The Carolina Panthers went into the 2014 NFL Draft with a couple glaring holes from last years team. WR, OT, DE, CB and S were all major needs due to a combination of trades, free agency and retirement. Did they fulfill all their needs? For the most part, but not totally.
The Panthers first pick, Kelvin Benjamin (WR, FSU) at no. 28, is intended to replace franchise legend Steve Smith, whom now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. This was a reach despite his high upside. Benjamin has an intriguing skill set (6-foot 5, 240-pounds), but is still very much raw. He’s got impressive playmaking skills (particularly in the redzone), but has a long way to go in terms of consistent hands and route running. Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) may have been a safer option here though wouldn’t have offered as much upside.
Kony Ealy (DE, Missouri) at the tail end of the second was a great snag. He was projected by most to go in the second half of the first round so this is a good value. He’s a high upside pass rusher who should immediately provide depth in the defensive line rotation (maybe even getting some 3-tech looks in nickel and dime packages) this fall, and could find himself as a starter next year. Remember, DE Greg Hardy (coming off a 15 sack season and an arrest for beating his girlfriend) is riding a one year franchise tag, and the Panthers may not be able to afford both he and DE Charles Johnson (who will be due more than $16 million dollars each of the next two years).
The Panthers third rounder, G Trai Turner (LSU) was another solid pick and a good value as many speculated he could go as early as round one. He’s a physical mauler who perfectly fits the teams image and playing style and could beat out RG Garry Williams in camp, who’s coming off a torn ACL.
Tre Boston (S, UNC) was the teams fourth rounder, and that’s about the right range for him. He doesn’t offer great size but is strong in run support and rangy in coverage. He’s a ballhawk who could push for early playing time in a secondary starved for playmakers.
The teams’ 5th and 6th rounders were Bene Benwikere (CB, San Jose State) and Tyler Gaffney (RB, Stanford). Benwikere doesn’t have an elite skill set by any means, but makes up for it with a very high football IQ. He’s strong in zone coverage and could compete for the nickel back role early on with Captain Munnerlyn off to greener pastures.
Gaffney was a solid value in the sixth. Is RB a need? With DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Kenjon Barner already on the roster, not by any stretch of the imagination. Even still, he’s a hard nosed runner with decent upside who fits the offenses’ power scheme perfectly. Plus, Williams is on the wrong side of 30, Stewart has struggled to stay healthy and Barner is still an unproven commodity, so Gaffney might carve out a bigger role than many assume.
What needs weren’t answered? OT by a landslide. Taking Benjamin over guys like Joel Bitonio (Nevada), Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama) and Morgan Moses (Virginia) in the first round could come back to haunt the team if Benjamin doesn’t develop as planned and one (or all) of the aforementioned play to their potential.
This team is hedging it’s edge-protecting bets on former undrafted free agents like Nate Chandler and Byron Bell. Considering franchise QB Cam Newton is coming off ankle surgery and may not have his usual mobility, this is a huge gamble.
Besides the noticeable absence of an OT, this is a pretty solid class. There may not be any superstars in the group, but it’s a class that’s high on upside and will provide depth in some crucial areas.