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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Draft Day 2: Shock and Value

A few lost updates have to be re-added, sorry, which will explain the backdating

Second day for Carolina's 2008 Draft started bright and early, with the third pick in the round: with the draft starting at 10, and the third round being on Sunday, the Panthers had a prime seat with the 67 and 73 picks. With a back and OT in hand, the team looked poised to take a pair of defensive players, and did, but hardly anyone saw these two picks coming.

Charles Godfrey, a CB from Iowa, and Dan Connor, LB from PSU.

After the initial shock, Godfrey makes a lot of sense. Instead of corner, of course, he's a compact but fierce football player, who'll fit in form of a free safety. For the first time since 2000, we've acquired an athletic, rangy, cover safety, and it will pay dividends. He's also a dynamite special teamer, and reminds many of Mike Minter (regardless of his choice for picking #30, being only the third player to wear the number - locker room legends Minter and Howard Griffith being the other two). Godfrey was, by many accounts, the best player left after the 2nd finished.

Connor, on the other hand, is harder to resolve. The Panthers have four starting LBs for three spots, and have game-tested backups to fill two more spots; their longsnapper takes a 7th, and they have a total of four special teamers that could take up two more. And then Connor. Connor may replace James Anderson on the active roster, but for a 3rd round pick, the hope was to find a guy at a weakness and get him to start. At best, Connor is a few catastrophies or a few years away from starting in a LB corps that's both young and talented (and under contract). Another fine special teamer, Connor will undoubtedly help out there for 2008, and will allow them to dump veteran depth in 2009, but it's hard to see them dropping Landon Johnson to start him. Connor will start out wearing #44.

The hardest part about the Connor pick was seeing DE Chris Ellis fall out between the 67 pick and 73, where Connor was taken. Ellis was the last end that could realistically help the Panthers' pass rush.

Fast forwarding to the 5th, they took Louisville's Gary Barnidge (issued jersey 82) over some falling defensive prospects. At 6'5, 250, Barnidge is the tallest of our TEs, and has very good body control in reaching for passes outside his body (essentially, he's the antithesis of Drew Carter as a receiver) and excels as a pass catcher. He could be more athletic, and while he's a good wall off blocker, he's not the punishing player that some envisioned a TE pick to be. The team now fields 3 very good young TEs, none of which cost more than a 5th round pick. Barnidge was issued #82.

In the sixth, the Panthers finally grabbed a defensive lineman, Nick Hayden, DT from Wisconsin. A 6'4, 292 one gap style DT, Hayden listed in the top 5 in the weight training portion of the combine with 34 reps of 225 in the bench press; Hayden has a quick first step, is a tough, hard working DT, and fights in the trenches. However, at his strength and size, he won't ever support much more weight, and he's limited in his athleticism (which will simply limit his pass rush). Hayden was issued #78.

The seventh found them with three picks for three projects: Hilee Taylor, DE/LB from UNC, Geoff Schwartz, OL from Oregon, and Mackenzy Bernardeau from Bentley. Taylor (6'3, 240) was a college rush end that lacks the size and strength to play in the pros at DE, but will possibly be used as a rush specialist; he wears 66. Schwartz (6'6, 340), rated by some as a top 120 pick, is a strong, huge OT that needs technique work and lacks athleticism, but may be good enough to back up Jeff Otah in a year; he wears 74. Bernardeau (6'4, 308) is the smallest OL picked up by Carolina this year (each lineman before that weighed at least 325), and played for tiny Bentley College in Massachusetts. He was found at the Boston College Pro-day, where he worked out for Panthers' brass.

From a value standpoint, excellent. They got good football players in good spots, football players who have versatility, work ethic, and intelligence. John Fox Guys.

They failed to address the DL fast enough, but in most cases (as with FS last year), the right one wasn't available at the right time. The Harvey pick testified to that, and certainly Otah and Stewart will help the team a lot more than a reach for Phillip Merling would. Other than that, they did exactly what they needed to do (though trading off a first round pick probably wasn't the initial goal). They added talent, speed, strength, and smarts to a team that was aging.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Draft: Day 1

Day 1 came in and out with a bang - and with a quickness no one expected. Besides being a late start (3pm), many of the early picks were decided in advance.

Notably, Matt Ryan went at 3; whether the team had any inkling of trading up or not, Atlanta beat them to it. More surprisingly, they took him over DT Glenn Dorsey. Ryan's a solid passer, but nothing incredible in my opinion, so I don't see them having found some incredible franchise saviour.

