In his three mock drafts since mid-January, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has linked the Carolina Panthers to three different players.
The only constant: They all play defense, the side most lacking in Ron Rivera’s first season in Charlotte.
Kiper’s flavor of the month for the Panthers is Dontari Poe, the mammoth defensive tackle from Memphis who had a dominant performance at the scouting combine after doing little on the field for the Tigers.
Kiper had the Panthers, who pick ninth overall, taking Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in his first mock. But Kiper now believes that is too high for a corner who lacks shut-down coverage skills.
In his second mock, Kiper predicted the Panthers would take LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers. Though he has since moved Poe up as a result of his combine showing, Kiper said Poe, Brockers and Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox have similar skill sets.
“Those three defensive tackles are kind of all bunched together. Some like one better than the other, some like the other guy. Some like the third guy,” Kiper said Thursday during an ESPN conference call. “I went Poe, Brockers and Cox. You could flip that any way you want.”
Brockers has been in Charlotte since Thursday night meeting with the Panthers, his agent, Albert Elias, tweeted. Brockers, 6-6 and 322 pounds, has long arms and a huge wingspan, but did not test well at the combine.
Meanwhile, Poe grabbed the attention of scouts when he banged out 44 reps on the 225-pound bench press – more than any player in Indianapolis – and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds.
But there is some question whether Poe can put those physical skills to better use than he did at Memphis, where he managed just 33 tackles and a single sack in his final season against inferior Conference-USA opponents.
Kiper said the Panthers also could use their first-round pick to take a defensive end or cornerback.
But Kiper does not think Quinton Coples, the enigmatic defensive end from North Carolina, will be available when the Panthers pick. Kiper has Coples, who had a lackluster senior season until the last few games, going to Jacksonville at No. 7.
If the Panthers want to try to upgrade at corner, Kiper said there is a noticeable drop-off after LSU’s Morris Claiborne, a projected top-six pick. Kirkpatrick and South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore, who is from Rock Hill, are the best corners after Claiborne, according to Kiper.
“Claiborne’s not going to drop down to (the Panthers). They would love to have a corner like that,” Kiper said. “But Claiborne’s not going to get all the way down that far. I think it’s too early for Kirkpatrick and Gilmore, unless they traded back.”
Likewise, Kiper doubts a team would use a high pick on cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who transferred to North Alabama before last season after being dismissed from Florida following two marijuana-related arrests in a four-month span.
“You knew the off-the-field concerns were going to be there (and) he would have to answer a lot of questions at the combine,” Kiper said. “He did play at Florida, played very effectively with the eight picks there with the Gators. I think there are some other corners that may have jumped a little bit ahead. I still have him in the first round – barely. I have him to New England (at 31).”
Kiper mentioned one scenario in which the Panthers could draft an offensive player with their first pick – if a big receiver such as Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon or even Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd is available.
“You could look at a Michael Floyd at that point. I don’t think that would be too much of a stretch,” Kiper said. “Is Blackmon going to drop that far? No.”
Kiper views South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery – another big target – as a second-round prospect.
“When you watch him, the separation is the big question,” Kiper said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of guys in the NFL that have struggled in terms of providing that window to throw into, getting open on a consistent basis. I think ultimately he goes mid- to late-second.”