While two teams prepare for Super Bowl XLV in less than two weeks, the NFL’s other 30 teams are rapidly preparing for free agency and the 2011 NFL draft. Provided there is a draft this April – the NFL’s labor situation permitting – it might be one of the hardest to predict in years. And that starts at the very top.
There is no Matt Stafford, Sam Bradford or Jake Long in this class. No player standing above all others at a premium position who a team can feel comfortable sinking at least $50 million of guaranteed money into. With quarterback Andrew Luck’s decision to return to Stanford, the Carolina Panthers (who own the No. 1 pick) have been left out in the cold and their options aren’t exactly overwhelming.
The good news for the Panthers is that they need help along the defensive line and there is a lot of talent in that area this year.
Scouts Inc. has four players rated at 97, meaning they are all tied for this year’s top rating. Two of those players are defensive linemen. Auburn’s Nick Fairley and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers could certainly help Carolina’s defensive line immediately. But is a defensive lineman ever really worth $50 million? The other two top rated players on Scouts Inc.’s board are LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green.
The top rated quarterback on the board is Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert at a 96. Our thoughts on Gabbert’s inadequacies have been well documented. I seriously doubt the Panthers would think about reaching for him just to sign up a franchise quarterback.
Likewise, the top rated offensive tackle on Scouts Inc.’s board is USC’s Tyron Smith at 95. Smith barely cracks the first round in Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft (he goes to Pittsburgh with the 32nd pick), and Scouts Inc.’s Todd McShay has him lasting until the Minnesota Vikings at No. 12. Again, there is no prospect at a premium position worthy of the No. 1 overall pick.
Unless something major happens, we’re left with the Panthers picking between Fairley and Bowers. So which way will they go?
Well, as it stands now, McShay has them taking Bowers and Kiper has them taking Fairley. Can these guys agree on anything?
McShay says the Panthers will try and improve their 11th ranked pass defense by adding a pass rusher. Carolina was tied for 20th in the NFL with 31 sacks this season. Therefore Bowers’ explosiveness off the edge makes sense.
Conversely, Kiper says Fairley isn’t just a safe pick, but he has the chance to be a dominant player right away regardless of what system he plays in, a la Ndamukong Suh. Fairley’s excellent burst, quick feet and “violent hand action” means he can penetrate effectively and be a constant nuisance against the run and the pass. Carolina surrendered 123.8 rushing yards per game last year, ranking them 23rd in the NFL. Clearly the Panthers could use help on the interior, and they’ve reportedly already started a background check on Fairley.
So what does Carolina need more, a bull in the middle or some flash on the outside?
That’s basically what the No. 1 choice in the 2011 NFL draft will boil down to.
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