At 7, the Pats traded down to let New Orleans have Sedrick Ellis; now we have to face yet another disruptive Saints defensive lineman, but it's not terribly concerning since their back 7 will continue to be charitable to all comers. In exchange, the Pats got little, and reached heavily for Jared Mayo at 10.

The trade-happy early draft continued with Jacksonville trading to get DE Derrick Harvey at 8, and the first serious contender for our pick went off the board. The second didn't come off until 12 (Denver - Ryan Clady) based on favorable picks for us that included Mayo and Rivers - no one figured that two LB would go off the board before 13.

So, at 13, we sat with only two OT off the board, three DE, and 2 DT. No DE or DT left to take of value, so the rational assumption: trade down and get one of the remaining OT (Chris Williams, Jeff Otah, or Gosder Cherilus.

And we take Jon Stewart (no, not the Daily Show guy). A pick I'd fought for months now, because of Deangelo Williams' expected burst into a starting role and the feeling that a later back would be just fine. But, with nothing I can do about it anyway, Stewart does make a lot of sense for this offense, and it's a fine pick. We have two great young backs, and there's not much in the league like it.

At the time of the pick, after we weren't able to trade down (or didn't intend to), I was worried we'd give too much up to trade back up. And, then, we followed through on that. I'm not often one to state premonitions or predictions as fact, but I felt the reach back toward the first round coming, and watched as Williams (14) and Cherilus (17) went. And then, 19. Then, we were on the clock, astonishingly.

The pick: Jeff Otah. And that was great. Intense, powerful pick. Then, the trade was announced - 43 pick and 109 pick, and 2009 1st rounder, for the 19. Ouch. Way too much.

But, in a matter of an hour, the Panthers had picked two of their highest rated guys, at 13 and 19, and dramatically changed their offense forever. A bold move that, in part, mortgages a future that may not see the men who made it, if the play to get a 330-lb right tackle and a 240 lb RB doesn't pay major dividends.

Stewart, The Motive Power
Jonathan Stewart looks to be as good a back as Deangelo Williams or better, with slightly less homerun speed and as much versatility. Coming from a pass-happy spread offense, Stewart has to readjust to pro blocking schemes, but has quickness, burst, vision, and a compact body with great control and footwork. Williams will probably start, as the veteran, but Stewart will do plenty with the offense and may take over some 3rd down roles.

Otah: Key To The Reformation
When Jeff Davidson and Dave Magazu inherited the 2007 offensive line, the buzzwords abounded of how they were going to stay with the light, athletic OL and run zone blocking around it. The pieces were in place, and they were going to use them.

A year later, the elders of that line (Mike Wahle, Justin Hartwig) are gone; promises of reform centered around Ryan Kalil and that Travelle Wharton (re-signed though most believed he wouldn't stay) and Jordan Gross (franchised and still without a long term contract) would play a part. The pieces that followed made less sense (guards Keydrick Vincent, Milford Brown, and Toniu Fonoti, all at around 330-340 lb).

Now, with Otah on board, the whole thing falls into place - Gross at LT, Wharton at LG, Kalil at C; the above guards fight for RG, and Otah goes to RT. Jeremy Bridges (assuming he stays) fights Evan Mathis for the backup RT, Geoff Hangartner backs Kalil, and the 3rd guy in the RG sweepstakes backs Wharton. The weakness, at this point, is a backup LT, but Wharton is insurance there.

As of now, all 5 projected starting linemen, including the incumbents, are at different positions.
So, suddenly packed with a 700 lb right side of the line, the new receiving TEs make more sense, and the line philosophy makes more sense. And holes on the right side of the line will again exist.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Draftmas Eve

I've been floating on plenty of draft thoughts, but I've been ready for it to just come up already. Battling the Matt Ryan, Rashard Mendenhall type picks has taken a toll, and since there'll be plenty of beef brought into the lineup, it won't be a terribly exciting draft.

I'm fine with that, because we need a heft-style draft. The team attempted it in 2003, with modest success (they got a starting RT, a busted C, a blocking TE, and a rush DT in their picks, to go with the start of a DB revamp that didn't really take). It'll need much more, and a lot of toughness.

The first round is scattered - a mess of meshing the team's draft board with the outcome of the first 12 picks.

Right now, I'm expecting Derrick Harvey or an OT - and if it's an OT, it could very well be a trade down. I'm hoping that if it's a big tackle, that it's Cherilus over Otah; I'm fine with Williams, I guess. Of the possible options, I'm hoping Brandon Albert doesn't get significant thought.
I'm hoping against a RB pick in the first, a QB or WR pick at all, and yet still hopeful we can get good depth for our struggling offense. I'm hoping, if we do pick a RB, it's on his merit as a football player, not on his weightor any other individual measurable.

