Rivera, Panthers pleased with rookies in camp

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The schemes were basic and the competition a shell of what’s to come, but the Panthers were pleased with what they saw out of their five drafted rookies this weekend in their rookie mini-camp.

“Our draft picks really came in and showed well. Very pleased with some of the quickness that we saw from the defensive tackles,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “Thought [Edmund] Kugbila did a nice job. A.J. [Klein] looked good, and Kenjon [Barner] moved around very well. The five guys that we drafted showed up in good shape ready to go, so was real pleased with that.”

For the defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who came off the board to the Panthers with their first two picks, the weekend was more about establishing chemistry in what the Panthers are hoping becomes a long-standing working tandem.

“Familiarity,” Rivera answered succinctly when asked what he was looking for out of the defensive tackles. “When you draft guys like that, you have the opportunity to keep them together for a long time. They can play together for six, seven or eight years down the line.”

Lotulelei and Short were not allowed to work out at the NFL Combine in February, so they began getting to know each other as they watched others go through drills. Here in camp they’ve gotten to know each other in the film room, figuring out what each likes to do against different protections.

Off the field, Lotulelei’s the quiet, more reserved family man as Rivera put it, while Short’s the more demonstrative, social butterfly. Together they are hoping to form a tandem that can help the Panthers immediately up the middle.

“[The Panthers] drafted us for a reason. We’re just coming out here and trying to build that chemistry and contribute with the older guys,” Short said. “Not trying to take nobody’s spot, just trying to help out the team and get into the playoffs and hopefully a Super Bowl.”

If the Panthers are going to make such a run, they will likely need one or both to step in immediately. Lotulelei said the pace of his first weekend of NFL practices was actually a bit slower than college, but admitted there’s been a learning curve so far.

“The biggest difference is just technique,” Lotulelei said. “Once you understand the plays and get the technique down, I think the game will move a little bit slower. Just got to hit the playbook and continue to work on my technique, and I think everything will be a whole lot better.”

Technique or not, Lotulelei’s raw abilities seemed to shine through all weekend.

“Star really (impressed) with the first step quickness, but what was very evident was his ability to move, just his overall down the field, great lateral movement,” Rivera said. “Real excited about what he’s going to bring to the table.”

While receiving less pre-draft attention than Lotulelei, Rivera heaped quite a bit of praise on his fifth-round pick Klein, a 250-pound linebacker out of Iowa State, comparing him to last year’s NFL Rookie of the Year.

“He can play all three positions. He’s a very headsy guy,” Rivera said. “I don’t want to call him a poor man’s Luke [Kuechly], but he has a lot of characteristics of Luke.”

The Panthers’ sixth-round pick Barner is similar to Klein in the sense that neither filled the most pressing need on the board for the Panthers and neither had the ideal measurables sought by NFL teams, but Rivera said it was all about value that late. Getting a guy who ran for 1,767 yards with the 182nd pick “made perfect sense to us and made perfect sense to me that we took him.”

“When you watch him, he’s got some quickness, but he’s also a very smart young man. He’s shown that he has some ability,” Rivera said. “He’ll be a guy that we’ll have to find a spot for and if he continues to grow and improve, he’s got a real good chance to help us.”

Barner admitted that he knows he’s stepping into a crowded situation, but believes he can offer value on special teams and said he was looking forward to having the opportunity to be back returning punts and kicks after being pulled from duties as a senior at Oregon to reduce the risk of injury. Barner totaled 1,634 yards and two touchdowns on kick and punt returns in his first three seasons for the Ducks.

“Every day’s a work day. I’ve got to play with a chip on my shoulder. Every day I remind myself that 181 people passed out on me,” Barner said.

It’s the same mantra former Oregon and current San Francisco 49ers running back LaMichael James has pressed on Barner. 

The two keep in contact daily and James saw action sparingly in his rookie season despite being a second-round pick and understands what it’s like to arrive to a crowded backfield.

“In any crowded area, hard work stands out,” Barner said. “So I’m just going to continue to work hard and do what got me here and take it to another level.”