Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 NFL Draft - #1 Pick: What the Panthers Should Do

The Carolina Panthers, due to their woeful 2-14 season, will be picking first in the upcoming draft. A couple of weeks ago, all thoughts were on the Panthers selecting Stanford’s Andrew Luck with that pick, but with Luck returning to school, the decision becomes much less obvious. Would the Panthers still pursue a non-Luck QB or give Jimmy Clausen a chance to improve upon his rocky rookie year? What about a receiver to replace Steve Smith as the Clausen’s go-to guy? How about upgrading the secondary where free agent Richard Marshall is uncertain to return? Maybe a pass rusher to go with Charles Johnson or one to replace him should he leave via free agency? How about someone for the interior defensive line where Derek Landri and Nick Hayden form make a rather penetrable pair?

Here are some options for Carolina to consider with the #1 pick along with my unsolicited advice as to who the selection should be.

Robert Quinn (DE, North Carolina)
He was suspended for all of 2010, but the guy’s talent is undeniable. Quinn is a really fluid athlete who explodes off the line and demonstrates plus balance, lean, and footwork when getting after the passer. He plays contain really well and shows plus closing speed when plays are stretched his way. My issues with him are that he needs to get a little bit bigger and stop getting hung up with blockers as often as he does. I think his combination of speed, athleticism, and footwork will have him on the radar of a lot of 3-4 teams looking for a pass rusher. The references to Julius Peppers, a former Tar Heel and Panther, will be unavoidable. Going #1 might be a stretch, but don’t be surprised when he’s a top 10, possibly 5 pick. Charles Johnson had a breakout year at LE, and his timing was ideal as he’s set to enter free agency with a lot of value. Regardless of how they use this first pick, retaining Johnson should be a priority. Rebuilding teams don’t let proven pass rushers walk. Everette Brown isn’t yet where he needs to be, Greg Hardy followed a noisy preseason with a quiet regular season, and veteran Tyler Brayton is an expensive average player. Retaining Johnson is a must, but if things somehow cannot be worked out, finding a pass rusher jumps to the top of the Panthers’ priority list.

Da’Quan Bowers (DE, Clemson)
Winner of the Nagurski (nation’s top defensive player) and Ted Hendricks (nation’s top DE) awards, Bowers exploded in his junior season for 15.5 sacks and 25 TFL. There is concern that Bowers is a one year wonder, but like Quinn, his athleticism and potential are hard to ignore. He was the conference’s top defensive player and a unanimous All American. Bowers is an impact player with the perfect frame and size/speed combo for the position. He’s physical and aggressive and uses his hands, leverage, and upper body strength well in shedding blocks. I like his lower body, and he’s got room to get bigger. He’s a stout run defender from the RE position and shows a strong, quick first step off the line. Despite the big sack numbers, I do think his pass rushing technique needs a little work, added diversity. I know Ron Rivera said he’s keeping a 4-3, but if he’s looking for versatility for a possible future switch, I think Quinn is the better pick. I’m not sure Bowers transitions as well to a 3-4, either as a 5-technique or OLB, as Quinn would. Playing the 5 would limit Bowers’ pass rushing opportunities, a big strength, and regarding OLB, the former Tar Heel is quicker, more fluid, and covers more space.

Patrick Peterson (CB, LSU)
It’s no secret Peterson is my favorite college prospect. Viewed as an island corner at the next level, Peterson should be one of the first five players off the board. I like his fundamentally sound controlled aggression style of play and believe he’ll be an elite player in the pros. He has plus hands, ball skills, athleticism, body control, and footwork. You don’t see him misstep in his drops whether he’s turning in or out. If I had a complaint it would be that I’d like to see him flip his hips a little quicker when dropping into coverage. Peterson has an excellent build and plays physical at the line of scrimmage. He’s an intelligent pass rusher, who like Ronde Barber, can make a lot of plays off the edge from the secondary. This will suit him very well at the next level. Peterson doesn’t have a tremendous vertical, but he always attacks the ball at its highest point. He simply makes plays. I don’t think he’ll be asked to do this right away, but I believe Peterson has the size and skills to play either safety spots in the pros. He’ll need to improve his run support to contribute consistently in that area, but the tools are there. He utilizes his great vision in coverage as well as special teams where he’s an exceptional return man. It’s the combination of his sub 4.40 speed, committed running style, and ability to stop and go on a dime that set him apart. Peterson simply sees more of the field than other players on it, and he’s great in short spaces where he can out-physical and quick cut an opponent to pick up extra yardage. Corner isn’t Carolina’s greatest need, but with the possible/likely departure of Richard Marshall, they’ll be shy a starting corner in division where Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Josh Freeman throw with regularity.

