Panthers’ brass needs a strong draft to avoid facing the music

Marty Hurney said the Panthers will be ready for all scenarios in next week’s draft. 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers were set to begin their pre-draft news conference on Wednesday when general manager Marty Hurney blurted, “Fire away.”

Coach Ron Rivera laughed and responded, “What do you think this is, a firing squad? Fire away and start shooting? What the heck?”

It was a light moment before a 28-minute question-and-answer session in which, as you might have guessed, neither Rivera nor Hurney hinted at which player the Panthers might take with the 16th pick of the April 25-27 draft.

There also might be some irony here. If Rivera and Hurney are to avoid the proverbial firing squad after losing records in two of their past three seasons, they need to hit home runs in the first three rounds, particularly the first.

The NFL made it clear Wednesday night that expectations for the Panthers aren’t high by assigning them only one prime-time game, none on Sunday or Monday night.

A bad draft, followed by another losing season, would put the onus on owner David Tepper to make decisions to change those expectations for the 2020 season, which as it stands is the last year quarterback Cam Newton is under contract.

The good news for Hurney and Rivera is that the offseason moves have put them in position where a strong draft can make this a playoff team in 2019 and beyond.

The draft’s strengths — defensive line and offensive line — coincide with Carolina’s biggest needs. The Panthers likely will select a much-needed edge rusher or a long-term solution at left tackle in the first round.

Odds are they will have good options at either position, so getting it right is crucial.

“I don’t think there is a scenario we won’t be ready for,” Hurney said.

A bad draft would put Hurney where he was in his previous tenure as Panthers GM in 2012, when subpar classes in 2009 and 2010 played a role in four straight non-winning seasons after 2008.

Hurney was relieved of his duties after a 1-5 start in 2012. A 1-3 start to the 2013 season put Rivera’s future in jeopardy, but then-owner Jerry Richardson stood pat and was rewarded with a 12-4 record that season and trip to Super Bowl 50 in 2015.

Other pre-draft storylines:

Edge rusher or offensive tackle?

Perhaps the biggest hint that the Panthers might wait until the second or third round to add a tackle/guard was Hurney noting this is a “fairly deep group” for offensive linemen and there are second-day players who can compete to start.

The depth on the defensive front is strong as well. But getting an elite rusher — Florida State’s Brian Burns, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell or Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat might be available at No. 16 — almost certainly will have to come in the first round.

The Panthers haven’t taken an edge rusher with their first pick since Julius Peppers in 2002. They also finished 27th in the league in sacks last season and made pressuring the quarterback an offseason priority.

“When you put the tape on, you see a number of guys that have the ability to come off the edge whether they are in a two-point or three-point, so they have the ability to stack back into the box as well,” said Rivera, who is blending an odd-man front into his traditional 4-3 this season.

Trade up or down?

Hurney has a list of five to six players he’ll feel good about at No. 16. It’s unlikely all will be gone. It’s more likely that a few of those players will be available.

Hurney has a longer history of trading back than up in the draft. Arguably his worst draft decision came in 2008, when he traded back into the first round to select tackle Jeff Otah.

“You’d much rather trade back to get extra picks,” Hurney said. “When you’re trading up, you’re giving away picks. … The whole key to it is maximizing value.”

Free safety?

Some have called this a position of need for Carolina, but the Panthers feel comfortable with 2018 second-round pick Rashaan Gaulden, Da’Norris Searcy (2018 season ended by concussions), Colin Jones and Cole Luke battling to play opposite Eric Reid.

Gaulden also will get the first shot at the nickel position.

So if the Panthers add a safety, it likely will be on the third day of the draft. That position also, as Hurney noted, is deep in this draft.

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