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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Left Behind: Team Needs Unaddressed

Carolina piled on, as I anticipated in pre-draft analysis, in both passing game offense and special teams. They added to that by pushing passing game defense, with a DE, a rush LB, and three defensive backs. They, as anticipated, neglected the running game, but more than expected on the defensive side.

Having taken only one true defensive lineman, and no offensive linemen, the team strayed from beefy players. A 'team speed' draft, DE Greg Hardy was the only player over 250 lbs to be drafted. The defense was the only place to get any size at all - after Hardy and Norwood, QBs Clausen and Pike were next largest. The WRs did add size - Brandon Lafell and David Gettis add height and size to a team that only had two receivers over 6'.

But there's definitely a size issue. The team does have depth at DT, and they're looking for some of the youth to distinguish itself - Irvin, Leonard, Tyler, Johnson, Hayden, Landri. It's hard to say that the power is there, and they only have one player over 306 lbs at the position. It's by design, but the quality and depth are both still to be seen.

Similarly, plenty of pundits had the team adding more depth on the OL, and they neglected that completely for the first time since 1998 (they got Jamar Nesbit, an undrafted FA, out of that class). Four of the line positions are covered - the fifth is a battle amongst the top three remaining. So, seven positions of a likely nine are taken care of. Still, the team is in position in part because of an unrelenting push toward better line play.

Would a center have made more sense than a third WR, a third DB, a second QB?

They also left behind ILB, now suddenly a need with backup Dan Connor leaping into the SLB fight.

But comparatively, DT was a big problem last year, and it's hard to suggest with two starters gone, another top roleplayer gone, and the depth chart itself injured, that the team was able to stand pat as it did.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Draft Day 3

Carolina spent day 1 inactive (thankfully, for the sake of future draft picks) and landed three of the top 100 players, all passing game pieces, in day two.

So as day three started, there was uncertainty in the air. What would be left at 112? Would any of the fast WR drop (mostly a concern of the Armanti Edwards trade)? Would Everson Griffen

Mardy Gilyard and Jacoby Ford, the fast return specialist WRs, had indeed gone before 112. Griffen went right after Gilyard in the top of 4. So as Carolina approached 112, they dealt down. The Jets gave them another 6th (their 4th) to move to 124. In the drop down, the only player I personally valued much was Georgia DT Geno Atkins, an undersized tweener who could rush hard from the inside or play the run outside (a la the Colts' Raheem Brock). As 124 approached, the consensus was defensive end or linebacker, and then came the pick:

Both. DE/LB Eric Norwood, South Carolina. A 6'1, 245 lb stand up linebacker, Norwood had a top notch 29 sacks in college, facing top notch SEC competition. He had two years as an end to start his college career, but had his best season in 2008 as a linebacker (9 sacks) and finished 2009 as a first team AP All American, with 7 sacks, 71 tackles, 11.5 stuffs, 2 INT, 3 blocked kicks. He looks to be an asset at both OLB and rush end, and certainly someone who you'd anticipate to see pop up in blitz sets and nickel defense soon. As well, the dynamic Norwood is said to have a rare passion for the game, and a motor that never stops. Chances are, he'll be the next great special teamer while finding his way onto the base defense.

Following that, Carolina lacked a 5th round pick (Tank Tyler trade) and their own 6th (Louis Leonard). But, thanks to trades with Oakland, NY Jets, and two compensatory picks, the team had four shots at adding solid depth. And with their history late in the draft (virtually all of their 6th and 7th round picks contribute), they expected good quality.

Greg Hardy (6'5, 280, DE, Mississippi) was the first, at 175. A former first round prospect, Hardy had 26 sacks in the SEC (including 10 in 2007). He had a chance at being a top prospect in the 2009 draft, but had injury concerns and stayed in. He got hurt again in 2009, and concerns over his game dropped him to the 6th round. Does he have the demeanor? Does he play with pain? It's hard to say. Is he a top rusher when healthy? Sure. In the 6th round, it's a luxury to find a raw player of Hardy's ability.

With the Jets' pick from the 4th round trade, they plucked a third receiver, David Gettis (6'3, 215, Baylor). Gettis is a projection of sorts - he's a size/speed prospect who has deep speed and an extra gear for the long passes, but doesn't do some of the little things as well as you might want of a big posession player. Running a 4.39 at his pro day, Baylor rarely let him show it on the field, with odd changes in the offense that left him producing only 4 scores - 3 as a senior.

