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How the Panthers 2013-2016 first round picks have undermined the 2018 season

Few things can doom a franchise like whiffing on their first round picks. When first rounders work out the team gets an every-down difference maker with a ridiculously low cap hit for the first four years of his contract, often followed by an affordable fifth year option. If all goes as planned, they become franchise cornerstones for the next decade. Nailing first round picks is key in transforming good teams into perennial contenders.

And this brings us to the 2018 Carolina Panthers, an average team that is just a few players short from being truly competitive. A reliable left tackle. An aggressive edge rusher. A shutdown corner. A big play safety. With a couple of those holes filled the 2018 Panthers would likely be in the thick of the playoff hunt instead of being on the outside looking in.

While it’s always easy to judge draft picks with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the Panthers first round selections from 2013 to 2016 are really hurting this year’s team. Here is who they drafted:

Star and KB

Star Lotulelei and Kelvin Benjamin no longer play for the Carolina Panthers. They both had promising rookie seasons then quickly regressed. Star left as a free agent. Kelvin was traded for a 2018 third round pick which became the seldom used Rashaan Gaulden and a seventh round pick which became the almost never used Andre Smith.

The 2018 Carolina Panthers are playing as though they did not have first round picks in 2013 and 2014. Poof. Gone. Never happened as it relates to 2018.

Shaq Thompson

Look, I like Shaq and this isn’t meant to be a hit piece, but the Panthers never should’ve invested a first round pick in a linebacker in 2015 with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in the fold. Both Kuechly and Davis were selected as Pro Bowlers in each of Shaq’s first three seasons – 2015, 2016, and 2017.

No matter how well Shaq played to begin his career, he was never going to be on the field enough to justify a first round pick. The opportunity just wasn’t there.

First round picks need to be on the field almost constantly, especially during their rookie contracts when their performance should far exceed their cap hit. This hasn’t happened with Shaq. Even in 2018 – his fourth NFL season and final year of his rookie contract – he has only played in 54 percent of Carolina’s defensive snaps since Thomas Davis returned from his four game suspension to start the season.

Having a fourth-year first round pick playing around half of a team’s defensive snaps is less than ideal. When Shaq has played he’s been good, but he just doesn’t play enough. Pro Football Focus has Thompson ranked as the No. 28 linebacker in the league, which is great, but he’s been stuck behind Kuechly (PFF’s No. 2 LB) and Davis (PFF’s No. 6 LB) for nearly four full seasons.

Both Shaq Thompson and the Carolina Panthers would have been better off if he had been drafted by another team. If he played somewhere other than Carolina, Shaq would likely be an every down starter putting up nice stats on a rookie scale contract. The Panthers could’ve used their 2015 pick to shore up a position of need, not add depth to a position of strength, which would have greatly helped in 2018.

Vernon Butler

After nearly three full seasons of Vernon Butler, I think we know what we have – a perfectly fine rotational player who will probably never develop into an impact player. I hope he proves me wrong. In 35 career games he’s registered 42 tackles, nine quarterback hits, and 1.5 sacks. PFF ranks him as the No. 84 interior defensive lineman in the NFL. You’d expect his career output from a third or fourth round pick, not a first rounder.

Much like Shaq Thompson, Butler was drafted by the wrong team. The Panthers have been deep at defensive tackle over the last three years. Vern is currently the fourth best defensive tackle on the roster behind Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, and Kyle Love. He has only played in 30 percent of the Panthers defensive snaps this year (significantly trailing Love’s 45 percent) and rarely impacts the game.

Vernon Butler was a miss, both in terms of production and opportunity.

The Panthers other first rounders

What makes the Star-KB-Shaq-Vern picks look even worse is how the Panthers absolutely killed it in the first round between 2001 and 2012. Just look at this incredible list of franchise-altering first round selections:

Panthers first round picks 2001-2012

Name POS Year Round Pick Pro Bowls Career notes
Name POS Year Round Pick Pro Bowls Career notes
Luke Kuechly LB 2012 1 9 5 2013 NFL Defensive POY
Cam Newton QB 2011 1 1 3 2015 NFL MVP
Jonathan Stewart RB 2008 1 13 1 Panthers all-time rushing leader
Jeff Otah OT 2008 1 19 0 Career lasted just 3 seasons
Jon Beason LB 2007 1 25 3 Averaged 135 tackles for first 4 yrs.
DeAngelo Williams RB 2006 1 27 1 Panthers 2nd all-time leading rusher
Thomas Davis LB 2005 1 14 3 Panthers all-time tackles leader
Chris Gamble CB 2004 1 28 0 Panthers all-time interceptions leader
Jordan Gross OT 2003 1 8 3 Started 167 games over 11 seasons
Julius Peppers DE 2002 1 2 9 NFL’s No. 4 all-time sacks leader
Dan Morgan LB 2001 1 11 1 Injury-plagued but productive 7-yr career

Wow. Just, wow. Nine of the 11 selections made at least one Pro Bowl while six have played in three or more. Kudos to the Panthers scouting department for nailing so many of these picks.

Throw in the fact that Christian McCaffrey (2017, No. 8) and D.J. Moore (2018, No. 24) are thriving as offensive mainstays and it highlights just how much the disappointing 2013-2016 first round picks have made it hard for the 2018 Panthers to succeed.

The Panthers have several roster gaps today that could’ve been addressed with better first round picks. The gaps will likely increase next year with several aging veterans likely hanging it up. Here’s to hoping they nail their first round pick in 2019. Failing to do so can set a franchise back for years to come.

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