Nick Fairley (DL, Auburn)
No one player may have helped his draft stock more in his team’s bowl game than Auburn’s Nick Fairley. Already projected to be a top 10 player, Fairley’s highlight filled performance against Oregon in the national title game likely solidified his standing as a top 3 selection. Although I’m not sold on him being a 5-technique (3-4 DE) in the pros I believe that each team picking in the top 3 (Carolina, Denver, and Buffalo) has Fairley near the top of their wish list. His dominance (1 sack, 3 TFL, and a forced fumble) of the Ducks was reminiscent of Ndamukong Suh’s ownage of the Texas Longhorns last year, but I caution those wanting to put Fairley in Suh’s category as Suh is clearly the more consistently dominant talent. Also, despite being listed at 6-5, 298, I don’t believe Fairley is as big as Suh who is listed at a legitimate 6-4, 307. Like Bowers, Fairley will have the label of possible “one year wonder”. After beginning at the JUCO level and starting just two games in his sophomore season, Fairley exploded this year for 11.5 sacks and 24 TFL. It’s his burst off the snap as a gap penetrator that has earned him the recognition as college football’s top defensive tackle. Where he struggles is fighting through double teams and showing a tendency of coming out too high, not using proper hand technique or leverage, and slowing his feet. This is why I don’t think he’ll be an ideal 5-technique, depending on specific scheme assignments, in the pros. I don’t believe he has near the physical strength Suh does, and unlike Suh, he disappeared too often during stretches of games. I’m not sure how much each team is going to consider it, but Fairley is a documented dirty player. Whether it’s a cheap shot on a lineman’s legs during a play or roughing someone up under a pile after the whistle, cameras have captured Fairley’s tactics with regularity. To be honest, he strikes me more as the next Albert Haynesworth than the next Ndamukong Suh. With mediocre middlemen Nick Hayden and Derek Landri seeing the majority of the snaps, defensive tackle is one of Carolina’s biggest weakness, but are the Panthers confident enough in one year of Fairley to take him #1 overall?

AJ Green (WR, Georgia)
Despite missing four games of his junior season for a (in my opinion) minor off field incident, Green is the consensus #1 wideout of a talented draft class. The acrobatic receiver has plus body control and concentration and plays even taller than his 6-4 frame. Green’s hands are undeniable and have made up for Georgia’s QB deficiencies during his time as a Bulldog. I love the way he consistently puts himself in perfect position to make a catch. Similarly to the way a basketball player defends ball-you-man, Green keeps the defender on his back ensuring that only he has a shot of coming down with the football. He won’t put up an elite 40 speed or be the fastest straight line runner, but I appreciate Green’s ability to quickly and smoothly get in and out of his breaks. He’s able to gain separation in short spaces and then uses the previously mentioned body control to dominate a zone. I think Green is really effective on quick hitting patterns, using his start-stop quickness and smooth route running to make it hard for DBs to maintain tight coverage on him. Green isn’t a terribly thick guy, but he’s fearless over the middle and shows impressive field and situational awareness at all times. It stands out to me how quickly he reacts after making a catch and gets the necessary yards to maximize each play’s potential. It’s nearly impossible to outplay him for the football once it’s in the air because of his combination of plus leaping ability and ball skills. If you don’t take a QB #1 overall, how about pairing your passer with a bona fide #1 WR? Steve Smith is under contract for two more years at the price of $7 million in ’11 and $7.75 million in ’12, and although due largely to the play under center, his performance has slipped the last two seasons. Rookies Brandon LaFell and David Gettis flashed at times, but neither established themselves as a legit starter for next season. Does Smith have any more 80-1,000-8 seasons in him, or is whoever lines up wide for the Panthers going to be limited as long as Clausen is under center?