I'd be happy to see a trade up for Sedrick Ellis or a trade down for various players. I think I'd be least happy with a Matt Ryan pick, of all options, though Albert holds a personal distaste right now as well.

In the second, without knowing what will be left, it's nearly impossible to say what I'd want us to do; with another pick coming in 20 spots, we can afford to let some things slide. If we can't get a tackle by this pick, we shouldn't really try for a starter anymore; I'm kinda hoping against the VT prospects right now, and hoping we don't force a DT pick over an end (unless Balmer falls to 2).

Luckily, with a high 3rd pick (which will start Sunday early) and plenty of needs, the team can play the Best Player ideal without neglecting needs. Hopefully, these two picks will be OL and DL, though DL in both spots wouldn't be the worst thing (remember the team has placed only two top 100 picks on the DL since Julius Peppers in 2002). Regardless, OL seems to be as big a need as any, and if the offense is going to succeed, it must do so with a strong line; likewise, the defensive line is the weak point of the defense, a stark contrast to 2002-05.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rucker Officially Departs; More End News

As the Panthers look poised to pick an end in the first 90 picks of the draft, a former stalwart said goodbye this week. Mike Rucker, seemingly already replaced in theory (but not in reality), retired, stating he "had nothing left".

Now, the vaunted front four (or six, as the team viewed the rotation) from the early years of the Fox tenure are gone but Julius Peppers (actually, all of that 2002-03 defense is gone other than Peppers, adding in the departures of Minter and Morgan last year). Trade rumors about Peppers, possibly including the addition of a 2nd pick in the top 20, aren't likely true, but it would keep the team from paying Peppers and finish off the idea of putting together a playoff run for the moment and building properly as they did in 2002-03.

Rucker takes his place along with guys like Mike Minter as Rucker's teammate, friend, and business partner, as a huge part of Panthers history. Players of that caliber being drafted and finishing strong careers in a Carolina uniform testify to the strength of the franchise. Both are selfless men that embody the team concept more than anyone other than Sam Mills himself.

Fourteen years ago, we all dreamed of becoming a powerhouse team, and by this time, players like Kerry Collins and Tshimanga Biakabutuka would have retired with Pro Bowls, rings, and the end of an era would've been gone. That never worked out; you don't start out dreaming big of how the "little strong safety" will be your first bigtime player to retire. You don't look at Rucker's drafting, 9 years ago, as the first piece of something huge. You look at the Dan Morgans, the Rae Carruths. Mike Rucker was so much more than that, and to the benefit of this franchise and to himself, we were blessed to have him.

Did Richardson push Rucker out?
Rucker took less money to stay as a Panther last year, in a move that worked out well. While some complained that Rucker took time away from guys like Stanley McClover or Charles Johnson, Rucker was the more productive player. As the offseason process wore on, it was former Raiders first round pick Tyler Brayton, not Rucker, signed, as Rucker stayed in Afghanistan aiding the troops. Rucker had made it clear before the season he'd be fine as a backup, and that likely meant a job being a part-time rusher or run stopper.

Upon returning, Rucker was advised by Jerry Richardson to retire now; that he would end up being unhappy playing another year in another city. It's not likely that JR would force Rucker's hand, but the team had moved on and certainly didn't encourage Rucker to play. Without stating any negatives or ulterior motives, it's certainly interesting that Rucker's decision was made so clear by the team.

More End News

Relating to Peppers' contract, which is a continuing saga in the salary cap situation for the near future, Jared Allen was traded to the Vikings for a 1st, two 3rds, and a new $74 million contract. The deal had $31 million in guarantees. Undoubtedly, Peppers' camp will expect to net something in this range, which is certainly more than any agreement a year ago would've cost.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More Musings

It's a good thing the team hit on Jon Beason in last year's draft and got Landon Johnson so cheaply for a starter. The draft looks void of talent outside of Keith Rivers, who may be too high himself. Former first round lock Dan Connor is falling, possibly without merit, and it's entirely possible only 3 LB could be picked in the first day. If the Panthers were looking at making a LB pick this year, in addition to its other problems, the chances are much greater for failure and bad value.

On the flip side, it would've been a solid year for a WR pick. Dwayne Jarrett gained no experience, and receivers are plentiful this year. While the team did a great job getting the passing game in order with Muhsin Muhammad and DJ Hackett on the cheap, the team could've succeeded with a player like Lavelle Hawkins in the 3rd and gotten a player just as ready for action.

