Alabama TE O.J. Howard could have most immediate impact on Panthers

O.J. Howard would give Cam Newton another rangy target and could be a long-term replacement for Greg Olsen. Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There were a lot of good questions for the Saturday mailbag, from what Cam Newton is doing during the offseason to improve his accuracy to whether the Carolina Panthers make free-agent signings Julius Peppers and Russell Shepard captains.

But I went with this one because the Panthers are focused on the draft and what they do with the eighth overall pick is what many are talking about.

Gary wants to know which first-round draft prospect would make the most immediate impact on the Panthers.

That’s something I’ve gone back and forth on, Gary. The popular pick is LSU running back Leonard Fournette, but the Panthers have a No. 1 back in Jonathan Stewart. Yes, he’s about to turn 30, an age when production for backs typically begins to suffer.

He also showed that he’s still got something left in the tank after he gained 132 yards rushing on 25 carries in a December game at Washington.

Fournette and Stewart are both power backs, so as long as Stewart is healthy Fournette's role wouldn’t be huge. Stewart is a proven blocker too, so that also gives him an edge over Fournette’s younger legs.

One could argue one of the safeties, but with Kurt Coleman and now two-time Pro Bowler Mike Adams on the roster it’s doubtful LSU’s Jamal Adams or Ohio State’s Malik Hooker would start over them this season unless there is an injury.

Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas isn’t likely to fall to No. 8, and even if he did would he start over Peppers or Charles Johnson? How much time would Mario Addison, who led Carolina with 9.5 sacks a year ago, take from him?

My guess is Thomas would come off the bench, although passing on him would be tough with a long-term solution at end needed.

You could go with the top cornerback, Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, but Carolina invested in second-round pick James Bradberry and third-round pick Daryl Worley a year ago. The staff seems comfortable they can be the corners of the future.

Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, after watching him during his pro day on Thursday, might be an upgrade over Devin Funchess. He might even be a better version of Kelvin Benjamin.

But it often takes wide receivers a full year to make an impact, so it’s hard to imagine the Panthers using that valuable of a pick on another big receiver who is much like what they have.

And speedster John Ross, who set a combine record with a time of 4.22 seconds in the 40, seems like too much of a reach at No. 8.

So that brings us to Alabama tight end O.J. Howard (6-foot-6, 251 pounds). If he’s there, you could pencil him into the lineup opposite Pro Bowler Greg Olsen.

A two-TE set with players who are threats as receivers (apologies to Ed Dickson, who has only 37 catches the past three years) takes the pressure off Newton to run and puts more pressure on defenses having to account for both in pass coverage.

It also gives an extra big body to protect Newton and provide blocking in the running game.

If this draft class weren’t so deep at running back, and if Carolina didn’t have a solid nucleus at running back with Stewart, Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne, I’d say Fournette would be the easy pick.

But Howard is a special player as well and could be a future long-term replacement for Olsen, 32.

Howard would have an immediate impact on the passing and running games. He would have an impact on Newton’s protection.

And since the question was on which would have the most immediate impact, my verdict is for Howard.