Continuing on with the positional evaluations, we turn to the defense - a spot that has finished outside the top ten in yards and points only once (2004) but finds itself looking for an identity and a future. With Mike Minter and Mike Rucker on their way out, Dan Morgan on his last concussion, and the salary cap continuing to rise with hefty defensive salaries, the team needs to get young, and quickly.
DT - This wildcards on Kris Jenkins. If he's traded, will the team simply be dumping salary for picks, or will there be a need here? It's hard to say - Jenkins was a talent that could draw attention even when not dominating, but the team has three other tackles who have started. Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu rotated, but Kemoeatu could take Jenkins' role. Jordan Carstens is a smart, able backup, and Kindal Moorehead has pass rush ability.
This is a hard one to gauge, but if Jenkins does go, I'll guess it's a second day pick fighting for a roster spot with Chad Lavalais and Moorehead; if Jenkins stays, they have more depth than will make the roster already. Whether that depth can replace Jenkins is harder to say.
DE - Julius Peppers, when re-signed, will be the league's highest paid player, but is signed through 2008 anyway. Mike Rucker stays this year, but isn't a long term situation until he proves otherwise. Rucker is a free agent in 08 anyway, but if he shows he can start, he could stay past this year.
Situational rusher Stanley McClover wowed fans in limited time but looks to be an outside-only end who can't stop the run and may have been better suited to a 3-4; he still holds promise and apparently bulked up a lot during the season. He'll make the roster. David Ball, a 3-4 end, comes to the Panthers looking to be a better fit for the 4-3. A good run stopper, Ball came out of college looking like a good rusher, something the 3-4 doesn't allow a lot for.
The team will likely use a high pick on the position if the right player is there. Jamaal Anderson is raw, but has the measurables. Adam Carriker is solid, but unexplosive and underathletic for a top 15 pick. Jarvis Moss is the right type rusher, but is too light and may be one dimensional. A later pick probably won't help as much; it's an early-or-nothing type situation and the team could still re-sign Al Wallace as depth.
OLB - Thomas Davis and James Anderson represent the theoretical future here; Na'il Diggs was brought back to start weakside, but isn't a playmaker, or good in coverage, two hallmarks of the position in a traditional 4-3. Davis struggled at times, but also had some excellent games (St. Louis: 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks; NY Giants, 7 tackles, forced fumble, one batted ball) and is entrenched strongside.
The team could use depth, depending on where Adam Seward falls - he was in the middle last year but may be a better fit backing up Davis. Anderson/Diggs is "enough" at WLB, but Anderson needs to show something soon, other than his performance against New Orleans scrubs. Since the position is low on the list, getting an impact WLB like Paul Posluszny isn't likely and later players won't have the talent to improve the position.
MLB - A possible turning point of the defense as a whole, the team has Dan Morgan and relatively little else; Adam Seward showed tons of promise in preseason 06 coming off injury, but struggled early in the season and never saw time on defense after. Chris Draft left in free agency. With Morgan's history suggesting he will miss at least half this season, the team needs a player for this season and the future.
In the first round, Patrick Willis will likely be gone; Posluszny is more of an outside player. Later in the first day could net David Harris, Buster Davis, HB Blades as inside guys with some range and impact.
CB - Unless something changes, like an unlikely trade of Chris Gamble, the team has its top 3 and as talented a trio as any in the league. The team has a solid contingent fighting for the 4th CB job, but this may also be where the team finds a return man.
S - Mayday! The defense's worst position last year has, somehow, gotten worse. Mike Minter remains, after his worst season, to play his last season. Nate Salley, who couldn't stay on the roster consistently, is the only other safety. Salley and Deke Cooper will fight for the #4 safety job, but the team needs two players here - one to start, one to take over for Minter, who the team would like to replace ASAP.
Reggie Nelson will liekly be there in the first, but if the team finds an impact end, they could wait until round two and hope Eric Weddle is still there. John Wendling, in the third, is the big body who could play SS eventually. The team could re-sign Shaun Williams to start if the newcomers aren't ready; they could re-sign Colin Branch as depth if they don't find a 2nd safety. These two moves are stopgaps, but that's what happens when you neglect a position as they have.
It's inevitable that a defense that's only had a handful of changes since 2002 would need revamping, but the team's lack of work in free agency to fill even one defensive hole has hurt the team going into draft day. Trading Jenkins would only make that worse. With an injection of youth, the defense will still be powerful, but more careful planning in the future will keep a crisis situation like the MLB/FS/SS triangle from being so blatant.