Panthers' need for edge rushers should come into focus at combine

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, while recently appearing on ESPN’s First Take at Bank of America Stadium as Charlotte hosted the NBA All-Star Game, said the team was looking for offensive linemen and playmakers to build around quarterback Cam Newton.

True, that is a need.

Protecting the franchise quarterback, particularly one coming off shoulder surgery for the second offseason in three years, is essential to success.

But the more immediate needs are for edge rushers and linebackers as the Panthers attempt to get younger on defense and make a transition to mix in a 3-4 scheme with the 4-3 scheme that has been prevalent since Rivera arrived in 2011.

They should target the early rounds of the draft, where picks are expected to contribute immediately.

The Panthers went with offense in the first round the past two seasons with running back Christian McCaffrey at No. 8 in 2017 and wide receiver DJ Moore at No. 24 last season. They have used four of their past five picks in the first two rounds on offense.

So look for the focus at the NFL combine this week in Indianapolis, particularly in terms of what player the Panthers will select with the No. 16 pick, to be on defense.

They’ve already gotten younger, moving on from four players 30 or older in defensive end Julius Peppers (39), outside linebacker Thomas Davis (35), safety Mike Adams (37) and nickelback Captain Munnerlyn (30).

They re-signed 27-year-old safety Eric Reid to solidify the secondary, and starting corners James Bradberry (25) and Donte Jackson (23) are in place. The biggest question there is the other safety spot, where 24-year-old Rashaan Gaulden will get a shot to replace Adams.

So that puts the biggest need up front, particularly at edge rusher.

The good news is Rivera, who will continue calling defensive plays in 2019, has expertise in the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. He ran primarily a 3-4 scheme as the defensive coordinator at San Diego from 2008 to 2010.

Finding the right players to blend up front with Mario Addison (end), Kawann Short (tackle), Dontari Poe (tackle) and Vernon Butler (tackle), and at linebacker with Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson, will be key in this transition.

Here’s a look at 10 players who could draw a lot of interest from the Panthers in Indianapolis:

Montez Sweat, Mississippi State -- Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is the best defensive end on the board and could go No. 1 to Arizona, so he’ll be long gone. But Sweat is one of the best edge rushers in the draft, with 22 sacks the past two seasons. At 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, he could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or end in the 4-3. Position flexibility has been a key term for Rivera.

Clelin Ferrell, Clemson -- He had 11.5 sacks last season and 21 the past two seasons for the reigning national champions. At 6-5 and 260, he’s a more traditional 4-3 end, but one who would be hard to pass up. He’s a constant threat to quarterbacks, and his strong push frees up other players to make plays.

Christian Wilkins, Clemson -- Talk about position flexibility. At 6-4 and 315, he could play end or tackle in a 4-3 scheme or end in a 3-4. He had 14.5 tackles for loss this past season to go with 5.5 sacks. He has 40.5 tackles for loss in four seasons. He could be ideal for what Rivera wants defensively.

Rashan Gary, Michigan -- Another player who could play end or tackle in a 4-3 and end in a 3-4. Six-foot-5, 283-pound Gary didn’t put up great numbers in terms of sacks (9.5 in three seasons), but his raw power and ability to play all across the line make him a player to watch.

Ed Oliver, Houston -- He’s a somewhat undersized defensive lineman (6-1, 274) who moves like a linebacker, so he could be an edge rusher in a 4-3 or a standup end in a 3-4. Not great sack numbers (13.5 in three seasons), but his 53 tackles for loss is eye-popping.

Josh Allen, Kentucky -- The 6-5, 260-pound end/outside linebacker likely will be long gone by the time the Panthers pick. But his ability to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and end in a 4-3 scheme might make him worth a trade up if the price is right. He had 31.5 career sacks and 42 tackles for loss for Kentucky. He also had 11 forced fumbles and seven pass deflections the past two seasons.

Jachai Polite, Florida -- This elite pass-rusher (6-2, 240) also could play end in a 4-3 scheme or outside linebacker in a 3-4. He had 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss this past season. He also led the nation with six forced fumbles, an area the Panthers want to improve.

Brian Burns, Florida State -- He has been called the fastest pass-rusher in college football. At 6-5 and 235 pounds, he could play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or, with a little weight, a 4-3 end. Pressuring the quarterback is his specialty. He had 68 pressures with 54 quarterback hurries through 12 games in 2018. Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said this past season that Burns was the “most explosive defensive end, in my opinion, that we will have faced since Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina.’’ Clowney was the top pick of the 2014 draft.

Devin White, LSU -- Six-foot-1, 240-pound White is an inside linebacker, so it might seem strange mentioning him with arguably the best middle linebacker (Luke Kuechly) in the league already on the roster. But if the Panthers truly play more 3-4, they will need more playmakers at linebacker, and this is the best one in the draft. In 34 games at LSU, he had 286 tackles, 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.

Jonah Williams, Alabama -- OK, the focus has been on edge rushers, but if the best offensive tackle in the draft is available at No. 16, he demands consideration. At 6-5 and 301 pounds, he is NFL-ready at tackle or guard and would have to be a priority for a team looking to rebuild its line to protect Newton.