Let’s go ahead and agree on the expert witnesses' credentials and swear them in as we begin the case of Patrick Peterson vs. the National Football League draft.
Peterson is challenging the age-old law that you simply don’t take a cornerback with the first pick in the NFL draft. It’s never been done before, at least not in the modern era. In fact, case law shows that a cornerback never has been chosen earlier than Shawn Springs when Seattle picked him at No. 3 in 1997.
But the people at Peterson’s table can put any number of guys on the stand and make a case that it’s time to change the law.
“I honestly think he’s the best player in the draft,’’ said Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, a former NFL front-office worker. “He’s as clean a prospect as there is coming out in this draft. There are no character flaws or physical problems. I don’t know that there is a single thing you can put down about him that’s a negative.’’
“Peterson is the best player in this draft, period,’’ said Tony Softli, who worked as a high-ranking personnel official for the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. “There’s nobody who’s even close.’’
Plenty of draft gurus agree and consider Peterson the best player in the draft. But those same guys are putting out mock drafts, and almost none of them puts Peterson as the first pick.
That pick belongs to the Panthers, and they’ll be the ultimate judge on whether it’s time to rewrite the draft rules to say it’s not a crime to draft a cornerback first -- especially one with the ability to return kickoffs and punts.
Will they do it? That’s anybody’s guess. The Panthers, coming off a 2-14 season and beginning the tenure of Ron Rivera as coach, are methodically working their way through the process. Rivera has said there are as many as eight players being looked at as options with the pick.
It’s safe to assume that defensive linemen Da’Quan Bowers, Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus are under Carolina’s microscope. Same goes for quarterbacks Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert, and they’re being examined under a more powerful lens. But what about Peterson, the guy you can look at from 50 yards away and see is basically flawless?
That’s where Rivera, general manager Marty Hurney and even owner Jerry Richardson are going to have to make one of the most interesting calls in recent draft history. There’s no doubt the Panthers need a quarterback, but Newton and Gabbert come with questions. There’s a big need for help in the middle of the defensive line, and Fairley or Dareus could fix that. Even though the Panthers have talent at defensive end, they almost have to give some consideration to Bowers, who is a game changer at a position where teams aren’t afraid to use high draft picks. But each of the defensive linemen comes with some questions.
“Why would you not take this kid?’’ Softli said.
Well, that answer is buried deep in minds around the NFL, and traditions can be hard to break.
“The logic is that if you have one of those guys at one corner, he’s going to be marginalized because people are just going to attack the other corner all day,’’ Williamson said.
Softli echoes that and points to baseball, where the theory is you build up the middle with good pitching, a catcher, shortstop and center fielder. In other words, you don’t build a baseball team around a left fielder or a first baseman.
“The philosophy is that you build from the inside,’’ Softli said. “On defense, you build around the defensive line or the linebackers. On offense, you start with the quarterback or the running backs or the guys that block for them. The last piece you put in an offense is a wide receiver or a tight end. The last piece you put on a defense is a cornerback. It’s because those guys are on the outside.’’
We’ve heard all the glowing testimony on Peterson, and we’ve heard why the current law is in place. Everyone seems to agree on all of that. But ask what the Panthers should do with the first pick, and that’s where reasonable minds disagree.
“They have to get a quarterback,’’ Williamson said. “I take Gabbert over Newton because there’s less downside. Look at the rest of Carolina’s roster. They’ve got running backs and I like their young wide receivers, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. They’ve got a good offensive line. This isn’t the Houston offensive line when David Carr was coming in. They need a quarterback and this is an exceedingly friendly time to do it. Apologies to Patrick Peterson, who I think the world of, but they have to go with a quarterback.’’
Richardson and Hurney are traditional guys, but Softli has some advice for his former bosses.
“They can get a transition guy at quarterback,’’ Softli said as he pointed to quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, who might be available via trade or free agency. “They can get their quarterback in another year or two when there’s more of a can’t-miss guy. Why not just take the best player in the draft? You can’t go wrong on that.’’
Carolina already has cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, who have played at high levels in the past. Captain Munnerlyn also has shown signs he can be a solid starting cornerback. Marshall got into the bad graces of the front office last year, and Gamble fell out of favor with former coach John Fox last season. It’s possible one of those guys could go, but the other could stay and team with Peterson as the starters and Munnerlyn as the nickel. That would leave the Panthers with second and third cornerbacks who aren’t all that easy to pick on.
That might help bend the law in the Panthers’ eyes, and Softli points to the franchise’s past for more support. He remembers 2002, when defensive end Julius Peppers was in a draft class that featured Carr and Joey Harrington. The Panthers held the second pick in that draft and Softli remembers sitting in pre-draft meeting rooms with Hurney, Fox and college personnel director Jack Bushofsky.
“We were all sitting there hoping that Houston wouldn’t take the best player,’’ Softli said. “They took Carr and we could have had Harrington, but we wanted the best player. Peppers was the best player, and history has shown that. Harrington’s out of the league and Carr’s a third-string quarterback.’’
The verdict won’t come until the Panthers make their pick in late April. But they have to at least look at Peterson and wonder whether the guy with no questions would make it worthwhile to break the law.