Now that the Carolina Panthers are well into the free agency period of the offseason, it is becoming more clear what their strategy will be in round 1 of the NFL draft. The Panthers currently have the eight pick overall and will have their choice of a good number of immediate impact players.
The most common name you will hear floated around is Leonard Fournette, the bruising LSU running back. I agree that Fournette is on the radar for the Carolina Panthers at pick 8, but I do not believe it is a forgone conclusion that he would be the pick.
Instead, the Panthers could very well select Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas at pick eight even if Leonard Fournette is still on the board. There are a few reasons this may be the case. Allow me to lay them out for you.
Take a look around the league right now. Only one big named free agent running back has signed a contract as of today. Even guys like Adrian Peterson and Eddie Lacy are still available days after free agency began. Running backs just do not demand the dollars that they did in the past. Drafting a running back at pick 8 may not be the best value monetarily.
Defensive ends, on the other hand, have always demanded top dollar in the NFL, a fact that is unlikely to ever change. Selecting Solomon Thomas at 8 could provide the Panthers with an elite level defensive end for the next 5 years at a relatively modest salary. Even after his five years are up, the Carolina Panthers could then franchise him, making it a minimum 6 years on the team should he perform at a high level.
Running backs wear out in the NFL much faster than defensive ends. That fact is hard to dispute. Throw in the fact that Leonard Fournette has already had significant injury at the college level, and it may seem like Thomas to be more of a sure thing both this season and many seasons to come.
As we have seen so far this year, the Carolina Panthers are in “win now” mode. There is a real case for defensive need being the one position on the field in the most desperate need of help. Yes, the Panthers did just sign Julius Peppers, but he is not the #90 Panthers fans remember. This season Peppers’ role will be reduced to an occasional pass rusher. The Panthers need a young capable defensive end to frequently spell Charles Johnson opposite of Mario Addison. With Kony Ealy now in New England, Solomon Thomas could instantly be that guy.
While Leonard Fournette is an amazing running back prospect, the divide between himself and other running backs available in rounds 2 – 4 is more narrow. The Panthers could see real production out of a second or third round running back this season. A second or third round defensive end? Not so much.
Throw all of these points laid out above in a pot and let it simmer a bit. The more it simmers, the more drafting Solomon Thomas at pick 8 makes sense.