Thursday, May 12, 2011

2011 NFL Draft; The Carolina Panthers

See, I told you I was working on it.

Now last year the Panthers went a miserable 2-14. Head Coach John Fox is out the door, heading off west to busy himself with crippling the Broncos. That gives the Panthers a fresh start, a chance to right the wrongs and really get things moving. It's for that reason that this draft was so critical. It's where the Panthers could acquire the building blocks for the new Rivera regime.

That's why I can't help but chuckle just a little bit.

I hate the Panthers. That's probably down more to John Fox and Jeff Davidson (both gone), but still, my ill will remains. That said, anything that looks like it might cause the Panthers problems brings a smile to my face. Enter then Cam Newton, the number 1 overall pick.

I can't stand Newton. His smile looks like it was manufactured for a Colgate advert, right after the one ordered by Deion Sanders. That of course might come down to me being inherently quite miserable, but there you go.

What bugs me the most is the fact that Newton was taken first overall and everyone seemed to be supporting that. Everyone. Pre-draft, Newton was basically hailed as one of the best football players on every board. Of course that was then and now that it's a done deal, everybody seems to have changed their tune a little.

Suddenly everyone has started asking the same questions that I've been asking for ages now; how will Cam Newton convert from the Auburn offense to the NFL?

First off, I want to make the point that this is not a racist thing, something which has been brought up on numerous occasions by people in and around the Newton camp, directed at members of the media. This shouldn't even have to be addressed, but as people have been making an issue out of it, then it has to be covered.

For the record, I'm looking forward to the 2012 and 2013 drafts for quarterbacks Jacory Harris (Miami) and Darron Thomas (Oregon) respectively.

The reason why I'm incredibly sceptical is because I saw nothing watching Newton play for Auburn that I feel will transfer particularly well to the NFL. I saw a lot of running plays, but traditionally NFL offenses aren't keen on having their QB run on every other play.

I didn't see a lot of reads. People have complained and come to Newtons defense by saying that the offense at Auburn wasn't as easy as people think, mainly because the playbook shows lots of routes on pass plays. But that doesn't correlate with what I saw in the games, where Newton often drops back, appears to read one, maybe two routes, then gets on his horse and runs with it.

I should perhaps point out here that as an athlete, Newton is insane. A person of his height and weight should not be able to cut as quickly as he does in the open field. Yet somehow he manages it, along with breaking tackles through pure strength and showing a good turn of pace in a straight line.

But all those things, a quarterback does not make. I don't see the poise and presence in the pocket. I don't see the accuracy down the field. I don't see the ball placement. In fact, I don't see any of the things that I would associate with an NFL level QB.

I can see Newton occasionally escaping for yards. I can see him perhaps being a useful threat around the goal line. But he's no Mike Vick. That comparison has come up more than once, but it's laughable at best. The difference between Vick and Newton is that Vick can throw the ball on a par with some of the best in the league AND run like a demon. Newton just does number two.

It's for this reason mainly that I don't like the Panthers draft. Because now you're hamstrung from day one. If this kid walks onto the field as the QB for week one, it makes no difference who his team mates are. The offense flows through the QB and even run heavy teams such as Carolina (should be), still need a good quarterback to make it all work.

Newton is, in my opinion at least, a bust just waiting to have his Ryan Leaf-esque public meltdown. People are already talking about Jimmy Clausen being on the way out and having to make room, which I think is wrong. If I had to take either of these two into week one as my starter, it would be Clausen.

I'm no Clausen fan, but he's a better passer than Newton and has at least had a year to get acclimatised to the NFL. I have a sore feeling that Panthers fans will be singing for Clausen's return by the time of the first bye week (week 9).

But Newton wasn't the only guy taken, so let's look at the rest of 'em.

First off we have to head to the third round, as Carolina used up it's second pick in 2010 to get a third rounder. So we start with Terrell McClain, defensive tackle. McClain is a big guy who has pretty impressive speed and agility for his size.

That makes him a good candidate in the Panthers 4-3 system, which would find him lined up as one of the two interior tackles. He can rush the QB from there and has the ability to track down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of the run when needed. As far as the player fitting the team, McClain and the Panthers should make a relatively happy marriage.

I feel he was taken a little early for my liking, but then that's a personal opinion and it's not really something you can bash the Panthers heavily for.

Next in the third round is tackle Sione Fua, a compensatory selection. Hmm. Not bursting with praise, let's put it like that. Personally I think Fua gets man handled in the running game far too easily. He just seems to make contact with the offensive linemen and then switch by default to standing upright, instead of trying to get his butt down and use his hands.

On the pass rush he suffers the same problem. On contact he gets stood up far too easily and he struggles to use his hands to work past the offensive linemen and get to the ball. That's a real issue when playing for a 4-3 team, when the pass rush is largely dependent upon the D-line. He doesn't even drive the interior linemen back to help close the pocket on the QB and I feel that at the NFL level, teams will have no problems handling him one on one.

Onto round four, where we find cornerback Brandon Hogan, from West Virginia. Hogan displayed good physicality, which for me is a lost art of sorts among corners. His decision making was ok, but the trouble is, that's where the good stuff ends.

