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Carolina Panthers

Ask Bryan: Defending the ends

I'm curious as to why I keep seeing defensive end as our draft priority. I sort of feel like defensive line is a strength. Would wide receiver or tackle be bigger needs? – Bob via Twitter

I certainly see your point, what with the Panthers actually ranking sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks last season despite reports of their demise. Yet I also see why draft analysts would latch onto the defensive end position, with no defensive end having more than six sacks last season (defensive tackle Kawann Short paced the Panthers with 11) and with Charles Johnson recording just one sack in his injury-hampered season after averaging 10.5 over the previous five years.

Analysts who do mock drafts in particular are apt to try to grab hold of a perceived position of need to guide them through the exercise. Last year, it was wide receiver even before Kelvin Benjamin got hurt and offensive tackle even after the Panthers signed Michael Oher, but after Carolina led the NFL in scoring without Benjamin and with Oher, that chatter quietened. There has been some talk about right tackle, but the Panthers have confidence in there.

In my opinion, general manager Dave Gettleman did what he does in free agency, addressing needs to the extent that the Panthers can now go in whatever direction they want come draft day based on value rather than need. They shored up the depth along both lines of scrimmage and added a proven nickel corner in Brandon Boykin. They can comfortably pick the best available player in the first round.

What are the chances Carolina picks a running back in the first round? If Derrick Henry is still there at 30, will the Panthers pull the trigger on a premier back since this is a run-first team? – Christopher in Whiteville, N.C.

Henry, the Heisman Trophy winning back from Alabama, would have to be a tempting consideration if he's still available that late into the first round. In 2008, the Panthers used the 13th pick to select Jonathan Stewart, the second time they had used a first-rounder on a running back in three years. Gettleman has drafted running backs in each of his three drafts as general manager, but none higher than Cameron Artis-Payne in the fifth round last year. That fits that the pattern around the league, with the era that saw a lot of running backs go early in drafts now a thing of the past.

Regardless of that trend, the presence of Stewart and Artis-Payne are among the reasons the Panthers might not be tempted by Henry. However, with Stewart entering his ninth season and Artis-Payne yet to play nine NFL games, you never know.

Considering Carolina's depth and the NFL learning curve, what position group gives the best opportunity for a potential rookie to make an impact? – Joel in Ellensburg, Wash.

Given how the position generally plays out and what Short and Star Lotulelei did as rookies, I would have said defensive tackle, but that was before the Panthers signed former Pro Bowl tackle Paul Soliai and re-signed Kyle Love. Still, it's a positon where a rookie can thrive. I also think there's an opportunity in the secondary – not the exactly the easiest position to learn, but several players currently on the roster made contributions as rookies, and cornerback Robert McClain signed with the Panthers and saw his first action of 2015 one month before starting throughout the playoffs. On offense, while the return of Benjamin makes that room even more crowded, a receiver could come in and make an immediate impact – just like Benjamin did in 2014 and Devin Funchess in 2015.

The great equalizer is special teams, of course, where a player from any position can contribute. Just ask quarterback Joe Webb.

View the favorite photos of the Panthers by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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