Continuing in our recount of the Carolina Panthers draft history, this column will cover three drafts that the team probably wishes it could have back, starting with the 1998 draft.
First, I should explain what I consider when grading drafts. The importance of a pick playing out obviously correlates the order. I expect a first rounder to become a team leader, play on the team for a significant period of time, and make at least one Pro Bowl. Multiple Pro Bowls or special longevity on the team adds value. Second rounders should become multiyear starters and preferably play on the team past their rookie deals, while third rounders should also become a starter or valuable contributor during their stint with the team. After that, I really want the team to have found one sleeper in the remaining rounds, but I won’t count off for sixth and seventh rounders not helping significantly.
Back in 1998, the Panthers were only two years past their NFC Championship appearance, but were coming off a disappointing 7-9 season. The team was still led by Dom Capers, but original GM Bill Polian was gone, leading to increased power to Director of Player Personnel Jack Bushofsky. The team had major holes on the defensive line, and attempted to address them by using their first three picks on first round defensive tackle Jason Peter and third rounder defensive ends Chuck Wiley and Mitch Marrow.
Despite having a similar name to Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jason Peters, Jason Peter’s career was much shorter and less spectacular. Despite being on a super thin line, Peter never started a full season, and recurring neck injuries forced him to retire in 2001. Both Wiley and Marrow also fell to the injury bug and spent all of 1998 on Injured Reserve. Wiley was released in 1999, and Marrow suffered a career-ending back injury the same year.
The draft didn’t improve much after the first three picks. Of the five remaining picks, three of them never recorded a stat for the Panthers. Fifth round Linebacker Jerry Jensen, seventh round defensive tackle Viliami Manumua, and seventh round wide receiver Jim Turner: all can be safely considered busts.
Reasoning: Failing to grab anything more than a lone two year starter out of eight picks takes some serious combination of bad luck and bad scouting. The team found a couple of contributors in the back of the draft which is a plus, but completely air balling on all their picks in the first three rounds is horrendous. It’s not a huge surprise that this is the last draft Bushofsky and Capers led in Carolina.
The 1999 draft was the first under head coach/general manager George Seifert. In a move that would affect both this draft and the 2000 draft, Seifert traded the first round picks of both drafts for defensive tackle Sean Gilbert. Gilbert was a two time Pro Bowler when they traded for him, and they hoped that he could solidify their weak line. He moved to end for the 1998 season, and recorded six sacks before they moved him back to tackle for the rest of his career. Unfortunately, Gilbert would only average three sacks per season over the next 3 seasons, until he only started half the games in both 2001 and 2002, which resulted in him being released by the team.
So with their first round pick being wasted on a player that only contributed as a starter for 3 years, and never at an elite level, Carolina spent one of their two second round picks on end Mike Rucker and their sixth rounder on end Robert Daniel. Daniel never recorded a sack, but Rucker became a nine year starter, and, until the selection of Julius Peppers, was the only reliable member of the defensive line. Rucker had two double-digit sack seasons, including a Pro Bowl year in 2003. Rucker continued to be a reliable starter until an ACL injury ended his season in 2006, and ultimately his career in 2007. Carolina also picked up two 4-year contributors in starting offensive tackle Chris Terry (in the second round), and role playing linebacker Hannibal Navies in the fourth. Their last pick in the draft was spent on safety Tony Booth, who never contributed.
Reasoning: Carolina hit on its two second rounders to my requirements, and beyond when referring to Rucker, but its huge miss on Gilbert hurts their ranking in a big way. The team didn’t find anyone in the later rounds that made a significant difference either. The Gilbert fiasco wasn’t Seifert’s fault (Dom Capers made the trade), so all in all Seifert did a good job in his first draft with limited picks. Regardless, a wasted first rounder is a wasted first rounder when it comes to draft grades.
In 2000, the Panthers were once again haunted by the Sean Gilbert trade. Even with that, the team was able to acquire another first rounder and used it on corner back Rashard Anderson. Anderson started off his career kind of slow, only playing 12 games as a rookie, before becoming a 16 game starter in 2001. He showed promise, but got in trouble with the league for substance abuse. His ongoing problems resulted in him missing the 2002 and 2003 seasons, before Carolina released him.
Carolina hit on safety Deon Grant in the second round. Grant didn’t start his rookie year, but would average 72 tackles and 4 picks over the next three years. While Grant would go on to be a starter for other teams for the rest of the decade, the fact he only started for three years for Carolina won’t give them a boost in their draft grade. Third round offensive lineman Leander Jordan was a bust, only starting five games in his two years on the team, but the Panthers more than made up for it by finding guard Jeno James in the sixth round. James started games at tackle and guard, and started the entire 2003 year. Carolina spent its fourth and fifth round picks on defensive linemen, Alvin McKinley and Gillis Wilson respectively. McKinley went on to have a long NFL career, but not for the Panthers, who released him after his rookie year. Wilson suffered the same fate, without the long career afterwards. The team had another good find in the seventh round in linebacker Lester Towns, who started the majority of his first two years on the team, and was a reliable backup for two more.