To say that the 2016 Carolina Panthers were a disappointment would be an understatement. Coming off a season in which they went 15-1 and won the NFC, the Panthers were expected to be back in the playoff picture. While some people saw the signs of regression, I don't think many thought they would be as bad as they were last season. After all they added a healthy Kelvin Benjamin to the league's number 1 offense and had the reigning MVP at QB. Now, the Panthers have a top ten pick as feel like a team in transition.
All that being said, we saw the ceiling this offense has in 2015 when everything is clicking. Given their history, they'll probably draft some defensive player with a second round grade at number 8 overall, but that's no fun. So, let's take a look at some players they could, or should, be targeting in this weekends NFL Draft. All rounds are approximated because, well, I'm not a “draft expert” and let's be honest even those guys don't know what teams are doing most of the time.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Round 1 Pick 8
For most of the mock draft season, this seemed like a virtual lock. After all, Fournette is one of the most highly toutedrunning back prospects to come out in the last decade, and Carolina is a team that loves to run the football. However, some scouts have soured on Fournette, due either to his lack of pass catching skills or his perceived “lack of desire”. If you think Fournette lacks heart or desire, talk to any of the defensive players that Fournette put on their ass to gain an extra few yards. Fournette is one of the hardest and most fearsome runners I've seen coming out of college. He has the physical stature at 6’ 230-240 pounds that you need in order to stand up to the beating an NFL running back takes, as well as the athleticism to outrun defenders and make plays. Playerprofiler.com lists his best comparable as Steven Jackson, a comp I like quite a bit, and for those of you who don't recall Steven Jackson had a nice career and was usually an RB1 in fantasy. Fournette is also a good fit in the type of power scheme the Panthers want to run. This offense is at its best when it's able to run the ball efficiently and effectively, and open up play action passes down the field. Not to mention that the combination of Cam Newton and Fournette has the potential to be one of the deadliest redzone threats in the league.
Christian McCaffery, RB, Stanford
Round 1 Pick 8
Any mock draft that doesn't have the Panthers taking Fournette usually has them taking McCaffery. Since December, McCaffery has flown up draft boards, and for good reason. If you've read any of my other draft previews, you know that McCaffery is my favorite running back of this class. In today's NFL, you need to have a running back that is a threat to catch the football, and that's where McCaffery truly shines. If the Panthers take him at number 8 he will instantly be the best running back and wide receiver on their football team. Hell, he'd be the best receiver they've had since letting Steve Smith go. McCaffery isn't just a “scat back” though, as he proved in college that he has the vision, burst and shiftiness necessary to be an effective every down runner. Routinely facing eight man boxes due to Stanford’s poor passing attack, McCaffery ran for over 3,600 yards in two seasons as a starter, averaging 6.13 yards per carry. He also is well adept at running out of the shotgun, a formation that Carolina lined up in 48% of the time in 2016. While Carolina isn't my favorite spot for McCaffery, mostly due to their poor offensive line and Cam’s tendency to miss high on short timing routes, I am a believer in his talent and think he will succeed no matter where he lands.
John Ross, WR, Washington
Round 1 Pick 8
If there's one thing that Cam Newton is good at it is throwing the ball really, really far. In 2015, Carolina led the league in average yards per pass attempt, and made Ted Ginn look like a superstar, well at least on the passes he didn't drop. They missed that explosiveness last season, and there's no more explosive receiver in this draft than John Ross. Running a record breaking 4.22 at the NFL Combine, I don't think even Cam could throw a ball far enough that Ross could catch it. While I still think Kelvin Benjamin is a good football player, he isn't a going to outrun many defensive backs, instead using his size to outmuscle them. Ross isn't just a deep threat though. He ran the full route tree at Washington, demanding respect from opposing defensive backs and using that to sell underneath routes. His closest NFL comp is DeSean Jackson, who has been terrorizing defensive backs for 8 seasons, when he is healthy. The only question about Ross is his durability, but I think he's a risk worth taking and could return this offense to the tremendous aerial attack we saw in 2015.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Round 1 Pick 8
I know what you're thinking, why would Carolina take O.J. Howard when they already have Greg Olsen? Well, who better to eventually replace Olsen than Howard, who is basically a Greg Olsen clone. Widely considered to be the top tight end prospect in the draft, Howard displayed great pass catching ability in his career at Alabama, albeit in a low volume passing offense. Howard is also the most effective blocking tight end in this class, a skill that should help him get on the field and be effective faster than most rookie tight ends. Having both Howard and Olsen on the field at the same time would allow Carolina to run more double tight end formations without losing their flexibility to run or pass, and would create mismatches all over the field. This offense, and Cam, have shown that they like to use the tight end often and at age 32, Olsen isn't getting any younger. Drafting a stud like Howard now would give their offense a lot of versatility now, and in three or so years when Olsen is ready to retire, Howard will be entering his prime, ready to take Olsen’s spot as Cam’s number one target.
Anthony Reimer is a contributor and member of the FLAFFL House Family. Follow him on Twitter @reimeras & on the Fantasy Life App @mrmeseeks