2011 NFL Mock Draft: Carolina Panthers

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Carolina Panthers fans were disappointed en masse and draft boards across the country were thrown into a frenzy when Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck decided to return to college for another year. Because Luck was the clear-cut best pro prospect available, and because the Carolina Panthers are in need of a quarterback, Luck was the presumptive top overall pick in this year's draft. With Luck remaining at Stanford, the picture at the top of the draft is a lot less clear.

One name that has gained a lot of attention in wake of Luck's return to college is Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Although many talking heads have him ranked as the best available quarterback in the draft, he is simply not worth the first overall pick, or a first-round pick at all. Gabbert has the build and the physical ability to make great throws, but here's the catch: he only plays well when the play is going well. When anything goes wrong, he doesn't know what to do and he panics. In the NFL, the play almost never goes according to plan, so it's important to have that instinctive feel for the game, which Gabbert lacks. His pocket presence is... well, there are no words to describe something that doesn't exist.

Gabbert's offensive line took a ton of criticism in the local media this year, but Gabbert's lack of feel for the pocket bore most of the responsibility for the line looking so bad.  

Additionally, his ability to read a defense is suspect. I'd estimate that the average Mizzou fan has said "our run game is bad" at least once per game since conference play started. However, a little-known aspect of the run game is that Gabbert's decision making is a large part of the reason Missouri's rushing attack is so anemic. Missouri's run game is largely based on the zone read. Gabbert makes the incorrect read far more often than he makes the correct one, which leads to the ball-carrier running right into a swarm of defenders while the other option on the play has all kinds of running room. Gabbert's inability to execute a zone read doesn't exactly inspire cofidence in his ability to read compicated NFL defenses.

Also, Gabbert has a strong arm, but due to awkward-looking throwing mechanics, his long passes travel slowly, giving defenders more time to get to the ball. Because of this flaw, Gabbert is unable to stretch the field since defenders can easily get to his deep passes.. This is why, despite having possibly the best receiving corps in the Big 12 in 2010, Missouri had to limit their offense to mostly screens and slants.

Because Gabbert's a big guy whose team has had a good year, "analysts" like ESPN's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, neither of whom are actual scouts, have graded Gabbert extremely highly. However, now that the season is over, the real NFL scouts are no longer watching future opponents, and they will break down game tape and see Gabbert's flaws that coach Gary Pinkel's offense hid so well. When this happens, unless some team with a bad scouting department (and yes, some teams do have REALLY bad scouting departments - I'm looking at you, Carolina!) decides to take a chance on Gabbert, his draft stock will tumble.. Look at Colt McCoy - as a Mizzou fan, I hate saying anything positive about UT, but I can't deny that McCoy's college résumé was absolutely mind-blowing. Yet once scouts broke him down, he fell to the third round of the draft, despite being easily one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the draft. Gabbert is a project player who needs a good quarterbacks coach to prepare him behind the scenes for a year or two before he ever takes the field, so the Panthers should avoid him with their first pick.

If the Panthers don't take Gabbert, they have a lot of options, as literally every player in the draft will be available to them. Although I've written before that Cam Newton's character concerns aren't as big of a deal as the media portrays them to be, he's still a gamble in regards to his on-field ability, as there are some questions regarding his footwork and his ability to read the entire field. Ryan Mallett is another big name who will garner attention, but the Panthers should steer clear of him. I wrote in April that Mallett had a tendency to jump when releasing his passes, which was highly reminiscent of Jamarcus Russell's “jump shot”. This year, Mallett showed a lot less of that tendency, but when under pressure in the final minutes of thee Sugar Bowl, he reverted to old form, resulting in a game-sealing interception with a minute left. This is the type of pressure he'll be facing on nearly every down in the NFL, so if he is still reverting to old habits (which in this case are bad habits) when under pressure, he needed to return to college for another year.

 In terms of playmaking ability, Georgia receiver A.J. Green and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson would tempt any G.M. to take them with the top pick, but the Panthers have bigger holes that would negate those two players' impacts. While Peterson is the physical prototype for the newest generation of cornerbacks in the NFL, today's rules regarding contact with receivers means that if you can't pressure the opposing quarterback, somebody will get open regardless of how good your defensive backfield is. Carolina has been unable to rush the passer at all since Julius Peppers left, so Peterson's talents would be wasted as quarterbacks would have all kinds of time to wait for their receiver to get open. On the other side of the ball, there's no doubt that A.J. Green is the most pro-ready wide receiver since Calvin Johnson, but there's nobody capable of accurately getting the ball to Green. Even if the Panthers acquire a veteran quarterback via free agency or a trade, it is unlikely that the Panthers' offensive line, which allowed 50 sacks in 2010, will be able to provide the quarterback with time to get the ball to Green.

With very few offensive linemen graded highly enough to justify their selection with the top pick, it's likely that the Panthers will look to improve their defense. The core of any defense is its line, and the most high-profile college players entering the draft this year are Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. Looking in-depth at video of Fairley reveals troubling technique that suggests he's likely to not pan out in the NFL.. Fairley's incredibly strong, which allows him to bull past college defenders despite his bad habit of immediately popping up out of his stance. Leverage and getting lower than the other guy are two of the biggest factors in line play, so NFL offensive linemen will be able to easily take advantage of Fairley's poor technique. Fairley's immense strength would be a non-factor then, as opponents will have an easy time getting underneath him and moving him off of the ball. While this flaw could be coached out and eliminated, it's dangerous to draft a player with the top pick if you know that he has a major flaw that needs to be fixed.

Bowers would be a more solid choice than Fairley, and is arguably the player at the top of the draft who can make the most impact for the Panthers. While his speed and explosiveness as a pass-rusher aren't as dazzling as that of former Panther Julius Peppers, Bowers is a very solid run-stopping end. He is amazing in his pursuit of the ball-carrier, and he has the strength and technique to push offensive tackles back pretty far on passing downs as well. Although the Panthers already have pretty good defensive tackles, Bowers is simply too much of a game-changer to pass up.

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

You may email Hank at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at HankKoebler

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