A year ago I knew by mid-March who the Carolina Panthers would select with the first pick in the NFL draft and said so in my column. If I said I knew who they’d take April 26 I’d be lying.
Panthers never lie. But if they said they knew they’d be stretching the truth in ways it was never intended to go.
There are always draft night surprises. Somebody climbs up the draft board and goes higher than everybody suspects, often to Jacksonville. Somebody slides down and a team either gets lucky or assumes something is wrong with the guy.
My hope is that Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon slides to ninth, where the Panthers pick, or that Carolina trades up to take him.
Minnesota, which selects third, suddenly wants Blackmon, reports say. But reports often have little to do with facts. There were reports last year that the Panthers would take Blaine Gabbert with the first pick. I read them. Gabbert went tenth to Jacksonville.
Carolina did look at him. It looked at him the way you’d look at a flat-screen TV in the window of a store. You might think: that’s kind of interesting. Then you think: for somebody else. And you keep on walking. Until Newton emerged, the Panthers were going to take receiver A.J. Green.
Many of the Panther fans I talk to insist that the team has to use the first pick on a defensive player. They say it as if they are reading from a stone tablet in which the words are etched. They say it as if it’s a rule.
A rule is what you cling to when you lack the courage to trust your instincts.
When I wrote last year that the Panthers should, and later would, take Newton at least 60 percent of you disagreed. You supported your argument by invoking rules.
Always take defense, the rule said. Always take core defense, the rule added. The rule become even more specific: Always take a defensive lineman.
John Fox, who drafted second for Denver, was supposed to take Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus with the second pick. Fox took Von Miller. A disruptive pass-rushing linebacker, Miller was almost as good defensively as Newton was offensively. Dareus went third to Buffalo.
Of course the Panthers need defense more than they need offense. Because Brandon Hogan, a fourth-round pick out of West Virginia last year, has the talent to start this season opposite Chris Gamble at cornerback, they especially need a defensive tackle and a defensive end.
Their biggest need is a pass rusher. The best way to stop a quarterback, and make Gamble and Hogan look better than they are, is to knock the passer down.
If the Panthers take North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, I’m happy. At 6-6 and 272 pounds Coples is an elite athlete. A bonus: As a junior he played tackle and made first-team all-ACC.
If the Panthers take Dontari Poe, a 6-5, 350-pound, sun-blocking defensive tackle out of Memphis, I have no argument.
But the draft is not about what you need. It’s about what you want. It’s about finding the player who, regardless of where he plays, including defensive line, will most lift your team.
Blackmon is a route-running, pass-catching, you-can’t-cover-him talent. Think about this: Steve Smith lines up on one side and Blackmon on the other and there’s Kealoha Pilares, one of the three fastest men in Hawaii, in the slot and, look, it’s Mike Tolbert at H-back.
The Panthers will still improve their defense when leaders and linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis return from injury. They will add a defensive end and tackle because they have to.
But, oh, no, what if the defense isn’t as good as the offense?
If you give up 34 points and win, why would you care?