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2011 NFL Draft, No. 1 Pick: Who Will The Carolina Panthers Take? My Prediction

Over the next couple weeks leading up to the draft I am going to look at the six teams selecting before the 49ers in the upcoming draft. These posts will take a broader look at the teams, their needs, and who I expect them to select with said picks.

I will also have a poll option in each post that will help us dictate what players the Niners Nation community will be available to the 49ers with the #7 pick. I will be basing the top six picks on team needs, expert opinion, my opinion and the overall ranking of each player. Keep in mind that once a player has been selected (most votes in the poll), that player will not be available to the next team on their poll options. Please feel free to comment, as I am looking for some good discussion here. We at Niners Nation are attempting to cover every aspect of the draft leading up to its start in a couple weeks, and this is just another avenue to pursue and another tool to give Niner Nation readers.

Carolina Panthers 2010 NFL Regular Season Rankings

Passing Yards: 143.1 (32nd NFL)

Rushing Yards: 115.4 (13th NFL)

Passing Defense: 212.1 (11th NFL)

Rushing Defense: 123.8 (23rd NFL)

Jimmy Clausen: 52.5 Completion %, 1558 Yards, 3 TD, 9 INT, 58.4 Rating, 33 Sacks

Jonathan Stewart: 178 Attempts, 770 Yards, 4.3 AVG, 2 TD

Steve Smith: 46 Receptions, 554 Yards, 2 TD

The Carolina Panthers were a complete disaster last season, and the problems were not limited to just one area. Other than RB, you could look at every aspect of Carolina's roster and find a weakness. Good teams do not win two games, one of which was handed to them on a silver platter. Some may argue, and I am inclined to agree, that the QB position was absolutely atrocious and should be their #1 target during the draft. However, there are many different variables that go into deciding in what direction to go. First, the top of the QB class isn't that strong. Second, other areas in which the Panthers are in need of help could be addressed with the 1st pick. Yet another variable is the fact that Carolina gave up their 2nd round pick to the Patriots in a draft day trade last season. If any team is willing to trade up to the #1 slot, Carolina will have to look deep into pulling the trigger.

Today, I will look at the top three positions of concerns for Carolina, which players are rated the highest at those positions and give you my prediction on who they will take. Accordingly, I will include a poll that works as a non-formal community mock draft. I will give you options of players that you believe Carolina should select with the #1 overall pick. The player who receives the highest amount of votes will not be available to the Denver Broncos at #2. This process will continue until the 6th pick; this way we will have a better idea of who the Niners Nation community believes will be available to the 49ers at 7.

#1- Quarterback: As with many others I will conclude that the quarterback position is Carolina's greatest weakness. This does not mean that I believe that Jimmy Clausen is a complete bust, because I don't. You need to give a QB more than his rookie season in order to decide that. However, Clausen gave no indication of improvement during the season and cannot be counted on as Carolina's starting QB heading into the 2011 season. The Panthers threw for more than 200 yards in only one game last season (303 against San Francisco). Additionally, they passed for less than 100 yards four separate times. Really putrid numbers if you ask me. Carolina QBs passed for a total of 9 TDs, compared to 21 INTs and had a combined rating of 57.0.

All these stats placed the Panthers dead last in the NFL in passing in 2010. Their disaster in the passing game effected performance of the offense a great deal. Despite rushing for over 1800 yards as a team, and gaining more than 100 yards eleven times; Carolina failed to score 15 points in 11 of their games. After Jimmy Clausen the Panthers really have no one to take over that could be called on to be effective. Matt Moore is not a starting QB in the NFL, Tony Pike is completely unproven and doesn't have the tools to succeed at this level, and Brian St. Pierre was simply a stopgap back-up QB. The possibility that free agency will not happen this season also factors into the equation. Carolina would be unable to find a veteran QB to hold down the fort until the more promising 2012 QB draft class enters the fray. As with the 49ers, it is vital that the Panthers get a QB that has the ability to step in during the 2011 season, if need be.

Top Quarterbacks Available

1. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri

2. Cameron Newton, Auburn

#2- Defensive Line: Carolina ranked 23rd in the NFL in rushing defense, and only good play from the LB unit helped keep them that high. Carolina gave up 90 or more rushing yards a whopping 14 times. And, with an exception of Charles Johnson, no player recorded more than 3.5 sacks. The Panthers do have some good young talent among the front four in the likes of Greg Hardy, Eric Norwood and Everette Brown. However, they need an interior lineman to match up with the excellent outside rushers that they have.

Top Interior Defensive Linemen Available

1. DT- Marcell Dareus, Alabama:

2. DT- Nick Fairley, Auburn

#3- Cornerback: If there is a free agency period, Richard Marshall will not return to the Panthers in 2011; there is a nice little rift going on between him and the ownership group. Captain Munnerlyn is not a top flight corner, and never will be in the NFL. That said, he projects to be a solid #2 or nickel player. With all of the uncertainty in regards to the Panthers roster one would think that cornerback would not be one of the largest needs for them.

However, you have to look a bit deeper than just the exterior statistics. Carolina's talent level at that position is horribly weak, they don't have a player to step in to replace Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble continues to regress as a player. Normally I would say that the offensive line is a larger need for Carolina, which it may as well be. But, there is absolutely no tackle prospect worth the first overall pick in 2011.

Top Cornerbacks Available

1. Patrick Peterson, Louisiana State

2. Prince Amukamara, Nebraska

My Pick: QB- Cameron Newton, Auburn: Although I do not agree with this selection, it is a pick that I believe Carolina will take. They have so many needs, but as with most teams it all starts with the quarterback position. My opinion on Cameron Newton aside, he will bring some much needed flair to the Panthers offense. Additionally, having either or both of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield will help Newton get acclimated to the NFL and make it a smoother transition.

Newton can eventually turn into a franchise type QB, he does have the skill set to succeed in the NFL, but that transition, no matter the weapons Carolina has in the backfield, will be steep for Newton. His accuracy is lacking on the intermediate routes, and the learning curve from Auburn's offense to the more in-depth playbook of an NFL team will be difficult.

There is no question that Newton has the intelligence, athletics ability, and "it" factor to be a good pro QB, but my pick would have been Blaine Gabbert here. However, those within the NFL circle believe that Carolina will go with Newton, and I will take their word for it. Either way, expect the Panthers to be selecting in the top five in 2012; no matter who they take with the #1 pick this month.