NFL combine gives Panthers choices

By Jeff Linville -

The NFL held its draft combine over the weekend. Good luck picking the best players.

Oh sure, you could look at someone’s performance over one day in Indianapolis and think he’d be great for your team, but there is so much more that goes into consideration.

A wide receiver broke the combine record for the fastest time in the 40-yard dash. Sounds great! The Panthers could use a deep threat.

Oh, he’s already had one knee reconstructed and he’s about to undergo shoulder surgery. Maybe he’s injury-prone. Do you take the risk?

Two years ago, Ali Marpet graded out as the most athletic offensive lineman in the draft. But, he came from a tiny college and never played good competition. Do you take the risk?

Cam Newton was obviously the best player in the draft coming out of college, but he had off-the-field issues that scared off some teams. Do you take the risk? The Panthers did and have seen the good (2015 MVP season) and the bad (2016 Super Bowl interview).

Dave Gettleman, Carolina general manager, told a story this week about a past combine where he spent 50 minutes talking to a good player who had issues. No, the kid had never been caught doing something wrong, but he was there when incidents occurred.

After the interview, Gettleman told one of his employees that the kid would never play for his team because instinct told him the kid was guilty. Gettleman wouldn’t name the player, but said the young man has had issues since joining the league.

There is a long history of players flopping in the NFL despite a strong pedigree. Trying to figure out who might flop and who might succeed requires the sleuthing skills of Sherlock Holmes and the psychological intuitiveness of Hannibal Lecter.

In his time with the Panthers, Gettleman has hit on more winners than losers, so what he’s doing is working.

He was convinced that small-school James Bradbury could be a top cornerback. By the end of his rookie season, Bradbury was proving Gettleman right.

After drafting Star Lotuleilei in the first round in 2013, people shook their heads at drafting Kawann Short in the second round. That seemed to work out well.

Kelvin Benjamin showed great hands in college, but then he ran a slow time in the 40 at the 2014 combine and turned some teams off. He broke 1,000 yards as a rookie despite his lack of elite speed.

Sure, there have been plenty of draft picks that didn’t work out for Carolina, but most of those have been in the later rounds when you are just hoping to get lucky anyway.

Josh Norman, who turned down $14 million a season last year was a fifth-round pick, #143 overall, in 2012. Trai Turner, one of the best young guards in the league, was the 92nd pick in 2014. David Mayo, #169 in 2015, has made such strides that the team is trying to decide if he can break into the tight linebacker starting squad.

So who should the Panthers draft this year? Hey, I’m no shrink, and I haven’t been in the interviews. And who knows what players the team might sign in free agency before next month’s draft.

That said, I would love to see the Panthers grab one of the good-looking pass rushers I saw over the weekend in the first round. Some folks are talking running back, but eighth overall seems so early to take a runner when the offensive line can’t block.

In the second round, the team could take an offensive lineman to help that blocking.

Another way to help would be to get one of those exceptional tight ends I watched. This is the best crop of TEs I’ve ever seen, and getting a good one would recreate the flexibility the Panthers had when Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey lined up together for one season. With those two TEs in 2011, that’s the only season that Cam Newton has broken 4,000 yards passing.

Consider this, in 2011 and 2016 Newton had almost the same number of passing attempts (517 to 510). And yet his passing yards were nearly 5,000 less: 4,051 to 3,509. Newton averaged an entire yard less per attempt last season as compared to his rookie year when he had two big threats.

Heck, I’d be okay if the Panthers used the first-round pick on TE O.J. Howard, whose measurables looked an awful lot like Greg Olsen coming out of college.

I just don’t want to see the team pick Leonard Fournette in the first round. He makes my Spidey sense tingle. Shows up at 240 pounds for the most important workout of his life? While many guys are jumping three feet in the vertical, he only cleared 28.5 inches. He doesn’t make guys miss that well and takes a lot of pounding — which can lead to a shortened career like Earl Campbell or Bo Jackson. And he had a bad ankle that slowed him down all season; maybe it’s still not right.

Maybe Fournette becomes a star. Maybe he becomes Ki-Jana Carter.

Who? Carter was the consensus top pick in 1995. The Panthers had the top pick, but traded back to fifth to get Kerry Collins and DE Shawn King to boot. Carter barely broke 1,000 yards rushing for his whole career.

The draft is such a crap shoot, but I like Gettleman’s track record.

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

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