We’ve already started opening the doors on TFQ’s NFL Draft Advent Calendar! This is our Christmas – when NFL teams get to decide what sort of new toys they get under the tree to play with next season.
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Our Draft Advent Calendar is basically a (over)simplified way to appraise each team’s offseason moves to this point, and what roster needs still remain that could be addressed via the draft. We’ve all had those years when nobody, fucking nobody buys what we put on our list. We’ve all also experienced that shitty moment when we realize that the gift we want to get is no longer available in stores. As such, we’re not going to predict which college players will go to which team. Rather, we’re appraising each NFL team to this point, and what position(s) they might want to address when the last advent door is opened and the wise men start going off like a bunch of gun lobbyists.
Door #10 – The Panthers
2012 finish: 7-9; missed playoffs
TOTAL PICKS: 5
After a scintillating rookie season in 2011, it seemed like the sky was the limit for Panthers QB Cam Newton. Instead, when the 2012 campaign began the then-reigning Offensive Rookie Of The Year and his team plummeted to the ground faster than a Mark Sanchez pass attempt. To complicate matters, Newton acted overly emotional and immature following several of his team’s losses en route to a 1-5 start. That culminated in a press conference after a close loss to Dallas, when Newton said,
“The past couple of games have been the same script, by the same director. It’s kind of getting boring. This taste, this vibe — I’m not buying it, man. And I don’t know what it is, but something’s going to have to change. Something’s going to have to change real fast.”
Despite his unprofessional postgame reactions during that slump, the Panthers brass showed how much they still believed in Newton the next day, by firing one of the “directors” – their general manager since 2002, Marty Hurney. Earlier this year, Carolina hired David Gettleman to replace Hurney. Gettleman comes over after serving as a personnel analyst for the Giants. If his previous employers are any indication, expect Gettleman to guide the Panthers with a calm hand, drafting conservatively and building for the long run. The other “director” Newton was likely referring to was offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. He was also fired, but at least Carolina waited until after the season to do that. They made the smart move by promoting former NFL head coach Mike Shula to the position. Shula had been the team’s quarterbacks coach, and this likely means a smooth transition for the obviously sensitive Newton.
Despite that front office calamity, the Panthers were able to rally and finish the season strong, with a 5-1 finish to mirror that 1-5 start. The offense regained its footing after looking like a shadow of its dominant 2011 self. With this in mind, Gettleman has made no drastic changes on that side of the ball via free agency. He has, however, made two fair-value pickups at receiver – Ted Ginn Jr. from the Niners, and Dominik Hixon from his old team, the G-Men.
If you look at the defense’s statistical performance last season, the numbers are better than you might think: mostly middle-of-the ground or better. But one reason for “average” not cutting it for the Panthers is that they play in one of the most ruthless divisions in the NFL in terms of offense. In fact, in 2012 the NFC South teams beat each other up into stalemates – as the 3-3 divisional records for all four teams would indicate. This offseason, Tampa Bay has added several key pieces that could help accelerate the collective growth of their young core; Atlanta may have some personnel weaknesses on defense, but the addition of RB Stephen Jackson is a big move; New Orleans hasn’t been terribly active, but their biggest roster addition might be the most significant one in the NFC South – the return of head coach Sean Payton from a season-long suspension.
With this in mind, the Panthers finished ’12 with a +1 turnover margin, which isn’t bad, but it somewhat hides the fact that the defense came up with just 11 interceptions – tied for 23rd in the league. That number doesn’t even do justice to the poor pass coverage downfield that Carolina showed at times. They re-signed CB Captain Munnerlyn (still the best name in the NFL), but released longtime Panther Chris Gamble on the other side. Josh Norman has looked good at times out on an island at corner for this team, but it wouldn’t hurt to consider using one of their first two picks at that position, and let whomever tumbles to third on the depth chart in training camp assume the important role of handling a slot receiver in the nickel. In their division, the Panthers can use all the help they can get against monstrous receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White (ATL), Vincent Jackson (TB) and Jimmy Graham (NO).
It’s widely believed that Carolina’s greatest need in the draft is the interior of the defensive line, so what they don’t use to help the pass coverage, they’ll devote to that facet of the roster – and they’ll probably use the 14th overall pick to do so. Utah’s Star Lotulelei has top-10 talent, but concerns about a heart condition could give Gettleman and crew cold feet. After Lotulelei there’s Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson, who was very disruptive in college last season. Still, he’s a reach at 14, since he’s not being tagged as a top-20 talent. However, here’s an even bigger reach that I can envision: UNC’s Sylvester Williams. Everyone talks about how deep this draft is with defensive linemen – and it is – but few of the first round projections are the space-eaters that Williams can be. Sure, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott favors a blizting scheme, but with his current personnel he might be served to protect his rangy linebackers, in particular rookie sensation Luke Kuechly.
If and when Carolina does use any of their picks on offensive players, they could stand to add to an offensive line that looked slow coming off of the ball at times last season, or a mid-level talent at running back – a position that was an enigma for them in 2012.
With just five draft selections this year and marginal improvement on the offensive side of the ball via free agency, one thing is likely for the Panthers: Regardless of whatever moves they make in the draft, the pressure is going to be mostly on one man’s shoulders again – Newton’s. Time will tell if he’s more up to the task than he was during the first few months of the 2012 season.
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STAY TUNED FOR THE REST OF THE DAYS LEADING UP UNTIL THE 2013 NFL DRAFT. WE’LL TAKE A LOOK AT EACH TEAM, AS WE OPEN THEM UP IN THE ADVENT CALENDAR. WE’LL ALSO BE DOING A LIVE TWEET-UP DURING THE DRAFT.