QB – Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) or Blaine Gabbert (Missouri)
With Andrew Luck returning to school and breaking the heart of Panther fans, taking a QB at #1 isn’t the no-brainer it would have been had Luck been on the board. The two QBs most often mentioned being chosen first, Mallett and Gabbert, both have very visible flaws. Mallett’s ability, or inability rather, to handle pressure was put on display repeatedly in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. His feet were slow, his field vision shrunk, his throwing rhythm was off, and his passes really lacked accuracy. For his part, Gabbert was constantly harassed at the Insight Bowl against Iowa, exposing his questionable decision making, inability to properly look off defenders, and lack of ideal accuracy. Each has their positives. Mallett is the rifle armed passer with the unmistakably large 6-6, 238 frame which will allow him to better absorb those hits he’ll take in the pros. He has a quick release and has worked to improve his feet which has led to increased accuracy (when he’s given time to throw). Mallett has a smooth delivery and is at his best passing from the pocket. He still throws a bit high too often and struggles with varying the touch/speed of his passes. Mallett’s ability to make proper, timely decisions has been put to test in the past, and he doesn’t always make the right read. He has the package, but he’ll need a good bit of work in reading defenses, making decisions, and improving his accuracy if he’s to reach his full pro potential. I not really high on him out of the gates because I don’t believe he’ll respond as well to the pressure as did Ben Roethlisberger, a player to whom he’s drawn comparisons. Gabbert’s a guy that doesn’t impress me as much as he does other folks. He’s coming out of a spread offense where he’s always in the shotgun and has very little responsibility for reading and responding to a defense. Due to that system, I’m not sure how much of the actual field he’s seeing, and that’s not a question I want to be asking about a guy I’m thinking about taking first overall. I also think his pocket presence is really weak. Too often I’ve seen him break the pocket too soon or sit in it far too long. Then once he has to leave the pocket, he’s a poor passer on the run. Gabbert’s release point isn’t as high as I’d prefer it to be, but I do like how quickly he gets rid of the football and how consistent he is in doing so. He has the size (6-4, 235) and arm that scouts love, and his leadership is mentioned with regularity. If he turns out to be a quick study, Gabbert could pay early dividends for whoever drafts him.

Jimmy Clausen was absolutely awful as a starter for the Panthers, throwing 3 TDs and 9 INTs in 12+ games. He looked lost, made horrible decisions, and threw with the accuracy of a high school sophomore. The Panthers aren’t heavily invested in him, but do you need to spend the first pick of the draft on a QB not named Andrew Luck? Are Mallett and/or Gabbert that “can’t miss” that you’ve got to take them? If you take one of these guys and miss, you’re setting yourself back another five years and waste the talents of guys like Jonathan Stewart and Jon Beason and whatever’s left of Steve Smith.

The Decision
Here’s my process of elimination:

Peterson – In the history of the draft, never has a CB been taken with the #1 pick. As valuable as Peterson would be in a division where you have to face Brees, Ryan, and Freeman twice a year, I don’t see the Panthers making history.

Quinn – If the Panthers were to go with a DE, I’m guessing Jerry Richardson would want to spend his money on a guy who played this past season. That said, I still think Quinn is a likely top 5 pick.

Mallett & Gabbert – Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to Clausen, I don’t think you can truly judge a QB on how he does in his first season as a starter; especially if it’s his rookie year. After giving Clausen nearly a whole season to get his feet wet, are you sure that ending the experiment this quickly and going with a rookie QB not named Andrew Luck is the best use of the #1 pick? I know the league isn’t littered with viable passers, but one possible solution would be to find a veteran like Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, or Marc Bulger to allow you to exhibit more patience in developing Clausen.

