This is the best time of year and worst time of year for a pro football fan — speculation season.
The crossroad between excitement about the upcoming season and anxiety over what your team will look like when that season comes. Luckily, that season is coming to a close. Or at least gaining some clarity.
This week’s NFL Combine gives us a closer look at the latest crop of hopefuls, and while the sheer number of prospects in Indianapolis may make scouting from the sidelines a little overwhelming, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera made things a lot easier for Panthers fans.
During a recent appearance on ESPN’s “First Take,” Rivera said the team will look at offensive linemen and playmakers in the draft and free agency. It didn’t take an NFL insider to know the Panthers needed help on the offensive line — owner David Tepper said so in January. But Rivera’s desire to add playmakers says they’re not done adding talent around quarterback Cam Newton.
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With that in mind, these five combine attendees make sense for Carolina on offense:
Garrett Bradbury, 6-foot-3/300, C, N.C. State (R1-2)
Everyone loves a good homecoming story, right? The former Charlotte Christian tight end, turned guard, turned All-American center is about as versatile as his background suggests. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s best center at N.C. State, and could complete the full circle if the Panthers decide he’s the guy to replace longtime center Ryan Kalil, who retired after last season. Doing so might take a first-round selection though, as Bradbury raised his stock with a strong Senior Bowl performance in January.
Deebo Samuel, 6-foot/201, WR, South Carolina (R1-2)
Imagine an offense that features Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel — and Deebo Samuel. The Panthers need a vertical threat, and while he’s not “Donte Jackson fast” or a physically-imposing player, all Deebo did during Senior Bowl week was run by whoever tried to cover him. He’s also a skilled punt and kick returner, both of which Carolina needs. If he’s there in the second round, this is a no-brainer pick.
Dalton Risner, 6-foot-5/300, OT, Kansas State (R2-3)
One word to describe Risner: mauler. The Kansas State right tackle finishes his blocks like he’s trying to make the highlight reel and is a menace in the run game. He still has room to improve as a pass blocker but would fill a void at right tackle should the Panthers decide not to re-sign Daryl Williams this offseason. Even if Carolina does sign Williams, Risner provides depth and a foundation for the line’s future. He’s a second-round target entering the combine.
L.J. Scott, 6-foot-1/225, RB, Michigan State (R5-7)
He’s coming off an ankle injury that limited him to just five games in 2018, but Scott fits the mold as a typical, bruising Spartans running back. The Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey is a superstar and can impact a game in both the run and passing game. But Carolina would be wise to mind how much it uses him moving forward. He played 91 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps, a figure which would’ve been much higher had he not played just 13 percent of their snaps in their season finale. Scott would provide some thunder to McCaffrey’s lightning, allowing Carolina to manage his reps responsibly in 2019. Scott is a mid-round option at the earliest for the Panthers.
Mecole Hardman, 5-foot-11/183, WR, Georgia (R5-7)
If the Panthers draft Mecole Hardman, they’ll have their work cut out for them. He’s relatively new to the position, having signed with Georgia as a defensive back, and still has some intricacies to figure out. But he has one thing that will always be valued in football — speed.
He’s a threat to score with the ball in his hands, whether he gets it close to the line of scrimmage or 20 yards downfield. Hardman is also an effective punt returner which, once again, Carolina needs. The best part about Hardman is his price. Barring a transcendent combine performance, he’ll likely be around late on day two or early on day three of the draft.