The future stars of the NFL are almost here. The first round of the 2013 Draft kicks off on April 25, and every team will look to build for both present and future. This is the 14th in a two-a-day, 30-part series that looks at each team and which potential first-round picks would be a good fit.
PICK NO. 14: CAROLINA PANTHERS
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2012 record: 7-9
Key offseason acquisitions:
D.J. Moore, cornerback
Chase Blackburn, linebacker
Domenik Hixon, wide receiver
Mike Mitchell, safety
Key offseason departures:
James Anderson, linebacker
Chris Gamble, cornerback
Biggest holes in roster: Defensive tackle, cornerback, offensive line, wide receiver
Carolina is headed in the right direction after posting a 7-9 campaign last season. The Panthers didn't make any flashy moves in the offseason, opting for low-risk, under-the-radar guys who quietly made an impact on their old teams (Chase Blackburn, Mike Mitchell, etc.) The Panthers can really make their mark in the upcoming draft -- new general manager Dave Gettleman is a disciple of Giants GM Jerry Reese, one of the better talent evaluators in the NFL.
Carolina's run defense last season wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. The unit gave up 1,761 rushing yards in 2012, just 93.7 yards better than the league average. All that was without a standout run-stuffer clogging up the middle. If the Panthers can strengthen their run defense, they'd be able to make the jump to the next level.
That's where Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei would come in. Lotulelei is one of those prospects that, despite his talent, could slide a bit if he's not taken in the early few picks. The 6-2, 311-pound Lotulelei put up 38 reps on the bench press at his Pro Day. He had a scare before the Combine when an EKG revealed an apparent heart condition, but he was given a clean bill of health before his Pro Day. If that issue is truly nothing to worry about, Lotulelei has the strength to be a dominant interior lineman in the mold of Ravens DT Haloti Ngata.
If Carolina wants a more versatile option at defensive tackle, they can opt for Missouri's Sheldon Richardson. The 6-2, 294-pounder isn't as much of a run-stopper as Lotulelei, but he has the size and athletic ability to play anywhere on the line (though his best fit may be up the middle). The only big issue is his lack of game film -- Richardson started only 13 of his 24 career FBS games.
If Washington's Desmond Trufant or Florida State's Xavier Rhodes fall to this point, Carolina would have to consider bringing one of them in to replace Chris Gamble at cornerback. It's unlikely that either one will actually be around at No. 14 (Trufant would be the more likely of the two to be available at this point), but it's something to consider.
A sneaky, non-defense pick that could pay huge dividends down the line: West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin. The 5-8 Austin is very similar to Seahawks wideout Percy Harvin -- an explosive, do-it-all threat who can line up in the backfield or the slot, take the ball on an option run or return a punt or kickoff to the house. Steve Smith is Cam Newton's top target, but Smith isn't getting any younger (turns 34 in May). Austin would give Newton a new weapon both now and for years to come.