At 202, the first compensatory pick, the Panthers tabbed Jordan Pugh (Texas A&M; 5'11, 200, 4.40). His pro day results compared favorably to combine prospects rated at the same level, including a 40 inch vertical jump. Pugh was a three year starter, two at corner and one (his senior) at free safety. He led the team in tackles as a junior corner, and has the versatility to play either.

Two picks later, they shocked the league (as much as one can, with a 204 pick) taking Tony Pike, QB (6'6, 220, Cincinnati), a player that would've been perfectly acceptable as a third round pick. I personally had Pike rated higher than all QBs but Bradford, McCoy and new teammate Clausen (not in that order), and had we taken the Golden Tate route (my 48 pick when on the clock), Pike would've made perfect sense at 78 or 112/124. A tall, lanky spread offense passer, he lacks top speed but has good footwork and accuracy on the run. He is a top pocket passer who has a lot of filling out physically and mentally to do, so he's still a project. But, he's a very talented passer. And on a team that had quarterback issues throughout OC Jeff Davidson's tenure (starting four QBs in 2007, and Jake Delhomme's collapse since), they felt like another arm was too good to pass up. It's hard to argue with the talent or the value.

Finally, with two 7th round picks, they drafted two more defensive backs. RJ Stanford (5'11, 185, Utah) and Robert McClain (5'9, 180, Connecticut). Stanford has athleticism better than his 7th round grade, having been recruited as a RB but moving to CB mid-rookie season. He played all four years, starting his senior year and nine games prior. He only picked one ball, but had numerous pass breakups. He's an athletic prospect, still learning defense and not likely ready to contribute yet.

McClain is a good analogue for 2009 7th round pick Captain Munnerlyn - a punt returner without height that otherwise is a top notch cover-2 type corner with physicality. He had 10 career INT with UConn, including a TD return against Cincinnati in 2008.

Friday, April 23, 2010

LaFell, Edwards: 3rd Round WR Combo

Carolina stole LSU WR Brandon LaFell (6'2, 210, 4.5, LSU) at 78, and then paid a heavy price to return to the 3rd for Armanti Edwards (5'11, 190, 4.40, Appalachian St).

LaFell, largely regarded as a top 50 pick, would've made sense at Carolina's 48 pick. He comes in at 78th overall. A big receiver, he compares to Muhsin Muhammad as a bigger, aggressive guy to go up and get the ball. LaFell never had much at QB, whereas he gets the accurate combo of Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen.

Edwards was a bit more surprising, and he's a guy Carolina apparently targeted eary. As a developing slot WR and return specialist, Edwards has a level of talent that goes as of yet untapped, but he's clearly a football player.

The price to return to the 3rd was the hard part - a 2011 second rounder. It's a steep price for a guy who probably would've made it into the 4th, or would've been supplanted by

Clausen: #48, 2010

Carolina pulled a steal in drafting Jimmy Clausen with the 48th overall pick.

Clausen (6'3, 215, 5.00, Notre Dame), the second highest QB Carolina has ever drafted, is the first name QB drafted since Chris Weinke in 2001. Rated higher than 48, Carolina had apparently attempted to trade up to 33 to get him, Clausen had said.

Obviously, the connection with Clausen is Charlie Weis, Clausen's head coach with Notre Dame. Weis almost became the coordinator here in 2002, and for all real purposes suggested the two coordinators John Fox has hired in his tenure here. We run the same offense he did at Notre Dame (why this is a surprise or new information to the media is beyond me), so naturally we tried to go get his quarterback on good recommendation as well.

Clausen's a good blend of the best attributes of a QB - he's deadly accurate and efficient, but has the arm to make all the throws. He doesn't have the Peyton Manning arm - he's more of a Phillip Rivers, with his slightly low delivery and high efficiency (Rivers quietly leads the league in efficiency while other players throw for higher yards).

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Five Things That Will Happen - Draft Day

Here are five things I'm essentially guaranteeing will happen on Draft Day*:

*We'll trade.
Carolina has traded future first round picks in each of the last two drafts, but that's not a new idea for Carolina. Carolina has traded up or down witin the first three rounds of the draft each year since 2002.

*We'll surprise.

Remember how, in 2001, 2002, and 2003 it was blatantly obvious what we were going to do? Sure, those were high picks, but they were deliberate. Since then, the team has largely surprised. This year doesn't hold much less intrigue - common thoughts have the team picking at WR, and yet it could be any number of things in a deep draft. What fans have determined may not be how things unfold.

