Who should the Panthers pick in the 2018 NFL Draft?

 By Aaron Wayne White

April 24, 2018

The Carolina Panthers enter this year’s draft in a bit of a conundrum. Coming off a playoff run, the 2017 season should be considered successful. In spite of this, a sense of urgency and anxiety has encompassed the offseason. Fans, players, and management alike appear to know the team is on a tightrope— a couple good moves away from another Super Bowl run, but only a few bad decisions away from a subpar season.

Photo: Alex Cason for CLTure

While the Panthers made marginal improvements at receiver by acquiring Torrey Smith and signing Jarius Wright, the top priority must remain getting weapons around franchise quarterback Cam Newton. Along with a middling receiver core, Carolina is yet to find replacements for Jonathan Stewart and Ed Dickson. The necessity for a wideout and a tight end is compounded by the arrival of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who will have the Panthers passing the ball more than former coordinator Mike Shula. Defensively, the acquisition of veteran Dontari Poe has bolstered the defensive line, but you can still expect an edge rusher to be taken sometime over the course of the draft. In the secondary, quality safeties and reliable cornerbacks are both desperately needed. Management has continually passed on signing big-name talent in this year’s free agency and, consequently, the pressure on GM Martin Hurney to perform well in the 2018 NFL Draft has mounted.

Here are a few options the Panthers have in the early rounds:

1st Round, Pick 24:

D.J. Moore – Wide Receiver, Maryland: Perhaps Carolina seeks an offensive weapon in the opening round for the second year in a row. If Calvin Ridley is on the board he’s the obvious pick but that is unlikely to happen. However, it’s probable that D.J. Moore will still be available when the Panthers go on the clock. Moore has solid speed, steady hands, and is able to consistently get separation from defenders, which could make him a great slot receiver for the Panthers. Moore might not be the caliber of a #1 receiver, but he could still be a great playmaker for the Carolina offense.

Justin Reid – Safety, Stanford: It really can’t be stressed enough: the Panthers need a safety. Kurt Coleman is yet to be replaced and the current starter at strong safety is 37-year-old Mike Adams. Drafting Justin Reid could help begin to fill the void at that position. With a mediocre secondary (which always seems to have its fair share of injuries), Reid’s versatility makes him a good fit for the Panthers. The junior from Stanford can play zone just as well as he can play man, and he can play free safety just as well as he can play strong safety. While Reid going at Pick 24 is a bit high, the Panthers can’t afford to leave the need at safety unaddressed until the second round. Reid’s an excellent tackler, can cover big receivers/tight ends well, and could contribute to the team immediately.

Jaire Alexander – Cornerback, Louisville: A Charlotte native, could Alexander be returning to the Queen City to suit up for the Panthers? He certainly fits Carolina’s defensive scheme, possessing a balanced repertoire of speed, aggression, and vision. While his junior season was nagged by injuries (leading to questions about his durability), he still showcased that he is a corner capable of starting in the NFL.

Donte Jackson – Cornerback, LSU: It’s possible that Carolina will address the secondary in the first round but pursue a cornerback instead of a safety, and Donte Jackson would be a nice fit to play opposite James Bradberry. The main thing you need to know about Jackson: he is fast. His superb speed and incredible athleticism was on full display at the NFL Combine, where he posted a 4.32 40 time. This elite speed allows Jackson to recover well when a receiver has a step on him, taking away the receiver’s ability to establish separation. Considering the Panthers play in a division that boasts some of the best wideouts in the league, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider taking a talented cornerback such as Jackson with the 24th pick.

Hayden Hurst – Tight End, South Carolina: The Panthers choosing Hurst would mark the first time the franchise has ever taken a tight end in the first round. However, the Panthers seem to really be high on the former Major League Baseball draftee, and for good reason. Hurst is a polished prospect who broke school records during his time in Columbia. He’s a reliable target with fantastic route running skills, who can also contribute to the team’s run game with solid blocking ability. Having two playmaking tight ends would instantly change the dynamic of Norv Turner’s offense, which is what makes Hurst a particularly tempting first round pick.

2nd Round, Pick 55:

Mike Gesicki – Tight End, Penn State: With Ed Dickson gone and Greg Olsen approaching the twilight of his career, the Panthers are expected to take a tight end in the early rounds of the 2018 Draft. The guy they most likely want, South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, will probably be off the board when it’s time for the team’s second selection. However, Mike Gesicki from Penn State would be a practical pick for the Panthers. He possesses great speed, solid route running and great leaping ability. His most obvious weakness is the inability to make tough catches, something he will assuredly have to work on if he ever wants to be a starter. However, Gesicki’s natural size and ability, coupled with Olsen’s tutelage, could make him a nice addition to the Panthers offense.

Jessie Bates – Safety, Wake Forest: If the Panthers don’t take a safety in the first round, you can practically guarantee one will be taken in the second. Jessie Bates’ decision to leave Wake Forest after his sophomore year was unexpected, but he had a good showing at the Combine, showcasing to scouts that he’s ready for the pros. Bates’ production was stout during his two years in Winston-Salem, with 179 tackles and 6 interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Although a lack of experience might hurt him, Bates’ big-play ability, along with the capacity to play servicably in both man and zone defenses, make him an attractive fit for the Panthers. The main drawback to Bates is that he would likely need some time to develop, and the safety position needs to get better immediately.

Nick Chubb – Running Back, Georgia: The running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel wreaked havoc on SEC defenses during their four years at Georgia. While Michel seems to be more primed for NFL success, it’s Chubb that would work best for the Panthers. A power back who can break tackles at will and has an understated acceleration, Chubb would provide balance to a backfield that lacks a true north-south runner.

Anthony Miller – Wide Receiver, Memphis: The best word to describe Miller’s collegiate career? Productive. Miller’s stats are first rate: in his last two seasons with the Tigers, he totaled 191 receptions for 2,896 yards, with 32 touchdowns. While Miller’s natural speed and athleticism certainly helped him achieve that stat line, the true driving force behind it was his competitive spirit. Miller came to Memphis as a walk-on, only to leave as a high round draft prospect, and he’ll have to keep that same dedication and drive if he wants to succeed at the next level.

3rd Round, Picks 85 & 88:

Deon Cain – Wide Receiver, Clemson: The Panthers using one of their two selections in the third round on a wide receiver is probable. Deon Cain is the prototypical receiver from Clemson: good size, appreciable route running skills, and the ability to be dangerous after the catch. While there isn’t a major red flag with Cain, his current third round projection stems from a series of minor flaws, such as being unable to consistently gain separation from defenders, as well as having some really ugly drops during his time with the Tigers. Drafting Cain would continue the status quo of the Panthers, which is to draft a receiver in the middle rounds of the draft, and just hope that eventually one of these receivers turns into something special.

Uchenna Nwosu – Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, USC: While the Panthers need an edge rusher, it’s a fair bet one won’t be picked until the third round at the earliest. Nwosu has the quickness and the agility to play in the pros but his skill set is limited, and he would foreseeably get playing time only as a designated pass rusher.

Tavarus McFadden – Cornerback, Florida State: In a draft featuring deep talent at the cornerback position, the Panthers can afford to wait until the third round to select one. McFadden has a lot of upside and is a proven playmaker, recording eight interceptions as a Seminole. McFadden struggles in man coverage and won’t be an immediate solution for the Panthers at corner, but his great frame and polished technique gives him the potential to develop into a very good cornerback in the NFL.

The 2018 NFL Draft will kick off at 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 26.

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