With bigger needs on the defense such at corner, safety and edge rusher, another defensive tackle at first glance might seem a little surprising. But it’s an excellent choice and was clearly a best player available type of choice. The Jets similarly didn’t seem to need Leonard Williams last year, but in the end with suspensions and now with Wilkerson potentially moving on this year or next, it turned out even better on top of the obvious talent. Butler could do the same given the upcoming contract talks for Lotulelei and Short, perhaps being unable to keep both. Butler will pay off down the line, but also adds a superb talent into the rotation for his first year as he transitions. He’s a physical force in the interior with impressive athleticism and movement in space & pursuit for his size. The wide body and long reach give him an ideal build for playing his position in the pros. The Panthers reportedly received a large number of trade offers to drop down out of the first round but wisely stayed put. Butler could have gone as early as the mid-teens, potentially to Detroit, and likely was not going to have lasted much longer.
Day 2 – James Bradberry, DB, Samford (Rd 2, #62). Daryl Worley, DB, West Virginia (Rd 3, #77)
Two intriguing choices with back-to-back secondary selections to hit a big need. What I do like about the players chosen is that both played corner but could in fact be better suited to safety, and either way they are able to provide depth at both spots. Both feel like they’ve been taken early though. We graded Bradberry as a late-rounder with stiff movement and struggles preventing separation. General manager Dave Gettleman insisted though that he wasn’t a reach, that he fits their system and that that is where they graded him. Fair enough! Worley has character concerns, lacks speed, and despite his size had issues against bigger receivers. He got burned far too often in college. That said, he balanced it out somewhat with good statistical production in terms of pass breakups and interceptions. There were arguably more talented defensive backs available that these two. On top of that, it perhaps wasn’t necessary to give up a draft selection in order to move up to get Worley. That factored in to the Panthers exiting this draft with just the five roster additions.
Day 3 – Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma (Rd 5, #141). Beau Sandland, TE, Montana State (Rd 7, #252)
Two players taken at the right value (as we see it), so a pair of solid choices. The run on cornerbacks continues with a third in a row as they certainly don’t shy away from trying to fix the team’s biggest area of need. Sanchez is a bit of an unknown for the NFL, lacking both size and speed, but it’s hard to deny the sensational playmaking ability that saw him pile up interceptions over his Sooner career. He does tend to take a lot of chances as well though that results in being responsible for big plays in the wrong direction. In a relatively thin tight end class, Sandland has a lot of athletic traits that can be developed. The question mark, and why he lasted as long as he did, partly factors in his failed year with the Miami Hurricanes, that leads to questions of whether he’ll again fail to make a step up as he did when doing so from junior college at that point in his career. If he can succeed this time, he’s at his best in the pass game, particularly after the catch, and could form a dangerous duo with Olsen. More likely though, is that he takes a bit of time, and it might be at least another year down the line before he starts factoring in to the production.
While Gettleman assures he stuck to his board throughout, that pair of day 2 corners stick out as questionable value. The Panthers were a little unfortunate to have missed out after a run on corners that saw the likes of Mackenzie Alexander and Xavien Howard come off the board before they could pick, and surely would have been preferable choices. Rather than moving up in the 3rd for Worley, moving up in the 2nd for one of those two would have been better if it were possible. The small number of selections is the second year in a row that they have had just 5 picks over draft weekend. It adds to the pressure to get these choices right when there are consistently so few players taken, and could affect the depth of this squad over the next few years. Although they didn’t take any offensive line help, last year’s fourth rounder Daryl Williams was a bit of a steal at that time, and hopefully progresses a bit more in his second season.