Based on the following logic, I think I can narrow it down to three players. If I can assume that the Panthers don’t view any of these QBs as a clear significant upgrade to Clausen, then I’ve got to think they take whoever they have ranked highest between Bowers, Fairley, and Green. Looking at the defensive side of the ball, thanks to his play in the last college game of the year, Fairley is going to be fresher in folks’ minds than Bowers, but I’ve got these guys graded fairly evenly as far as overall rankings go. Assuming Charles Johnson is retained, you’d have him, Everette Brown and Greg Hardy at DE. Is Bowers, as much as I like him, going to give you that much more at end that you can afford to ignore a greater area of need, DT, and a prospect rated, assumedly, on par with any other candidate you’re considering with the pick?

So in my mind it’s down to Green or Fairley. Receivers haven’t fared too much better than corners when it comes to earning the title of #1 pick as Irving Fryar (’84) and Keyshawn Johnson (’96) are the only wideouts to be taken first overall. Green would need to be Calvin Johnson in order to justify being taken first, and while I think he’s got a good shot of getting there, Carolina might be well served to follow Calvin’s team’s example. As good as Johnson is, the Lions didn’t start to show signs of life until this season, when focus was placed on upgrading the defense. Suh was one large piece to the puzzle, and getting that disruptive defensive force to build around might be the route defensive minded hire Ron Rivera prefers to pursue.

With the first pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers select…

Nick Fairley (DT, Auburn)

I hesitate to endorse this guy as the #1 pick, but given Carolina’s situation, his upside might be too much to resist. With Luck returning to Stanford, the decision will be a tough one for Carolina, as there is no clear cut #1 overall talent. Fairley’s lack of a lengthy resume is disconcerting, but he might be the strongest pick the Panthers can make to compete with their Brees, Ryan, and Freeman led divisional opponents.


  1. Carolina wasn’t hit by some overwhelming number of injuries or bad luck. They came by their record deservedly; they stunk. The Panthers clearly have personnel deficiencies everywhere, and in that situation, I believe you have to go with the LSU corner. I could not get over how easily Peterson was able to blanket guys the entire year. I’ve watched what the Jets can do without much of a pass rush when you have a player like D. R. that reduces a qb’s options with extreme prejudice all by his ownself. Nothing against Fairley or any of the other guys, but I thought Peterson was the best player in college football, and I am not sure it was particularly close.

    However, if I were the Panthers GM, I would be calling Mr. Luck in the 650 to ask him if his decision to return to school was in anyway influenced by a disinclination to play for the Carolina franchise. I don’t recall anyone bringing this up in the national media, (although I am sure someone, somewhere must have) but if it was, I might be inclined to spend a 3rd rounder on the chance that what we saw from Jimmy Clausen was a good predictor of what we are going to see from him for the rest of his short, painful career. You might remember that I thought he would be pretty good and Josh Freeman wasn’t going to amount to a hill of beans, which might be one of the reasons my NFL scouting job applications went unheeded, but I still would like to see what Clausen could do after a year in the system with some help around him.


  2. Oh, you don't have to sell me on Peterson. He's my #1 prospect, but I just don't see Carolina spending the #1 pick on a corner, regardless of how good he is. I'd take Peterson or AJ Green over Fairley, but that's due largely to the fact that I'm just not that big on Fairley; again more Haynesworth than Suh.

    I was right there with you in Clausen's corner TPE. Sadly, that's what a QB looks like with zero poise and poor execution. I expect that he'll get a shot at the job next season and that they will not draft a passer. I'm guessing they'll pick up a veteran who can take the job if Clausen falters again. Why take another rookie and absolutely give up on Clausen after just one season?

    Nah, Luck went back because he wants the college experience; wants to stay with his college teammates. Don't get me wrong $50 million guaranteed (what Bradford got last year) is money I can't fathom, but Luck doesn't have an urgent financial need (his dad is West Virginia's AD) to go pro. While I think he could be making a mistake in returning to Stanford, I get why he's doing it.