*We'll focus.

The last two years, Carolina has pooled resources to make one area better. In 2008, they pooled resources into the run game, and it's paid off in 3rd overall run offenses each year since. In 2009, they made pass defense a priority, and they finished 4th in pass yards.

Carolina surprised me in 2008, with a surgically repaired Jake Delhomme (who'd had massive success early in 2007 in the new offense), returning Muhsin Muhammad and adding DJ Hackett. It looked like Carolina was going to go more pass-first. You expect a left tackle, and before you know it you've drafted a 230 lb back and

Same for 2009. You expect them to pickup a DT, refocus against the run. Before you know it, we've traded a future first for an end, we've got a CB, and a DT that doesn't stop the run.

*We'll draft linebackers.

The team has kept some, and cycled some out, but since John Fox came on board they've drafted a linebacker every year except 2003 and 2009.

The team has pending contract situations with Thomas Davis and Jon Beason; they'd lose James Anderson next year and Dan Connor would be a restricted free agent. They cut starter Na'il Diggs and backup Landon Johnson. So, they need a player to back Beason, and a fast special teamer at WLB.

*We'll draft some beef.

Carolina has drafted an offensive lineman in each of John Fox and Marty Hurney's seasons here. Actually, only Dom Capers spent sparingly on rookie linemen - the team has drafted an OL in each draft since 1999. The team has good depth - they lost only one lineman of their active eight, with two stepping up last year to start in injury situations. It might be a center or left tackle, but they'll grab some more depth - continuous replenishing of line depth is a key to strength and having it at good value.

*"Draft Day" still much less complicated to say than "three-day draft primetime special"

Friday, April 16, 2010

Witherspoon, CB/Return Man, Added

Carolina added former Jaguars and Lions cornerback Brian Witherspoon (5'10, 175, from tiny Stillman college) this week, giving the two year veteran another chance at the NFL.

Witherspoon was a three-sport star at Stillman (Alabama), also playing baseball and running track. Witherspoon came into the draft as an underdeveloped but extremely fast corner, and so far hasn't added the bulk expected to aid in his development. He's a fantastic athlete, but hasn't translated it onto the field. With speed legitimately under 4.4 in the 40, and timed as light as 4.16 in videos available on youtube, he certainly has that part covered.

Witherspoon was picked up as an undrafted free agent in Jacksonville, where he played out 2008 and most of 2009. He brought in a very solid 11.8 yards per punt in 2008, while adding an unspectacular 24 yards per kick return. Those numbers dropped in 2009, to 9.8 per punt and 22.9 per kick before getting cut eight games in.

Witherspoon will likely fight for the return spots, but will have to either really impress or show some improvement at playing defense to make a roster.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Francisco, Signed; Special Teams Uprising

Aaron Francisco (6'2, 215, BYU, born in Hawaii) was signed by Carolina today, giving them three of the top special teams tacklers in the league. Francisco, a four year Arizona Cardinal (undrafted), moved to the Indianapolis Colts last year.

Darin Gantt astutely noted that Francisco was a member of the losing Super Bowl team each of the last two years. Unfortunately, losing wasn't the only problem Francisco had - he gave up the game winning TD, and became somewhat notorious for being on the wrong end of a malicious James Harrison penalty:

But, just as Tyler Brayton's groin shot against Jerramy Stevens doesn't make him a bad character player, Francisco taking a cheap shot from a Defensive Player Of The Year doesn't make him a slouch.

Francisco was special teams captain in 2007 and 2008 before leaving the Cardinals. A top gunner, Francisco adds a cerebral, leading role to the 2010 Panthers special teams unit that has added the league's leading ST tackler over the last four years (the Jets' Wallace Wright) and San Francisco's special teams ace (Marcus Hudson).

The team also added kickoff specialist Todd Carter, a rookie from Grand Valley State. Carter has a lot of leg, but isn't likely considered a threat of any sort to John Kasay. It's unsure whether

The massive focus on special teams in the offseason so far begs the question as to whether the gaping hole need at WR might come with a return specialist ability, as well.

It was expected that the team would've ended up drafting a special teamer like Francisco at safety, and probably still will add a special teamer at LB (if not two, one an Inside and one an Outside Linebacker). Jordan Senn and Quentin Culbertson each excelled at special teams late in the year, and will fight for a roster spot.