After an extremely disappointing 2016 season, Dave Gettleman, Ron Rivera and Co. will look to restock the Carolina Panthers roster with their eight picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. Gettleman has had a reputation as an excellent drafter during his tenure as the Panthers general manager, but Carolina’s 2016 draft class was a little underwhelming. Look for Gettleman to reaffirm his status as one of the best in the league with strong selections that will drive the franchise forward. The biggest areas of need on the Panthers roster are at offensive tackle, defensive back, running back, wide receiver and defensive end. Expect Carolina to address one of these holes early in the draft with the eighth overall selection. Here are some candidates to walk across the stage in Round One and don Carolina blue in 2017.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette is probably the most common election among draft pundits who site the big running back as a perfect fit for the Carolina offense. Current Panthers back Jonathan Stewart is approaching 30 years old (commonly known as the running back age cliff) and is becoming less and less effective as a running back. Stewart can’t seem to avoid injuries and may be reaching the end of his career in Charlotte. It’s unfortunate, because Stewart was a fixture of the Panthers 2015 Super Bowl run and can be a dynamic physical runner when healthy. Fournette is seen by many as the Panthers answer to the declining Stewart. His highlight tapes from college are the stuff of legend. Fournette showcases his breakaway speed with long runs and his devastating power by annihilating any defender who dares to attempt to tackle him. His 2016 season was admittedly a little disappointing. After a tremendous sophomore season at LSU, the 6’1″ 236 lbs running back was expected to be a runaway Heisman winner. Mostly due to injuries, Fournette wasn’t close to the level he was expected to be after he ran for almost 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore. His junior season saw him amass 843 yards on the ground with eight touchdowns. However, he did this with only 129 carries. Most encouraging was Fournette’s yards per carry, which experienced no drop off during his junior season and remained 6.5 for both seasons. Dave Gettleman’s philosophy on draft day has always been “best player available”, and it will be extremely hard for him to pass up Fournette if the high-profile player is still on the board by the time the Panthers make their pick. With Fournette, the Panthers would once again have a reliable running attack and a dangerous weapon alongside Cam Newton. Picking Fournette has the potential to rejuvenate the Panthers offense after a sluggish 2016 season.
Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
If Leonard Fournette is still on the board at the eighth overall pick, Carolina will almost certainly take him. However, outside of the LSU running back, there are no candidates that really stand out as players that the Panthers will undoubtedly take if they are still available. GM Dave Gettleman has been very unpredictable with his selections, as the Panthers scouting process differs greatly from the media’s. Gettleman insists that he sticks to the “best player available” strategy over drafting for need, and if that’s truly the case then Jonathan Allen is a prime candidate to become a Panther in 2017. Once hailed as the second best player in this class and considered a lock for a top 5 selection, Allen’s draft stock has slipped a bit because of injury concerns and a somewhat disappointing Combine. While his testing numbers at the Combine weren’t bad, people were expecting to see eye-popping numbers that Allen simply isn’t capable of producing. That being said, he’s a solid athlete with excellent speed, strength and flexibility. He’s also smart and instinctive, which shows up on tape especially in run defense, where I think Allen does his best work. He’s also a very good pass rusher, and a player that Carolina could potentially use in their rotation at defensive end as a replacement to the recently traded Kony Ealy. With an arsenal of pass rush moves and a good motor, Allen has everything you’re looking for in a defensive end. He’s produced great numbers at Alabama over the past three seasons, with 5.5 sacks as a sophomore, 12 as a junior and 10.5 last year. These numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, however, because Allen has played on a Crimson Tide team that’s boasted the most talented defense in college football for as long as anyone can remember. Because of the kind of players he’s been surrounded by, opposing teams have been unable to game plan specifically for him, giving Allen opportunities in pass rush that he won’t find in the NFL. Most concerning has been Allen’s recent fall down down draft boards tied to questions about his shoulder injury. If Carolina determines that Allen’s injury isn’t serious, they will be lucky to be able to land a player of his caliber with the eighth pick.
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Thomas is another defensive end who the Panthers could target early in the draft to help shore up their defensive line. Like, Allen, Thomas produced great numbers while he was a starter with 11.5 total sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss over the past two years. The numbers reflect Thomas’s drive and athletic ability, which also show in a few individual games where he was able to take over as a defensive force and make a huge impact. His 62 total tackles in 2016 from the defensive end position hints at a player who is very active in the run game and isn’t just concerned with rushing the passer. These gaudy numbers, along with Thomas’s impressive athleticism, have turned him into a coveted prospect who some see as a potential top-five pick.
John Ross, WR, Washington
This is where things get a little more interesting. John Ross’ draft stock has skyrocketed since the combine, where he posted an NFL-record 4.22 40 yard dash, breaking Chris Johnson’s previous record by two hundredths of a second. During a time in the league where teams value speed over almost anything, the Washington product is a player that every team would love to draft. Despite this, most mock drafts have Ross slated as a 15-25 overall pick, and many consider him to be the third best wide receiver in the class behind Corey Davis of Western Michigan and Mike Williams of Clemson. But, remember, Dave Gettleman and the Panthers don’t draft the way people expect them to. The Panthers are in desperate need of speed at the wide receiver position after the departures of both Ted Ginn Jr and Corey Brown in free agency. As of now, the team will rely on newcomer Charles Johnson to fill the speed wide receiver role, but he hasn’t eclipsed 400 yards receiving in his last two campaigns combined. Ross would immediately fill a hole on the Panthers roster and give Cam Newton a vertical threat in the offense. He isn’t a reach at eighth overall, either, despite most experts ranking him outside the top 15 players in this year’s draft class. Speed kills, and Ross has the production to back up his gaudy combine numbers. He had 81 receptions, 1150 yards and 17 touchdowns last year and was one of the most prolific weapons in the country. He’s also a dangerous return man and was an offensive asset for the Huskies during their run to the College Football Playoff. Ross is a perfect fit for the Panthers, and while it might be surprising to some, he could be the first receiver off the board if the Panthers choose to call his name on draft night.
Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
This prediction is a little bit out of left field, but hear me out. Again, I’ll mention that the Panthers almost never pick players that the experts think they should. Think back to the 2015 Draft, where Carolina took linebacker Shaq Thompson with the 25th overall pick. Nobody saw it coming, as the Panthers already had Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis at the position and badly needed wide receiver help. On top of this, not many experts saw Thompson as a first round talent, some even giving him a fourth round grade. But Dave Gettleman didn’t care what people said he should do. Instead, he saw an extremely athletic football player that would fit well in the Panthers defense, and two years later Thompson has developed into a very solid player. Melifonwu is a generational type of athlete. At 6′ 4″, the safety’s only adequate pro-comparison is Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks, as Melifonwu is as fast, muscular and uber-athletic as Chancellor, if not more. Outside of Myles Garrett and John Ross, nobody had a better showing at the combine than the Connecticut safety. His football knowledge and instincts are a little lacking, but Melifonwu has all of the physical tools necessary to be successful at the NFL level. He’s fast enough to cover wide receivers, tall enough to cover tight ends, and strong enough to be a dangerous threat in run support. Most people see Melifonwu as a late first to early second round prospect, but the Panthers may see the same things in him as they saw in Shaq Thompson two years ago, and he would be too tantalizing to pass up. Another possibility is that the Panthers trade back into the first round to grab Melifonwu, as Gettleman has traded up in every draft since he joined the Panthers in 2013. Either way, Obi Melifonwu is an extremely intriguing prospect that would fit well on the Panthers roster.