Make the Case: Draft a wide receiver in the first round

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(Editor's note: With the 2021 NFL Draft coming up next week, we're taking a daily look at the different paths the Panthers could choose with the eighth overall pick. Think of this as an argument for a particular position, rather than a prediction.)

CHARLOTTE — The marvelous thing about a draft for NFL teams, is that it gives them a chance to stock a roster for years to come with price-controlled labor.

"Years to come" is a big deal, but "price-controlled" is even bigger, when you're talking about one of the highest-paid positions in the league.

While the Panthers have more immediate needs on the current roster than at wide receiver, you don't have to take a look far down the road to see a looming shortage that needs to be backfilled with players of the young-and-cheap variety. And since only quarterbacks and pass-rushers make more money than top wideouts, having drafted ones helps the bottom line.

At the moment, the Panthers may not need a wide receiver at all. Soon, they absolutely will.

The only wide receivers on the roster under contract for 2022 are free agent pickup and solid third option David Moore and Omar Bayless, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve.

Now, they still have access to some guy named DJ Moore, but he's about to become a luxury item.

DJ Moore

DJ Moore emerged as a legitimate deep-ball threat last year, finishing the season with 18 more receiving yards than the season before (1,193 up from 1,175), despite catching 21 fewer passes (66 down from 87). That 18.1-yards-per-catch average jumps off a stat sheet.

They have until May 3 to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, which will guarantee him $11.1 million for 2022.

That's a big number, but considering the cost of doing top-shelf free agent business at the position (where stars are making at least $16 million to $18 million or more per year), it's a relative bargain for a short time.

Also, fellow starter Robbie Anderson is entering the final year of his two-year deal he signed to reunite with former Temple head coach Matt Rhule. Anderson's first year was a productive one (career highs of 95 catches and 1,096 yards), but establishing himself as a good player outside New York will also drive up his price tag.

The Panthers brought David Moore in to cover for the loss of free agent Curtis Samuel (who rejoined familiar faces in Washington), but they clearly need upgrades soon.

So while it's not the most immediate need, using the eighth overall pick on a receiver could represent good value for the future, considering the caliber of player available there.

With quarterbacks going early and often, some premier players will slide.

It's a reasonable assumption that someone will take Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (probably the best non-quarterback in the draft) before the Panthers have a chance to, but that just pushes every other pass-catcher down a slot. Pitts could go as high as fourth (unless the 49ers traded three first-rounders to really surprise people), and the Falcons could absolutely use him, if they don't trade with a quarterback-desperate team or take a passer themselves.

Ja'Marr Chase

If the Bengals, picking fifth, take Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell instead of LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, it pushes another guy down the board.

The conventional wisdom holds that the Dolphins moved back up to the sixth spot after trading down from the third so they could still acquire an offensive weapon — either Pitts or one of the group of wideouts including Chase and the Alabama tandem of DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

While there are reasons for concern with both the Crimson Tide wideouts (Smith has skinny little legs, and Waddle is coming off a season-ending broken ankle), they're going to be taken early in the draft because they're prolific.

The Lions at seven also have a screaming need for playmakers on offense after trading quarterback Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff and losing Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones in free agency. While taking one of the top receivers makes sense, they have enough holes that it's far from certain that's what they'll do.

Again, the Panthers have much greater immediate needs, so using a first-round pick on a guy who projects to be a star receiver might be considered buying a luxury item. But when you realize what actual luxury items cost and how soon you might have to invest in one, it might also be the most cost-effective way to proceed.

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