Because of injuries and a roster that already was set at most positions before the draft, the Carolina Panthers won’t see the full value of their 2017 class until further down the road.
Outside of first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey, who had a solid and sometimes spectacular first season, it’s almost unfair to judge this class at all.
Second-round pick Curtis Samuel, a wide receiver out of Ohio State, and fifth-round pick Corn Elder, a cornerback out of Miami, finished the season on injured reserve. Elder never played a snap.
The second-best member of this class in terms of production didn’t even finish the season on the Carolina roster. That would be seventh-round pick Harrison Butker, who had an outstanding first year as a kicker at Kansas City after being signed from Carolina’s practice squad.
Best rookie: Easy. McCaffrey. He led the team in receptions with 80 catches for 651 yards and five touchdowns. He was third on the team in rushing — second among running backs — with 435 yards and two touchdowns. He was asked to do more than most coaches would consider putting on a rookie because of his maturity level and football smarts entering the league. If you were grading this class solely on him, it would be a B-plus, perhaps even an A. But he was the only rookie to play a big role.
Most improved rookie: Sixth-round pick Alex Armah, a fullback/H-back out of West Georgia. He was considered a project coming into training camp and a year or two away from helping. He played in nine games and showed promise as a future replacement for Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert, who signed with Buffalo in the offseason. He was able to help out as a blocker during an eight-game stretch when Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen was out with a broken foot. He’s a bruiser who could be valuable, particularly around the goal line, moving forward.
Most disappointing rookie: Second-round pick Samuel. It’s not because of his production but rather the injuries that kept him from being a factor. He missed much of the offseason and preseason with a hamstring injury. Just when it appeared he was going to make an impact for the offense with his speed and position flexibility, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in mid-November against Miami. The Panthers have big plans for him in the future, but this year was a major disappointment.
Jury is still out on … second-round pick Taylor Moton, an offensive tackle out of Western Michigan: He was supposed to push Daryl Williams for the right tackle spot, but Williams played so well that Moton never got a chance. He’s still a big, physical force (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) the Panthers believe will develop into a starter down the road.
Undrafted rookie evaluation: You’d have to say below average here. Of the five players signed, only Florida defensive end Bryan Cox made a contribution. Cox showed enough to play in seven games, mostly as a fill-in when there were injuries in the four-man rotation at end. But he showed flashes of the talent that his father, Bryan Cox, had during a long career in which he was named to three Pro Bowls.