It's finally here. The NFL Draft. The long awaited weekend where mock drafts and dream lineup scenarios go to die. I've actually never attended a draft, so I'm pumped to see this up close during a very exciting time to be a Carolina Panthers fan.
It's funny (well, and not funny) that just 365 days ago we were singing a very different tune going into the Draft/Offseason as fans. The Panthers were arguably a few plays away from a record book season and entered the following months looking for those few pieces that could push the team over the edge to bring a Lombardi home to Charlotte. Now on April 26th 2017, we're looking to completely "evolve" the offense, and find a way to get back to the defense we once knew. But like other recent articles have touched upon, what exactly does "evolve" mean? Well, here's my shot at it just a few miles down the road from where a 5th Super Bowl banner will be hung in September.
If you're a Panthers fan who's logged on to Twitter in the past few months, it's hard to avoid the constant debate of two specific players in this draft. Living in Boston, it's even harder to avoid the criticism of coming up a game short of a championship season, or as Patriots fans would call it, a "losing season". While constantly poking jabs at other GMs, teams and prospects this time of year, you're constantly reminded of how the Patriots can win with players other teams didn't want and how Bill can masterfully find areas for players to excel on his team where others couldn't.
The coined phrase "Do Your Job" is also a reminder of the fact that the Patriots don't really ask any single player, not even Tom Brady, to do too much besides well...their job. While Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman agrees that football is the truest of team games out there, it's something the Carolina Panthers can't exactly say they've achieved on offense during his stay in my opinion.
It's hard not to marvel over the Patriots offense on Sundays. While I'm stuffed in the back corner of a Boston bar squinting to see a 20 inch TV showing the Panthers game, the thundering sound of the game and the 100 ft screens they're shown on can't be avoided. When it comes down to it, the Patriots have made their Quarterback the greatest of all time by surgically carving defenses using short yardage, YAC monster completions to a number of receivers from all positions including their backfield, creating a slew of mismatches all over the field. It's actually scary to think of the possibilities with their recent additions in FA in 2017. But to explain this further, let's check out this YAC leaders list from last season.
James White, Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett dominate this list while the Panthers don't even have a player in the top 32 with Greg Olsen leading the team ranked 33rd in the league. (Chris Hogan also enters the list at 84 and even Rob Gronkowski who played just eight games still breaks the top 100). I'm a huge advocate of not stocking up on one weapon, but having a number of different ones when it comes to a successful offense as well.
Another interesting thing about this top 20 list is only three teams appear on it multiple times. Two of those teams are the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots with their leading YAC receiver coming out of the backfield, who is also a threat in the run game. Both leaders were also huge factors in the Super Bowl. Where are Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy on this list? 238th and 83rd. Yes, you read that right. In 2016, Jonathan Stewart was 238th in the NFL in YAC. Kelvin Benjamin is the only other Panther that breaks the top 100 coming in at 91st.
And looking at overall team stats, it doesn't get any better in the YAC department for Carolina ranking in the bottom 10 in the NFL for the past four years straight.
As much as I hate to say it, this is what the Carolina Panthers need to base this "evolution" off of. Short, high percentage passing where the ball carrier can make a play vs throwing the ball downfield into coverage. Let's be honest, the time has come and gone for Mike Shula to flex the muscles of the Carolina running game and the emphasis of Cam Newton as a "running Quarterback". Cam's confidence has also become his Kryptonite, where teams have found that shaking him up early and forcing Carolina to throw has led to bad decisions and long third downs. This is the most important thing I want to see in this "evolution of the Panthers offense". Confidence and rhythm building passing options for Cam Newton without asking him to do too much every play. I've talked about wanting Anquan Boldin on the Panthers way too much on the Podcasts and on Twitter partly because he's one of my favorite players of all time, but mostly due to the fact that Cam needs quicker, more reliable options like him.
Taking a look at the Patriots backfield on paper doesn't scream "rushing machine" either, but is an absolute nightmare to gameplan for, let alone the work you have to put in for their WRs:
As of right now, taking a look at the backfield you have to gameplan for playing the Panthers is a lot less concerning.
With all of that said and using my opinion of what needs to evolve, here is who I personally would be very happy about on Thursday night.
1. CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY (RB/WR - STANFORD)
(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)
So cliche Denn right? There is enough film of him receiving, rushing and even on special teams that I'll spare you the drool clips, but seriously this is the piece that Carolina needs not only as a backfield rushing and receiving threat, but also to even just open the field up and take the pass rush off of Cam. It's the perfect piece to what is missing in the Carolina offense and it's also a telling sign that new WR coach Lance Taylor wants McCaffrey. He has seen first hand what he can do in Stanford rushing and receiving and I would find it hard to believe he wouldn't be an instant plug to the Panthers offense in both roles come Week 1. In more of a "win now" mentality, he is the perfect compliment to Jonathan Stewart giving Cam the backfield YAC threat he's really never had. Different tasks for different backs.
Does this mean the Panthers should stop using Cam in the rushing game entirely? Absolutely not. It could even make him better. The ability to have someone like Christian driving Linebackers and Nickel corners crazy, while still having the ability to pound the rock with Stew, in addition to Cam, is something that reminds me of the games that fill those TVs at Boston bars. Nothing about the Patriots is one dimensional and I wish I could say the same about the current Carolina offense. I totally understand that if you're looking to find Stew's true "replacement" in this draft, Christian might not be the guy that fits that bill, but he will definitely bring something the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton have been needing for a long time.
2. OJ HOWARD (TE - ALABAMA)
(Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
As we all know, one of Cam's best seasons came with two great pass catching Tight Ends. On the same token, as painful as it is, you have to think about a Panthers Offense without my idol and favorite player of all time Greg Olsen (knocks on ALLLL the wood). One thing Panthers fans have been somewhat spoiled with is the health and consistency of number 88 in the lineup. Besides the "safety net" Howard would bring, the ability for him to also be on the field with Olsen is exciting if Shula would go back to two tight end sets, which I promise you definitely works in Madden. Another athletic, gritty pass catching option for Cam who can also run block really well is something that Ed Dickson certainly doesn't hold a candle to and adds more versatility to the Panthers (hopefully) evolving playbook. When it comes to Draft night, if OJ Howard is announced as a Panther, I won't be the least bit upset.
Here is how OJ's spider web compares to Greg Olsen's.
So to sum it up, for the Carolina offense to truly evolve into a nightmare offense in my opinion....they need to start by greatly improving in one very important area...