Panthers have an illness to thank for this home-run pick. Lotulelei acquired an undisclosed virus before the NFL Combine that caused an irregular heart test, for which he was later cleared, that allowed him to fall here. With Sharrif Floyd, Kenny Vaccaro and Eric Reid still on the board, general manager Dave Gettleman could have gotten cute here and tried to trade down at 14 — but didn't.
Instead, the Panthers addressed an immediate need with a run-stuffing nose tackle with top-five talent that should free up Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Jon Beason. Few, if any, teams got better value in the first round, and Lotulelei should start in the opener.
Round 2: No. 44 — Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
Review: The Panthers doubled down at defensive tackle here — a pick that was heavily questioned by the fan base — but what other option did they have without trading up or reaching? Ideally, the club would have been able to address a desperate need at safety after going defensive tackle in round 1, but D.J. Swearinger was really the only prospect in the conversation here; and he doesn’t really fit the ball-hawking safety mold the Panthers need.
There wasn't an offensive guard or offensive tackle sitting here — especially after Menelik Watson came off the board two picks earlier — that wouldn’t have been a reach. So, improving the pass rush to help the secondary makes sense. Carolina got solid value here, and Short complements Lotulelei’s skill set well.
Round 4: No. 108 — Edmund Kugbila, OG, Valdosta State
Review: Nothing’s ever a sure bet in the draft, but Gettleman’s two previous picks were pretty safe. This one isn’t. Kugbila is a huge risk. Outside of Jonathan Cooper (Arizona's Round 1 selection), he's perhaps the most athletic guard prospect of this class, ranking first among guards in the short shuttle (4.65) and three-cone drill (7.72). He also didn't give up a sack in 2012, but he's incredibly raw and comes to the Panthers from Division II Valdosta State.
At this point in the draft, the prospects aren’t expected to be perfect, but as a raw offensive lineman making a substantial level-jump in competition, it’s hard to see Kugbila making a significant contribution as a rookie. I don't hate the decision to go offensive guard here, but Barrett Jones should have been the guy.
Forget workout numbers. On tape, Jones was a stud across the offensive line against the nation's best at tackle, guard and center during his four years at Alabama and could have contributed from Day 1 at right guard or right tackle.
Round 5: No. 148 — A.J. Klein, LB, Iowa State
Review: Prior to the draft, what were the odds of the Panthers taking a linebacker before a secondary prospect? Carolina abandoned need here and took the proverbial best player available. Klein's knocked for a lack of speed but ran a 4.66 40 at the NFL Combine and can play all three linebacker positions and should contribute on special teams immediately. This may be a pick preparing for a future without Beason in Charlotte after 2013.
Klein's a solid player — some prognosticators even had him among their top-five inside linebackers — who shared 2011 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors, but it's hard to justify the Panthers taking a linebacker here when, at best, he’ll be their fifth linebacker.
Review: Like Klein earlier, this pick seems to be where the Panthers abandoned need, but DeAngelo Williams might not be in Charlotte after this season. And how often can you get a guy who ran for 1,767 yards on the ground in the sixth round? Coming from Oregon, Barner fits the Panthers’ zone-read schemes with Cam Newton perfectly and could challenge for playing time immediately at punt and kick returner.
But it's no guarantee Barner even makes the team with the depth at running back, and if the Panthers were going to go for an offensive playmaker this late in the draft, I'd have taken a chance on Da'Rick Rogers, who was saddled with character question marks but had 1,040 yards receiving as a junior (Tennessee) against SEC competition. Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo also had question marks, due to two reported failed drug tests. But he has premium-round talent and should have gotten a longer look here, as well.
Even Short admitted he was surprised when the Panthers took their second defensive tackle in a row (44th overall). However, the Panthers might have surprised fans even more when they selected Barner in the sixth round. Although Carolina's pre-draft visits proved the club was clearly in the market for an offensive player, few thought that would come in the form of a running back with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert on the roster. Of course, no one could have predicted the draft would end without Carolina taking a single member of the secondary, either.
It’s hard to call the 14th pick a steal, but that’s where Lotulelei falls for me. He tied for the lead at the combine with 38 reps of 225 pounds and should make the Panthers stout on the interior. His ability to stuff the run and take on multiple blockers pairs nicely with Dwan Edward’s pass-rushing ability up the middle and Kuechly filling the gaps behind him. The Panthers now have a defensive line Gettleman can build around after being weak up the middle a year ago, and Greg Hardy won’t have to slide over and play any three-technique now.
The Panthers' whole Saturday may have been a reach.
Kugbila is your classic boom-or-bust prospect. When a former Outland Trophy and Rimington award winner, who can play three different positions on the offensive line, is available and you take a Division II guard who weighed 400 pounds as a freshman, the risk is high.
However, hearing Gettleman talk about Kugbila and his raw ability, the Panthers could have gotten a steal here whose reward outweighs the risk. With Klein and Barner, the Panthers had more pressing needs and chose two players who aren’t guaranteed to make the roster and likely won’t challenge for starting jobs outside of special teams.
Gettleman, a former Giants executive, understands the benefits of having a stout front along the defensive line. After this draft, the Panthers should be fine, up the middle, for the foreseeable future and that has to put Gettleman’s mind at ease. With only five picks, Carolina wasn't able to address all its needs but Gettleman says he doesn’t see any gaping holes on this roster.
Kugbila, if he develops, could form a nice tandem with Amini Sllatolu for years to come. Barner provides a scatback the Panthers previously didn’t have and could save a roster spot if he can handle both kick- and punt-returning duties; and Klein should become a solid backup linebacker whose versatility as a backup gives the Panthers roster flexibility.
Needs Not Met
Five picks. Zero safeties chosen. The Panthers’ top four safeties, barring a trade or additional free agent signing, will be Charles Godfrey, Hakuri Nakamura, Mike Mitchell and D.J. Campbell. Yikes.
The Panthers need help at offensive guard and tackle, too, and Kugbila looks like a project. He could pay off down the road, but the Panthers need help on the right side now. With Jordan Gross’s declining production and the likelihood that he’ll enter free agency after this season, the Panthers are walking a razor-thin line at offensive tackle, without any quality young prospects at their disposal there.
The wide receiver depth chart isn’t looking particularly plentiful for the future, either. Steve Smith will be 34 when the season opens, and the secondary options are three guys who have yet to prove they can emerge as reliable No. 2 wideouts, much less become go-to options down the road.