CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The NFL Draft came to a conclusion with 254 players hearing their name called from the podium at New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall. Only five of those will call themselves Panthers when rookie minicamp opens, but the lack of quantity didn’t dilute the positive vibes emanating out of the Panthers’ war room at the conclusion of the draft.
“We felt like we didn’t reach for anybody,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “We felt like we got great value for every pick, and feel real good about it. We really do. Of course nobody’s ever sat up here at one of these and said they didn’t feel good about it … but no, I do.”
Gettleman’s first draft in Charlotte showed a preference for “hog mollies” — perhaps his favorite word leading up to this draft — and versatility. He backed up his pre-draft promise that they wanted to bolster the lines, attacking the need in the trenches early with two 310-pound defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in Rounds 1 and 2. On Day 3, he opened by shifting his focus to offensive line with Valdosta State’s 320-pound offensive guard Edmund Kugbila in the fourth round.
“Everything starts up front. One of the things we felt we need to do coming in was really build the front,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “We got some quality players, but what this does it adds to them.”
Even bigger than adding to the front was the Panthers didn’t have to sacrifice value to do so. Lotulelei’s a top-five talent who dropped due to irregular results on a heart test at the NFL Combine caused by a virus he had at the time. As the virus cleared out of his system, subsequent tests came up negative and Gettleman said the Panthers’ doctors had thoroughly checked him out and felt “very comfortable that he’s fine” and had completely cleared him.
In Short, the Panthers got another first-round talent defensive tackle that dropped due to a perception that he took plays off. Gettleman and Rivera said it’s easy for it to look that way when you’re playing 80-85 plays, and Short admitted his desire to compete trumped his need to rest.
“We’re going to create havoc,” Short said of he and Lotulelei. “We’re going to do what we do best.”
Both immediately turn a perceived weakness heading into the draft into perhaps the deepest position group on the team and should immediately challenge for starting positions.
“Very excited about (Lotulelei and Short). Very pleased with what we did with the defensive front. It’s big,” Rivera said. “To echo Dave, they’re hog mollies. They’re very stout at the point of attack. And they’re going to let our linebackers run and they’re going to help with the pass rush because the quarterback’s not going to be able to step up.”
The Panthers’ logic is sound: if you’re not going to address the secondary, nothing helps more than a panicked quarterback facing an evaporating pocket. Sure, the Panthers could have taken a talented cornerback or safety with their first- or second-round pick that would have challenged for a job immediately, but Gettleman said he has complete confidence in the secondary he’ll take into camp.
“Is there a position I’m really worried about at this point in time? The answer is no,” Gettleman stated.
That’s likely why Gettleman seemed to target versatility with his three picks on Saturday. Kugbila played offensive tackle in college before switching over to offensive guard for his final two seasons. Fifth round pick A.J. Klein started at least a game at all three linebacker spots during his senior year at Iowa State and could play on all four units on special teams. Then, they wrapped it up with Oregon running back Kenjon Barner in the sixth round. Barner ran for 1,767 yards as a senior and fills an immediate need as a scatback and return expert. The Panthers did sign return specialist Ted Ginn in the offseason, but Barner should challenge him at punt returner and kick returner.
“Special teams will be key,” Barner said. “Special teams will probably be the biggest reason why I make this team.”
On the surface, Klein and Barner’s picks don’t really seem to address a need on this team, but it’s that versatility and desire to contribute on special teams that could lead to them earning a spot on the 53-man roster. Nothing’s guaranteed for either. Nothing ever is in the draft. The only guarantee they have now is they’ll get their shot.
“The only way to figure out who the best 53 are is everybody’s got to get training camp reps and opportunities,” Gettleman said. “These young guys are going to get a chance. Guys that we feel can be starters eventually are going to get the opportunity to have a couple reps with the ones. Only way to find out is to stick them in. If they don’t play, you don’t know.”
Each of the five players acquired over the course of the last three days had deficiencies that dropped their stock. Lotulelei fought an ill-timed virus. Short fought a perception that he took plays off. Kugbila wasn’t as polished after playing college ball a division down in the FCS. Klein was too slow despite sharing 2011 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Barner was too small and didn’t time as fast as he looked on tape, running a 4.52 at the combine that he called “slow.”
Now, their play on the field will do all the talking. If the Panthers front office is correct, they’ll acquit themselves just fine.
“I believe we maximized the five picks. I’m excited,” Rivera said. “I’m excited about what we did in free agency. I’m excited about the way things were handled as far as that’s concerned. I’m excited about the first two weeks of our offseason program with our players. Now, I’m excited that the draft is over and we have our five guys going forward.”