CHARLOTTE – Here’s a position-by-position look at the Carolina Panthers roster as the team enters this weekend’s NFL draft.
Starter: Jake Delhomme
Backups: Josh McCown, Matt Moore.
Comment: Although some fans have lost faith in Delhomme, the Panthers coaching staff has not after the team gave him a $42.5 million contract extension on Thursday that assures he will be the starters here for years to come. That said, Delhomme is 34 and the Panthers need to develop a potential replacement. Few think McCown fits that role, but Moore has a chance if he begins to take the game a little more seriously. He struggled in the preseason last year and needs to bounce back. The Panthers could draft a quarterback on day two of the draft, but quite frankly they have more pressing needs. That said West Virginia’s Pat White is a guy the Panthers have scouted long and hard, but are unlikely to draft.
Starters: DeAngelo Williams, Brad Hoover.
Backups: Jonathan Stewart, Decori Birmingham.
Comment: Williams and Stewart make an outstanding one-two punch, combining for 2,351 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns last season. Hoover remains a solid fullback, although he’s getting up there in years at 33. The problem for the Panthers is they have to find a third running back to replace Nick Goings, who was release this off-season. So don’t be surprised if the Panthers take a flier on a running back late in the draft, preferably one who can help out on special teams. The team will almost certainly re-sign fulback Nehemiah Broughton when they open up a smidgeon of salary cap space. Currently they have none. Clemson’s James Davis could be an option in the late rounds.
Starters: Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad.
Backups: Dwayne Jarrett, Ryne Robinson, Kenneth Moore, Jason Carter, Kevin McMahan.
Comment: Keep in mind, the Panthers normally only keep four receivers active on game day, so providing they retain Jarrett and Robinson there isn’t much room for someone else unless the team is ready to cut ties with the 36-year-old Muhammad, which seems unlikely given his productive season (65 receptions 923 yards, 5 TDs) in 2008. If you see the Panthers draft a receiver, it likely means they’ve given up hope on Jarrett. I don’t think they have, so there’s a good chance the Panthers may avoid this position altogether. Of course, if UNC’s Hakeem Nicks falls the Panthers might be tempted to take the best available player.
Starters: Jeff King.
Backups: Donte Rosario, Gary Barnidge.
Comment: Count me among those who believe the Panthers could use a tight end to stretch the field and take some pressure off Steve Smith. But the Panthers refuse to make the tight end a big part of their passing game, instead opting for guys who are better blockers. However, if they’re ever going to make a change this is the year given a surplus of very good pass-catching tight ends in the draft. Carolina could easily pick one up in the third or fourth round. However, keep in mind the Panthers have drafted a tight end in the fifth round in three straight years and may feel like they’ve devoted enough to this position.
Starters: Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent, Jeff Otah.
Backups: Geoff Schwartz, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Jonathan Palmer.
Comment: Carolina’s starting five is outstanding, but the problem is if someone goes down because they have nobody I’d feel safe about stepping up and filling in. The Panthers certainly had their fair share of injuries on the O-line last year and hope to avoid that problem this year. But Vincent has never played a full 16-game season. Look for the Panthers to either spend a middle round pick to address their depth issue. It’s very possible they will use two of their five draft picks on offensive linemen. Size and versatility will be the key words here. There should be plenty of options here for the Panthers including Oregon center Max Unger, Oregon; and guard Duke Robinson and tackle Phil Loadholt from Oklahoma.
Starters: Tyler Brayton, Julius Peppers.
Backups: Charles Johnson, Hilee Taylor, Casper Brinkley.
Comment: Even if the Panthers keep Peppers for this season, they still need some depth at this position as they look toward the future. Also, there’s still a chance Peppers could holdout of camp, so the Panthers can’t be left without quality pass rushers. If the Panthers deal Peppers, this clearly becomes the team’s top priority. Brayton played well last year as did Johnson, but neither is a guy who’s going to get you double-digit sack totals. It’s very possible the team could use the 59th pick to draft a defensive end or a hybrid player who can float from tackle to end. Utah’s Paul Kruger, Cincinnati’s Connor Barwin or Georgia Tech’s Michael Johnson would be intriguing options if one were to slip to No. 59.
Starters: Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis.
Backups: Nick Hayden, Lorenzo Williams, Babatunde Oshinowo, Patrick MacDonald.
Need: Extremely high.
Comment: The Panthers have no notable depth here and that came back to hurt them late in the ‘08 season when Kemoeatu and Lewis went down with injuries. Ideally, the Panthers could use another big run-stuffer in the middle to take some pounding off Kemoeatu. I expect the Panthers will address this need rather high (second or third round) and then add a veteran free agent down the road when they clear up some salary cap room. Texas’ Roy Miller might be an option as would USC’s Fili Moala, Auburn’s Sen'Derrick Marks or LSU’s Ricky-Jean Francois if they fall.
Starters: Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Na’il Diggs.
Backups: Landon Johnson, Dan Connor, James Anderson, Jeremy Leman.
Comment: I doubt the Panthers invest a draft pick at this position given they have three solid starters and two top reserves (provided Connor returns from a knee injury). I’d rather see the Panthers find a veteran linebacker later in free agency and go from there. Personally, I think Derrick Brooks, despite his age, would be a tremendous fit here in Carolina and bring some added experience and attitude to this defense. But that would likely require the team to unload Peppers to free up cap space. Also, the team rarely signs older free agents.
Starters: Chris Gamble, Richard Marshall.
Backups: C.J. Wilson, Dante Wesley.
Need: Extremely High.
Comment: The release of Ken Lucas leaves the Panthers dangerously thin at cornerback and this team was awful in the secondary down the stretch last season. The team is high on Wilson, but they need to add a veteran presence here. There are about a dozen quality cornerbacks on the market who could come fairly cheap given the laws of supply and demand. I wouldn’t rule out the Panthers using their top pick on a cornerback (ideally one who can also return punts), but if they don’t address this need in the draft look for them to sign a free agent shortly afterward. Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, Connecticut's Darius Butler, Illinois' Vontae Davis, and Wake Forest's Alphonso Smith will likely be gone by the time the Panthers pick, but players like Oregon's Jairus Byrd, Utah's Sean Smith and Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore and Ohio State’s Donald Washington are possible options. The Panthers have a good history when it comes to drafting guys named Smith from Utah.
Starters: Charles Godfrey, Chris Harris.
Backups: Quinton Teal, Nate Salley, Joe Fields.
Comment: The Panthers have everyone back from last season and it’s unlikely this will be an area of need. That doesn’t preclude the team from signing a veteran safety down the road, but in all likelihood they’ll leave this position alone. Harris and Godfrey will wind up playing together for a number of years and the team likes Teal and Salley as special teams contributors.
Starters: John Kasay, Jason Baker, Rhys Lloyd, Ryne Robinson, J.J. Jansen, Ryne Robinson.
Comment: The Panthers are set in the kicking game with Kasay, Lloyd and Baker all returning. The Panthers could still re-sign Jason Kyle, who is a free agent, or go with the younger alternative in Jansen. The big question is the return game and it wouldn’t shock anyone if the Panthers can find a guy – perhaps a cornerback – who can double as a punt returner. That would provide some much-needed competition for Robinson.