I have problems with his pass coverage. "Average" might cut it in College ball, depending on who you play, but average in the NFL means you're getting beaten repeatedly and picked on by experienced QB's. There are also character concerns hanging over Hogan, who was suspended at one point over a DUI charge that came less than six months after being cited by Police for disorderly conduct and public urination.

In round five the Panthers took Hawaii wide receiver Kealoha Pilares. I've seen some of him now and I can safely say that while I don't mind Pilares, I can't say as I'm his biggest fan. His run after the catch is normally quite good, but I didn't see a lot in the way of a developed route tree, especially when we're talking down the field.

And don't give me any of the that "it's because he played at Hawaii" crap. So did Greg Salas, and that kid really impressed me, including his ability down the field.

In round six it was linebacker Lawrence Wilson first. Wilson is a pretty solid tackler, especially in the open field. Movement across the field, including pursuit is good. Pass coverage was ok. The main concern with Wilson was that sometimes he came crashing down to the line against the run, took a bad line and endded up getting stuffed out of the play.

That shouldn't be so much of an issue in the Panthers scheme, as typically in a 4-3 defense each of the front seven players is assigned a gap to defend against the run. That is of course providing the Panthers stick with the 4-3.

The second of the sixth round picks, a compensatory selection, was Center Zachary Williams. Now there are times when it's difficult to get anything that would resemble footage of a player. With Williams it was damn near impossible. So honestly I can't bash or big the kid up. All I know is that Centers rarely shoot up the rankings on draft boards and when most people have you rated as "10 of ..." Center's, that's usually not a good sign.

Finally then we have Lee Ziemba, the offensive tackle from Auburn. Now I'm not going to say I hate Ziemba. I'm more indifferent to him. I didn't see anything that really made me go "wow, there's a tackle more people should be talking about!"

Apparently he won an SEC award for his blocking, but as I said earlier when I covered Ziemba in the O-line extra, all that does is fail to inspire confidence in me for the other O-linemen in the SEC. Probably went about where he should have. Honestly I don't see him surviving another three years in the league (though to be fair, fellow Auburn tackle alumni King Dunlap has, and Dunlap sucks).

So there you have it. The Panthers 2011 draft. Now let me qualify why I think it sucked so badly.

Reason #1
They splashed their top overall pick on a quarterback. I'm not even pointing the finger at Newton here. They already have Clausen and Tony Pike on the roster, so why not just see how those two pan out? I know that neither of them was really stunning, but it takes time to fully develop a quarterback. It can take two years just to fully learn all the terminology that an NFL offense uses.

I just don't think Carolina needed to go this early. They could have sat and perhaps picked up another young QB later, with a view to giving Clausen and Pike time to prove themselves this season, while quietly showing the project kid the ropes. There were so many better ways to handle it than just splashing the top pick on yet another young QB.

And yes, there were better quarterbacks on the board than Newton. Ryan Mallett for one. Mallett may have baggage in the terms of character concerns, but so does Newton. The only difference is that Mallett can play like a traditional pro style QB and is more likely to make a smooth transition to the next level. Not much then.

Reason #2
One thing the Panthers have chronically struggled with is receivers. And no, their three pass catching tight ends don't count. I love those guys (Barnidge, King and Rosario, the latter two of whom are free agents), plus the addition of Jeremy Shockey, formerly of the Saints, but that still leaves Steve Smith, possibly Brandon LaFell, and then a bag of unknowns and probably won't be's.

Where was the one or two middle to late round picks? Why not go grab some big body, physical guys who can add a bit of height, or maybe some true downfield speed? No. What they get is Pilares, probably another slot style kid.

It just baffles me a bit. How are you ever going to help guys like Clausen, or now Newton, without anybody on the outside to throw to? How is Cam Newton supposed to light up defense's when his number one guy Steve Smith will be double or triple covered? A missed opportunity I feel.

Reason #3

Excuse me. The Panthers have potential on defense. Their D-line has some capable pass rushers. But Jesus, that defensive backfield is awful. How in the hell do you expect to contain Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman with that collection of crap sitting back there?

This for me was right up there alongside wide receiver. The Panthers are now forced to go fishing around in free agency to try and find something to shore up what is certainly a weak, leaky group. They need safeties and corners, and the 2011 draft could have been the place to start work on that.

But all they took was Brandon Hogan. Nice work. Maybe if they'd laid off the two defensive linemen (a position of little need) taken in the third round, then they might have been able to find some space for one or two fast guys to help them out.

On reflection then, looking at the draft as a whole, I can't buy into what the Panthers have done. To me it just makes absolutely no sense, addresses none of their major issues and will probably leave the Panthers no better off than the year before. They might improve by a game or two, most bad teams do. But this is not the start of the empire in Carolina.

If I was Ron Rivera I'd be looking at what I just left behind for this and asking myself "why, why did I do it? What possessed me to come to this messed up franchise? I should have taken the Raiders job..."

Ok, so it's not that bad.

Next up is the Buccaneers and that's us then done with the NFC South. I'm impressed. It's dragged out nicely. At this rate training camps will be ready to begin by the time I get around to finishing the whole series. Unless of course free agency kicks off prematurely and scuppers my plans by constantly interrupting the series. We'll see. One last thing though before I go.

I hate the Panthers.

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