As well, it seems the DE class as a whole isn't as good as this year's - and we may be in the market again, though possibly not of fault to Charles Johnson. There are also more rush-specific ends in this year's class, like Chris Ellis, Cliff Avril, or Jason Jones. One upside is that the hope of getting Gaines Adams or Jamaal Anderson in the draft, both of which went to NFCSouth foes, netted their teams little so far.

One final note on the WR situation - the media's really talking down Muhammad in favor of Hackett. Pro Football Weekly had this note from a scout:

“The West Coast offense is built around the ‘Z’ receiver. Just look at what happened in Green Bay. Greg Jennings had a great year playing the ‘Z’ spot as a rookie. He came out playing the ‘X’ in his second year, and James Jones moved into the ‘Z.’ Everyone started talking about how Jennings was a one-year guy and how good Jones was. No, all the production goes to the guy running underneath coverages. The ‘Z’ position was born to be productive in that offense. Look at D.J. Hackett. He will go to Carolina and you will not hear much from him because he left the cherry — that ‘Z’ position. Look at David Givens leaving New England. If an offense uses the ‘Z,’ whether it be in three-receiver sets or even with two tight ends — the guy coming under drop coverages is going to be productive.”

Monday, April 21, 2008

Misplaced Blogging

Turns out I abandoned this unintentionally for three weeks. The draft has been a bit of a drain this year, but it survives another week. Six days and counting, and the landscape has changed.
  • Some are questioning Chris Williams' toughness, dedication, or even passion for the game. While it's hard to say how much this holds water, Williams may be dropping and may not be considered the hottest prospect around 13. My current feeling is that some concerns of his development are true; he's also a very smart player, as athletic as any tackle, and a leader. I still would consider him viable, though physically he could be a little more dominant; with the new changes
  • With his fall, the vacuum has pulled up Branden Albert, the 6'7, 320 lb guard from Virginia; Albert has minimal experience at OT but whispers have him looked at as a tackle prospect. His long arms and wide frame are appealing to teams. My opinion? He's not smart, and he's inexperienced at tackle. While this might be a good fit for a line in crisis like Kansas City's, I would rather us pick a player who (for once) has a specific skill set rather than versatility. Albert could be a very good guard, or an average tackle; right now, I also question his leg drive and for a blue chip guard he's never been dominant. Beware of fast risers with slow minds.
  • Does OT even matter? Fox's most recent presser has him stating he'd be fine with Travelle Wharton at OT; while the trio of Keydrick Vincent, Toniu Fonoti, and Milford Brown have experience, that trio plus Geoff Hangartner as a G/C combo backup and Jeremy Bridges fighting for a job could leave the team with all they need. With Evan Mathis as one backup tackle, they'd simply need a backup. But is it true or a smokescreen? Going with no top OL pick could allow us two DL picks - an end that could improve the rush and a defensive tackle that could provide immediate depth and a starter as early as 2009; the team hasn't had a top 50 pick on the DL since Julius Peppers, and the only top 100 pick to be on the roster other than Peppers is end Charles Johnson(Damione Lewis was a top 15, but with the Rams). It's time for the team to use at least two picks to replenish the DL, and neglecting the OL could bump the DL up.
  • Of course, John Fox also stated that end could have them stand pat as well. Granted, what they say this time of year doesn't necessarily matter at all; Fox essentially stated he has options, and he does.
  • Tons of speculation on Matt Ryan, Chad Henne, Brian Brohm, and even later-round prospect Josh Johnson. Who knows why; they have Matt Moore to back Jake Delhomme, and if they were concerned with Delhomme they'd have a veteran on staff as well.
  • The RB buzz, in full swing once Jonathan Stewart revealed his foot injury, has finally died down, though people who clamored for Mendenhall are now hoping for Stewart to fall to the 2nd. Meanwhile, I'm warming to guys like Ray Rice instead of super-huge backs; merit over measurement as far as I'm concerned. I'm not terribly in love with the idea of having two small backs, or in the case of Chris Johnson/Tashard Choice, a thin back to go with a small back, but I'd rather have the better runner at a good value than pick a player just because he's over 220 (which is where Deangelo Williams weighs in anyway).
  • Most fans are expectant there won't be a safety or tight end pick yet again (though to be fair, the team picked two TEs in two years, the reason there probably won't be a TE pick unless that player is an expert blocker like Craig Stevens). Safety does have options - the team still does like Nate Salley, and provided that he can be healthy he should have a shot at the start against Terrance Holt. With depth options behind that, you could state that the team has "enough" at safety and doesn't need to force a pick.