As the 2017 NFL draft draws near, the Carolina Panthers are finishing up their evaluations and now moving on to their strategy.

Each year, members of the organization get together and conduct their own mock draft. By the time the draft comes, there won’t be a situation that the Panthers have not already mocked and prepared for with the eighth pick of the draft.

As such, I will now try to take a shot at what the Carolina Panthers are thinking. These projections are based on need, public team interest, and private whispers.

Round 1: Leonard Fournette, Running back, LSU

The Carolina Panthers really like Leonard Fournette. I mean, they really like Fournette. But will he be there for the eighth pick? Maybe, maybe not. The Cowboys did the Panthers no favors last year in selecting Ezekiel Elliot fourth overall. The Jaguars pick fourth this year and do need a running back.

 Leonard Fournette #7 of the LSU Tigers runs the ball against the Mississippi Rebels at Tiger Stadium on October 25, 2014 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Fournette is easily as good as a prospect as Elliot and probably much better. As such, the Panthers may try to trade with Chicago and leapfrog Jacksonville for the rights to Fournette. Such a move would come at a great cost, but in the eyes of the Panthers, it would be worth it for a once-in-a-generation player.

If the Panthers are not able to land Fournette, their consolation prize at No. 8 would be Jamal Adams, Solomon Thomas, or OJ Howard (in that order).

Round 2: Obi Melifonwu, Safety, Connecticut

With this selection, the Panthers address their biggest weakness against their biggest rival. If you had to design a safety to help cover Julio Jones, you would likely end up with Melifonwu. At 6-foot-4 and a 4.40 40 time, Obi would be able to contend for those passes that Kurt Coleman just could not reach.

Connecticut Huskies defensive back Obi Melifonwu jumps up to stretch his legs before running the 40 yard dash during the 2017 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Want to cover a physical freak? Draft a physical freak. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has shown that he can have rookies perform well in the secondary very quickly. I suspect no less from him with Melifonwu.

Round 2: Evan Engram, Tight end, Ole Miss

Last season, the Panthers tried desperately to find a capable tight end to play opposite Greg Olsen. Unfortunately, that never happened.

Evan Engram will provide the Panthers with the missing piece of the offense that offensive coordinator Mike Shula lobbied for last season. A second tight end that would demand extra attention from the defense would open up the field more so than any other player.

Evan Engram #17 of the Mississippi Rebels catches a touchdown pass while being defended by Quincy Mauger #20 of the Georgia Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Engram is capable of working all three levels of the field, something that Greg Olsen has had great success with for the Panthers. This makes Engram not only a compliment for the immediate future but an Olsen replacement in the long term.

Long time Panthers fans remember the days of having two pass-catching tight ends in Olsen and Shockey. Mike Shula also remembers and wants to see it again this season.

Round 3: Tanoh Kpassagnon, Defensive end, Villanova

General manager Dave Gettleman always drafts a project player, and defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon fits that bill.

Villanova Wildcats defensive lineman Tanoh Kpassagnon goes through workout drills during the 2017 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, he reminds me so much of the recently departed Kony Ealy. A physically gifted player with questionable lower body strength and desire? They could be twins. That won’t keep Gettleman for taking a chance on a defensive end with a huge upside later in the third round.

Even if Kpassagnon develops into only a player capable of rotating in occasionally, it will not have been a wasted pick.