Getting Back to Playoffs for Carolina Panthers Will Depend On 2014 NFL Draft Class

Carolina Panthers NFL Draft

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Every team in the NFL is under pressure to have a successful draft.  Every team in the league knows they can’t miss in the 2014 NFL Draft.  This is every year with every team.  But still, you could make the case that no team needs a stronger draft than the Carolina Panthers, who’ve been decimated by retirement and free agency.

The Panthers were the surprise team of 2013, going 12-4 and winning the NFC South. How they accomplished this was with a punishing defense and a bruising, ground-control offense. To not only keep this style of play but get better from last year would be tough enough, then you ‘add’ in the subtractions.

The best player in franchise history, WR Steve Smith, is now a Baltimore Raven. Arguably the second best player in franchise history, LT Jordan Gross, who was so instrumental both in the locker room and along the line, has retired from the game after 11 terrific years. CB Captain Munnerlyn, who had a stellar campaign in ’13 with 74 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INTs and 2 TDs, is now a Minnesota Viking.

It doesn’t end there. S Mike Mitchell, also with a fantastic year last year with 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 4 INTs, is a Pittsburgh Steeler. WRs Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, who combined for 85 receptions, 1,183 yards and 10 TD’s last year, are with the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, respectively. Oh, and by this time next year, their best pass rusher, DE Greg Hardy, may be playing somewhere else because the team may not be able to afford him.

That’s an awful lot of production and leadership to replace.  The Draft is the place to find answers for the questions remaining following the free agency rush. So what should their game plan look like come draft day?

The priorities of the Panthers will more than likely be very dependent on the shape of the big board by the time they’re picking at no. 28. We know WR, OT, OG, DE, CB and S are their top needs.  We also know this is a good year to be in need of a WR, OT, OG, DE, CB and S.

Because this WR class is so incredibly deep, focus on receiver in round two, where you can still get round one talent.  Round one should address either CB or OT depending on which is the best available.  Joel Bitonio (OT, Nevada) and Cyrus Kouandjio (OT, Alabama) should still be available and both would be tempting targets here. They’d help keep Newton healthy and the run game humming. Jason Verrett (CB, TCU) and Stanley Jean-Baptiste (CB, Nebraska) are likely to go in this range, and would likewise be good choices. The top two safeties, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) and Calvin Pryor (Louisville) are likely to be gone, so the third round is the place to target them, preferably looking at Terrence Brooks (FSU) and Craig Loston (LSU).

OG and DE will be the wildcard choices. If someone they really like is available in the first couple rounds, take him, if not, wait until the later rounds. You can always find athletic pass rushers and perpetually underrated guards towards the end of the draft. Brandon Thomas (OG, Clemson), Anthony Steen (OG, Alabama), Ethan Westbrooks (DE, West Texas A&M) or Larry Webster (DE, Bloomsburg) are all intriguing late round options for Carolina.

So the Panthers will have their options throughout, and it’s not like they’re completely devoid of any talent to begin with. They still have the best front seven in football and one of the most athletic QBs in the game today. But a strong draft next month will be crucial for Carolina to replace what they’ve lost and get back to the playoffs.

Rick Stavig is an NFL Draft Columnist for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @rickstavig or add him to your network on Google+.

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