The Panthers were a team with high expectations heading into last season, coming off a 12-4 campaign in 2008 that ended with Jake Delhomme throwing 5 interceptions in the first round against Super Bowl runner-up Arizona. But Carolina lost its first three games in 2009 and started 4-7 before winning four of their final five games with Matt Moore at the helm to pull their record up to .500. Gone is Delhomme to Cleveland and veteran wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad to retirement and Chris Tripodi believes the Panthers will rely on their first two picks from this year’s draft to try and fill their shoes this season.
Without a first round pick thanks to moving up to take defensive end Everette Brown last season, the Panthers had to wait until pick 48 to make a splash. And they just did that by taking Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who many scouts projected to go in the top 10. Clausen is a good decision-maker with the size, arm strength and poise to be an effective starter down the line in Carolina. He played in a pro offense in college under Charlie Weis, so his learning curve may not be as steep as other rookie quarterbacks. Clausen has a quick release, throws well on the move and improved his touch on intermediate passes as a senior. He has to improve his deep throws and lacks a cannon arm and the ability to avoid pass rushers inside the pocket, but can develop into an effective starter.
Third-round pick Brandon LaFell out of LSU could be thrust into a starting role with the recent retirement of Muhammad. Graded as a second-round pick here at TFY, he has good size (6-2, 211) but is a one-speed receiver with 4.58 speed who is most effective running underneath routes. His hands are strong, soft and consistent and he’s smooth on the field with the ability to make plays after the catch. If LaFell works on his route running, blocking and on-field toughness he could be a nice complement to Steve Smith for whoever wins the quarterback job out of camp.
The Panthers traded back into the third round to draft Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards, a quarterback-turned-wide receiver in the Brad Smith mold. He only ran a 4.55 40 but accelerates quickly and has a quick speed burst as well as the agility and toughness to be effective after the catch. He will have to learn to read coverage from a different position and run crisp, effective routes but complements the skill set of LaFell nicely. Their two third-round picks show the Panthers are obviously not expecting much out of Dwayne Jarrett this season and LaFell and Edwards could both see time on the field if they show that they’re ready.
Carolina got another player who fell a round later than expected when they drafted South Carolina outside linebacker Eric Norwood in the fourth round. Norwood isn’t a great fit in the Panthers 4-3 defense in terms of size and speed, but is a good speed rusher off the edge and changes direction well. He has good awareness and football instincts but his lack of size (6-0, 245) makes it too easy to control him with just one blocker. He probably isn’t a three-down linebacker in the league but should be able to at least make an impact as a pass-rush specialist or as a strong-side linebacker.
The Panthers didn’t draft again until round six when they had four picks, taking Ole Miss defensive end Greg Hardy, Baylor receiver David Gettis, Texas A&M cornerback Jordon Pugh and Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike.
After an All-American sophomore season, Hardy’s play leveled off due to injuries and poor work ethic. At his best, he is an explosive game-changer with a ton of upside, but there are serious questions about his dedication to football off the field. He can have a productive career only if his work ethic improves.
Gettis has good size (6-3, 217), good speed (4.43) and strong hands but like Hardy, possesses a questionable work ethic. He’s a one-speed receiver whose route-running needs polish, but he has the skills to be an effective fourth receiver.
Pugh is a developmental prospect who can play either corner or safety, but could help Carolina right off the bat on special teams. Pike has the skill set to be a starting NFL quarterback but at just 6-5, 223 he needs to add bulk and improve his durability to stay on the field. He will have some adjustments transitioning from the Bearcats’ spread offense, but has good poise and the ability to effectively lead on offense. He’s not the prospect Clausen is, but gives the Panthers good upside at a position of need late in round six.
Carolina drafted two cornerbacks with their seventh-round picks; Utah’s R.J. Stanford and Connecticut’s Robert McClain. Stanford is a tremendous athlete with 4.35 speed but needs work on his ball skills and is too hesitant at this point in his career. McClain’s 4.59 speed makes him better suited as a zone corner, but he has the instincts and ball skills to develop into a nickel or dime corner. He should be able to contribute to Carolina’s special teams unit right away to stay on the roster.
The Panthers filled two of their most pressing needs on offense multiple times in this draft, taking two quarterbacks and three wide receivers. Clausen and LaFell could both begin the season in the starting lineup and have good upside for their draft slots. Carolina also got upside potential with their six picks in the final two rounds, drafting talented players like Hardy, Gettis and Pike who have the potential to develop into productive pros down the road and adding depth in the secondary as well. The lack of a first-round pick hurts Carolina’s grade for this draft, but they did well with the picks they had and were fortunate Clausen dropped to them in the middle of round two.