Charlotte, N.C. — The Panthers say they'd like to find a replacement for longtime No. 1 wide receiver Steve Smith in this year's NFL draft.
The big question is when they'll do it.
The Panthers have the 28th overall pick, but the NFC South champions have a variety of needs after getting hit hard in free agency, and could go in a number of directions with their first-round choice.
General Manager Dave Gettleman said recently that wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback are among the team's top needs, but qualified that statement by adding he won't got out of his way to land one. "When you reach for a position of need you're in trouble," he said.
Gettleman said he has some reservations about drafting a receiver in the first round because it often takes them longer to adjust to the NFL game than those who play other positions.
"History tells you that it's a very difficult position to assimilate into (the NFL), especially with the current game being played at the college level," Gettleman said.
Gettleman called it a "wide receiver heavy" draft that includes several players who've put up big numbers. He said the trick is finding guys who can easily make the transition to the next level.
"I'll look at a guy and he's caught 90 balls ... but of those 45 were flash screens," Gettleman said. "The other 45 he caught, he ran to three spots. So, do they understand coverage? They're going to have to learn the whole route tree. How long is it going to take them to assimilate? It's an issue. It's a problem."
Smith was released in a salary cap move earlier this offseason. Replacing his toughness and production won't be easy.
He caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns for the Panthers in 13 seasons. However, after averaging 76 receptions for 1,284 yards receiving and 5.5 touchdowns in his first two seasons playing with quarterback Cam Newton, Smith's numbers fell off in 2013. He caught 64 passes for 745 yards and four TDs.
The Panthers signed free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, but none is expected to become the next No. 1 receiver in Carolina.
Five things to watch from the Panthers in the draft:
ON THE FRONT BURNER: Jordan Gross retired this offseason, leaving a huge hole at left tackle — one the Panthers potentially could address in Round 1. Gettleman said there are some tackles in the draft don't have "left tackle feet," but said that doesn't necessarily matter. "There are only so many elite tackles," he said. "There are plenty of guys playing left tackle in this league that don't have classic left tackle feet." Finding a left tackle might take on added importance given Newton is coming off ankle surgery this offseason.
FIRST ROUND SUCCESS: The Panthers have had tremendous success with their first-round picks the last three seasons. They grabbed defensive tackle Star Lotulelei from Utah at No. 14 in 2013, and he looks like he's going to be around the league for quite a while. They drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 11 in 2012 and quarterback Cam Newton first overall the year before that. Kuechly was the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, while Newton was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.
BLUE GOOSE: Last year, Gettleman said the Panthers needed to add some "hog mollies," or big linemen. This year, the Boston native switched gears, saying if there is a "blue goose" pass rusher available at No. 28 he wouldn't pass on him. Tough to know what a blue-winged bird native to Ethiopia has to do with building a football team, though.
CORNERBACK ON RADAR: The Panthers lost starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to Minnesota in free agency. While they signed free agent Antoine Cason, don't rule out cornerback as an option with one of the team's top three picks. The Panthers have one pick in each of the seven rounds.
DON'T BE REACHING: The Panthers are determined not to reach for picks at positions of need. They followed that plan last year and took defensive tackle Kawaan Short from Purdue in the second round — even after selecting Lotulelei in the first. "Last year, K.K. (Short) was obviously the best value in that second-round pick," Gettleman said.