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Early Options for the Carolina Panthers in the 2014 NFL Draft

Three Players the Panthers Could Target with a Late First Round Pick

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COMMENTARY | The Carolina Panthers look to have success in the 2014 NFL Draft, and based on past first round decision, that definitely seems possible. -2012, 1st Round Pick: Luke Kuechly, Defensive Rookie of the Year -2011, 1st Round Pick: Cam Newton, Offensive Rookie of the Year Simply put, the Panthers have drafted 2 Rookie of the Year players in the last 3 seasons. Beyond that, the Panthers previous first round draft picks include Star Lotulelei (2013), Jonathan Stweart (2008), Jon Beason (2007), DeAngelo Williams (2006), Thomas Davis (2005), Jordan Gross (2003), and Julius Peppers (2002). As a bonus, the 2007 draft also saw veterans Ryan Kalil and Charles Johnson taken in the 3rd and 4th rounds. Clearly, the Panthers are a team that relies on the draft for most of their talent, and it shows in the decisions they have made over the past decade. The majority of past players selected have shown incredible longevity in the organization and most are still vital parts of the team today.

The Panthers are currently projected to have a later first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. There are definitely some positions that need improvement on both offense and defense, and the NFL Draft will be the Panthers' prime target to improve these positions. Of course, due to trades, positioning, and what other teams choose to do, it is impossible to know exactly who will be available when the Panthers pick, but here are three options for the Panthers to take a look at in the first round.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

The Panthers have been in dire need of a 2nd wide receiver to complement Steve Smith for years. Additionally, Smith is getting older and the Panthers will need to prepare a wide receiver to take over as the top receiver when he retires. Brandon Lafell has been average at best, so it makes sense that the team should invest in a high quality wide receiver this year, if one is available. Most mock drafts have up to 4 WRs going in the first round, with Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans surely being off the board by the late first round. Additionally, with the need that many teams have for a receiver, Marquise Lee will most likely be gone as well, which brings us to Jordan Matthews. The 6'3" athlete would make a great target down the field for QB Cam Newton because of his athleticism, hands, and ability to produce high numbers. Through 12 games, Matthews had 1,334 receiving yards and 107 receptions. A few years of mentorship under Steve Smith could help Matthews become the top wide receiver the Panthers are looking for. If Marquise Lee is still available, then he seems to be the clear choice, but Jordan Matthews could definitely go in the first round if not.

Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

The Panthers' secondary has not been a bright spot of the defense for quite some time. There are plenty of options to shore up the secondary this offseason, and one of the best in the draft is Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State. The Panthers' defense has seemed solid in the front seven, but could definitely use improvement, especially keeping up with strong, speedy receivers. Justin Gilbert may be gone already, but if not, the Panthers probably cannot pass up the opportunity to take this cornerback in the draft. Gilbert is one of the best overall athletes in the draft, and when this athleticism receives NFL caliber coaching, Gilbert could have the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler at the cornerback position.

Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee

While the cornerback and wide receiver positions seem to be the biggest needs, another need that the Carolina Panthers have is within the offensive line. There are definitely some weaker spots, and even strong players like Jordan Gross are getting older and may need replacements soon when they retire. Investing in some protection for the face of the franchise, Cam Newton, may benefit the Panthers in the long term, and allow Newton more time in the pocket to make decisions and avoid sacks. One prospect who seems more than capable of solving these offensive woes is Antonio "Tiny" Richardson. A 6'6", 327 pound offensive lineman, Richardson is anything but tiny, but his size serves him well in pass protection when combined with his ability to move his feet. His quick reaction time and ability to move even with his large size make him a smart pick for the Panthers to rebuild their line around. Richardson's athleticism and quickness will allow him to be an invaluable offensive line weapon for run blocking and protecting Newton.

Again, this is early on in the predictions, and anything could happen. The Panthers could move up in the draft to take a better receiver, or take any number of players from these positions. One thing is for sure though, there are definite needs on both sides of the ball, and the Panthers absolutely must use the NFL Draft in some way to benefit and improve the team and lock in their status as a playoff contender.

Ashleigh Blue is a freelance writer from Charlotte who has been following the Carolina Panthers for 13 years.

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