Any Carolina Panthers fans knows the 2016 season was a disappointment as the team finished 6-10 as they didn’t win the NFC South for the first time since the 2012 season. 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton also struggled last season as he threw for 3,509 yards, 19 touchdowns against 14 interceptions and finished with a career-low completion percentage of 52.9.
After the Atlanta Falcons represented the NFC in Super Bowl LI, the other 15 teams in the conference will be looking to dethrone them. For the Panthers, they will also look to uncrown the Falcons as NFC South Champions.
Here’s are the players the Panthers could select in order to reclaim their status as NFC South Champions.
First Round: Derek Barnett, defensive end, Tennessee
It most likely appears that LSU running back Leonard Fournette will be off the draft board by the time the Panthers select at number eight overall. At that point, the Panthers should select the best available player at one of their positions of need (running back, defensive end, wide receiver, cornerback).
Although the Panthers signed Julius Peppers and extended Charles Johnson during the off-season, drafting Derek Barnett makes a lot of sense. Both Peppers and Johnson are in their 30s and Barnett will give the team a younger pass rusher that can help the team for years to come.
During his time at Tennessee, Barnett was highly productive as he broke Hall of Famer Reggie White’s career sacks mark (33). He also recorded 52 tackles for loss in his three seasons in Knoxville. Barnett awareness to be near the ball is an excellent trait and he would be a great fit for the Panthers at No. 8.
Second Round: Zay Jones, wide receiver, East Carolina (40th overall)
Getting Newton help at receiver hasn’t been mentioned a lot during this draft season. Sure, the team still has Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olson, but they could use another player that takes the burden off those two. If Zay Jones is there at number 40 in the second round, he would be a tremendous compliment to Benjamin and Olson.
In four season at East Carolina, Jones set the FBS record for career receptions (399) and the single-season record with 158 catches. Jones also recorded 1,746 yards and eight touchdowns for the Pirates in 2016. At the NFL combine, Jones answered questions about his speed as he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash.
Alvin Kamara, running back, Tennessee (64th overall)
Long-time starter Jonathan Stewart will return to the Panthers backfield in 2017, but he turned 30 last month. Stewart showed last season that he can still be a productive running back as he rushed for 824 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016, but it is time for the Panthers to inject some youth at the position. Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara makes a lot of sense late in the second round for Carolina.
Kamara isn’t very experienced as a running back as he was only a one-year starter for the Volunteers, but he has a lot of qualites teams love in a running back. In 2016, Kamara rushed for 596 yards for nine touchdowns and averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
Not only is Kamara talented as a runner, but he is also an excellent route runner and a fluid pass catcher as he caught 40 receptions for 392 yards and four touchdowns. His homerun ability and versatility would be perfect for the Panthers.
Third Round: David Sharpe, tackle, Florida (98th overall)
Carolina signed veteran tackle Matt Kalil to protect Newton’s blind side at left tackle, but the team still has question marks to address on their offensive line. Michael Oher has been stuck in the concussion protocol since last September and his status going forward is unknown. Florida tackle David Sharpe is a big body that can potentially become a starter on the Panthers offensive line.
For the Gators, Sharpe started 26 of 27 games for the team during the last two seasons. At 6-6, 343 pounds, Sharpe moves well considering his large frame. He may not have the speed to play left tackle in the NFL, but he could be a quality guard or even at right tackle at the next level.
At 98th overall, selecting an offensive lineman like Sharpe could prove to be wise down the line.
Fourth Round: Corn Elder, cornerback, Miami (Fla) (115th overall)
For the record, Corn Elder is a much better player than a fourth round selection. But his lack of size is likely the reason Elder is a fourth round pick in this year’s draft. Carolina finished 29th in passing yards allowed defensively, so they could certainly use the help in the secondary.
Elder plays much bigger than his 5-10, 183-pound frame suggests. He loves to get physical with receivers and he is even an aggressive tackler. Although Elder may not be an outside starting corner in the league, he should be a good player in the slot and a steal in the later rounds.
Fifth Round: Bucky Hodges, tight end, Virginia Tech (152th overall)
At 6-6, 257 pounds, is pretty much a big receiver that played tight end for Virginia Tech. Hodges was productive for the Hokies as he tallied 133 receptions, 1747 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons in Blacksburg.
Hodges does have the rare combination of size and athletic ability to play at tight end. He has a lot of things to improve on including route running and blocking at the next level, so this would be a good developmental player for the Panthers.
Sixth Round: Stacy Coley, receiver, Miami, Fla (192nd overall)
Stacy Coley has the top end speed scouts love to see in a receiver as he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine, but his inconsistent play and questions about his pass catching ablity will have him as a later round pick.
At the very least, Coley could be a special teams threat for the Panthers. During his time at Miami, Coley averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return and 13.0 yards per punt return.
Seventh Round: Javarius Leamon, South Carolina State (233rd overall)
In the seventh round, teams are looking for players they hope to develop on their practice squad in hopes of someday turning into future starters. Considering the Panthers offensive line, selecting a raw prospect like tackle Javarius Leamon makes sense.
Leamon has a good NFL body at 6-7, 332 pounds and extraordinary arm length at 35 1/4. He also the physical gifts to be selected, but he will need to improve on his technique.
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