Allow me to digress before I dig in.
With the 2018 NFL Draft approaching, I had an idea for a unique way to provide a position-by-position look at what's to come. Long story short, I averaged data from three opinion pieces out there about which position groups are strongest and which are weakest in the draft. Then fellow writers Max Henson and Bill Voth provided a need-based position pecking order from the Panthers' perspective, which I paired with my personal order and averaged as well.
It got convoluted quick, as the differences of opinion on how the position groups stack up against each other were striking. By comparison, we Panthers.com fellas were on the same page with team needs.
So anyway, I crunched both sets of numbers together and came up with an order that pairs the perceived strengths of the draft with the perceived weaknesses of Carolina's current roster. And surprisingly, it all added up to make more sense than I would have ever guessed it would.
I'll spare you the numbers themselves, but I present – in ascending order – how the positions shake out as the Panthers prepare with eight draft picks in hand. The positions divide relatively neatly into different categories to boot.
LUXURY PICKS (Offensive tackle, defensive tackle, quarterback)
First off, there's really no such thing as a luxury pick. Given the size of NFL rosters and the physical toll the game takes on players within a given season and over several seasons, no team can ever truly feel comfortable at any spot on the field. The Panthers were supposedly sitting pretty at linebacker entering the 2012 draft, but they didn't let that stop them from using the ninth overall pick on a linebacker – one Luke Kuechly.
But, relative to the other position groups and in light of the draft-worthy talent at each, these positions don't scream for Carolina to add talent. Most draft experts consider it a relatively weak group of tackles on both sides of the ball, and the Panthers have starters and reserves in both spots that arguably outclass what's available and what's needed. The quarterback class is considered strong and Carolina is considered a team in need of a backup, but much of the class' perceived strength is based on a group of top-flight passers that the Panthers wouldn't consider with Cam Newton set for his eighth season.
DEPTH PICKS (Tight end, defensive end, linebacker)
These are positions where the Panthers are set in terms of starters but where they could look to use the draft to upgrade the second-string group and/or secure starters for the future – potentially the near future.
You can't do much better than Greg Olsen at tight end, Julius Peppers at defensive end and Thomas Davis at linebacker, but they're all relatively close to the end of their playing days. The Panthers don't have a proven backup for Olsen with Ed Dickson now in Seattle, so tight end would have been higher in the pecking order if not for the prevailing opinion that the draft class is weak. It's a similar story at defensive end. Many draft analysts do like the draft class at linebacker, but the Panthers have Kuechly as well as Shaq Thompson waiting in the wings, so they're not likely to turn there early in the draft. Except, of course, for the fact that Kuechly and Thompson both technically qualified as players the Panthers didn't need when they were drafted.
PIVOTAL PICKS (Guard/center, wide receiver, cornerback, running back, safety)
Beginning with the interior of the offensive line and amping up from there, these are positions where the Panthers aren't settled in terms of starters or at least significant contributors. They have options to replace Andrew Norwell at left guard but nothing is set in stone, and five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil has said 2018 will be his last season. At wide receiver, offseason additions Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright have solidified things, but more weapons wouldn't hurt.
While both offensive line and wide receiver have options on the roster entering a draft with middle-of-the-pack talent relative to other positions, the defensive back and running back spots have need and also offer some of the deepest talent in the draft. The Panthers recently added viable veterans at safety (Da'Norris Searcy) and cornerback (Ross Cockrell), and Cameron Artis-Payne could get his chance to carry some of the load alongside running back Christian McCaffrey. Still things unsettled in those areas, and the draft class is considered to be stacked – especially at safety and running back.