Multiple factors play into first-round pick


What can we expect the Panthers to do with their first-round pick? Any insight on positions they are looking at as the priority? – Charles in Beverly, Mass.

General manager Dave Gettleman said at the NFL Scouting Combine that the Panthers would like to upgrade the offense as a whole and the secondary. Also at the combine, head coach Ron Rivera said the offensive line, wide receivers and secondary among the deep positions in the draft class. Both also said that keeping a strength strong was a priority and referenced the impressive depth along the defensive line in the draft class.

Picking 28th, there's a chance the cream of the crop at those spots could all be gone, leaving a glut of players tightly grouped on the draft board when the Panthers pick. Alternatively, perhaps a gem at one of those positions could fall to Carolina. Perhaps a gem from more than one position will fall.

It all adds up to uncertainty but intrigue about who and what position the Panthers will target with their first pick.

"Don't write that in the draft the Panthers are taking this and this and this," Gettleman said. "Philosophically, we're going to take the best player on the board."

Is there any surprising talent on our practice squad which may influence the way we pick in the first round? For example, I see that Brenton Bersin looks to be a pretty big receiver with pretty good hands. A lot of people are screaming for a big receiver. Could our answer really be from within? – Mike in Charlotte

"One of the things I learned a long time ago is that oftentimes the answer is on your roster," Gettleman said at the combine. "Nobody ever imagined that we would take Nate Chandler, turn him around and make him an offensive guy, and he would start nine games for us and we'd be 7-2 in those nine games. No one ever imagined when I was with the Giants coming out of camp in 2011 that Victor Cruz would have that kind of year."

At wide receiver, the Panthers added Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King – who combined for 49 receiving touchdowns at Iowa and Georgia respectively – to the 53-man roster midseason. McNutt was a sixth-round draft pick by the Eagles in 2012; King a fifth-rounder by the Broncos in 2013. In addition, the Panthers' practice squad featured Bersin, a Charlotte native who set receiving records at Wofford; and Toney Clemons, a seventh-round pick by the Steelers in 2012 who caught 11 touchdown passes in two seasons at Colorado. The average build of the quartet is 6-1, 208 pounds.

Along the offensive line, Carolina has a trio of tackles and a trio of guards signed to future contracts. The group includes Andrew McDonald, who spent the last two seasons on the Panthers' and Dolphins' practice squads and who started 23 games at left tackle at Indiana; and Michael Jasper, a 375-pound guard picked by the Bills in the seventh round of the 2011 draft who spent 2013 on Carolina's practice squad.

"Before you run around and panic, you have to look at your roster and trust your evaluation process, and a lot of times the answer is right there," Gettleman said.


Do you see Dave Gettleman making major moves in free agency? – Tim in Calgary, Canada

Gettlman provided the short answer at the NFL Combine.

"Our free agency is going to be just like last year," he said. "We're going to look for guys that we feel have been overlooked that can help us. We thought we did pretty well last year."

The Panthers didn't have a lot to spend last year but certainly spent wisely in Gettleman's first season as general manager. They brought back key contributors like cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and quarterback Derek Anderson, and they brought in newcomers who made a major impact like wide receiver Ted Ginn, safety Mike Mitchell and defensive tackle Colin Cole.

All of those – save Edwards – could become unrestricted free agents again along with 13 others when the new league year begins March 11. Look for Gettleman to follow the same pattern this year, re-signing some of those guys while also adding a group of guys he thinks will fit the bill. The pieces fit together nicely last season and formed a tough, tight-knit group - a recipe the Panthers believe they can replicate with several strong team leaders (minus the retiring Jordan Gross) back in the mix.

The Panthers had solid success three seasons ago with the two-tight end formation, when both Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey were viable threats in the passing game. With all due respect to Ben Hartsock, who is more of an offensive lineman than a dual-threat tight end, what do you think the future holds for this formation as it relates to the development of Brandon Williams and D.C. Jefferson? Can one or both become solid inline blockers and passing threats? – Craig in Omaha, Neb.

Olsen and Shockey were an effective duo with 82 catches in 2011, but without a threat like Shockey the last two seasons, Olsen averaged 71 catches on his own. The Panthers have leaned heavily on Olsen to make the catches for the position the last two seasons while benefitting from the blocking acumen offered by second tight ends like Hartsock and Richie Brockel.

That being said, the development of a second pass-catching tight end is an exciting prospect. Both Williams and Jefferson are raw but intriguing candidates, with Williams hoping to expand his role in 2014 after playing a limited role in nine games as a rookie. Jefferson is new to Carolina, just joining the practice squad on January 1. Stay tuned in the offseason to see if one or both can blossom.

Nobody has talked about the Panthers' special teams play. At the end of 2012 there were a lot of questions, but in 2013 there was vast improvement in all phases. What made the difference? – Gene in Southwich, Mass.

It was, to put it simply, a team effort on special teams in 2013. Kicker Graham Gano, just signed to a four-year contract, spearheaded the effort, making all six of his 50-plus-yard field goal attempts while recording the highest percentage of touchbacks the NFL has seen in 20 years. Punter Brad Nortman also came into his own, setting a franchise record with a 47.8-yard gross average; long snapper J.J. Jansen had another seamless season; and Ginn provided a consistent threat in the return game. Special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers flourished in his first full season in the role, with a helping hand from first-year assistant Bruce DeHaven, a longtime special teams coordinator.

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