Grading last year’s draft is almost as foolish as grading this upcoming draft the day after, but nowadays people want instant analysis so that’s what we at cover32 are going to give them. The best we can do is grade based on what we know from one year of this class being in the league. As the 2008 draft showed us, year one performance doesn’t mean the player will or won’t work out long-term. If we graded that Carolina Panthers class in 2009 instead of earlier this week, we would have said Jonathan Stewart and Jeff Otah were great picks. Now we look back at the class and realize the best current NFL player the Panthers took was seventh round pick Geoff Schwartz, who only found success after leaving Charlotte.
In general manager Dave Gettleman’s first draft with Carolina, the team’s glaring hole was at defensive tackle, which prompted the first and second round selections of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
Lotulelei was originally in the candidacy for the first overall pick of the draft, but concerns over a heart condition dropped him the fourteenth overall slot where Carolina nabbed who they thought was the best tackle in the draft. The appropriately named Star started in every game last year, totaling 48 tackles and 3 sacks. Looking at his stature, Lotulelei is a perfect body type for his spot. Quick at 311 pounds but strong with a 33.625 inch wingspan, he should be a good player at either tackle spot for years to come. His second round counterpart Kawann Short rotated with Dwan Edwards last year, but he’s expected to earn a starting spot this year and will certainly play an increased number of snaps even if he doesn’t. Short actually may have a higher upside at the three-technique defensive tackle. He’s quicker, smaller at only 298 pounds, but he has ridiculous 34.75 inch arms. With some more technique work, Short could take a huge leap forward in 2014.
Another nice find in this draft was linebacker A.J. Klein, who stepped in when Chase Blackburn got hurt last year. So good in fact that he’s expected to compete with Blackburn for a starting spot as the “Will” linebacker spot this year. For a fifth round pick, this is a great find.
Josh McSwain wrote an article last month about how the Panthers should draft a running back in this draft, which is true, but one guy who shouldn’t be overlooked is sixth rounder Kenjon Barner. Barner was a top performer in shuttle drills and vertical jumps in the Scouting Combine last year. Speed is one of the most indicative traits for running back success in the NFL, and Barner has plenty of it. As is almost always the case with running backs, his height doesn’t bother me, and I think he should get more looks next year.
The other unknown coming out of this draft is guard Edmund Kugbila in the fourth round. He spent most of the season on the Injured Reserve list. Given the offensive line concerns, the team could really use him healthy, so we’ll have to hope and see what he can do this year. If Kugbila and 2012 second round pick Amini Silatolu can stay healthy, the interior of the offensive line could actually be pretty solid even with Travelle Wharton retiring.
Reasoning: Gettleman may have struck gold in his first draft. He found two huge upside defensive tackles in the first two rounds that should be staples on the defense for a long time in Lotulelei and Short. He found some very athletic contributors in Barner and Klein, who both provide quality depth at the very least. The jury is still out on every single player in this class, but none moreso than Kugbila, who we’ve still yet to see play a snap. The failure to grab a receiver last year (some have argued Carolina should’ve taken Keenan Allen in the second round instead of doubling down at defensive tackle with Short but it’s hard to criticize taking him too much at this point) when it was still a need and the lack of draft picks limited the amount of difference makers they could have found.
It cannot be stressed enough that this is a tentative grade since we’re still just one year removed. For as good as Lotulelei has looked, his heart condition that caused him to fall out of the Top 5 could cut his career short. On the same token, Kugbila may never miss another game and could become a perennial Pro Bowler. At this point, we just don’t know, which is a scary, but exciting proposition.