NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT
Coming into the 2013 NFL Draft, the Panthers could've been looking at filling a number of needs. They have a suspect offensive line, they could use another playmaking receiver, they've been weak for years at defensive tackle and their secondary is a mess.
But instead of ticking off the "needs" box, Dave Gettleman followed through with the "best player available" approach he said he'd use during his first draft as an NFL general manager.
"We felt like we didn't reach for anybody. We felt like we got great value for every pick and feel real good about it," Gettleman said once the Panthers had made their five picks. "Of course, nobody's ever sat up in one of these (post-draft press conferences) and said they didn't feel good about it. But no, I do. I really do."
Gettleman was actually able to fill one of his many needs while picking a guy he wasn't sure he'd be able to get with the 14th selection. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was once considered to be a top-five pick, but a health scare at the Combine dropped his stock low enough for the Panthers to grab him.
With his second-round selection, Gettleman could've tried to improve Carolina's biggest weakness by going with a defensive back, but instead, he took another defensive tackle in Purdue's Kawann Short.
Before Gettleman, the franchise had taken a defensive tackle with a top-50 pick just once in its history. With Gettleman, they took two in the top 44.
If people didn't believe him when he said it before the draft, it's clear now. Gettleman's a huge proponent of having a big, strong and deep defensive line.
"I've seen what a feeding frenzy looks like. We had a game against Philadelphia a few years back where we had 12 sacks, and we had a game against Chicago where we sacked Cutler 10 times," the former Giants executive said. "I really believe in it. Can it mask issues in the secondary? Of course it does."
Lotulelei and Short will be in a rotation with veteran Dwan Edwards at tackle, with double-digit sack ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy on the outside. While the line looks better than it's looked for a long time - on paper - it may be wishful thinking to believe it can mask a messy secondary.
Safety Charles Godfrey's the only sure starter. Former Raider Mike Mitchell and 2012 seventh-round pick D.J. Campbell will battle for the other safety spot, while Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Norman, D.J. Moore and Josh Thomas will fight to see who starts at cornerback. You could argue none of them should be starting, yet two of them will.
But perhaps Gettleman and the Panthers know something outside critics don't.
"As an evaluator the answer is often on your roster. The advantage we have is we watch all the practice tape and we watch game tape and see if a young man is ascending. We feel we have a couple of young kids who are ascending and we feel good about them," Gettleman said.
With their final three picks, the Panthers took guard Edmund Kugbila out of Valdosta State, linebacker A.J. Klein from Iowa, and Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. Kugbila's so raw, it's hard to imagine him seeing much action this year, while Klein and Barner could see some special teams time.
Essentially, Gettleman will ultimately be judged on how he did in this draft, years from now, after we see whether the two defensive tackles can play. Since the Panthers didn't bring on a defensive back, a wide receiver or a relatively ready offensive lineman, a lot of focus will be on Lotulelei and Short. If they're good enough to turn a decent defensive line into a great one, then Gettleman's strategy will end up looking pretty darn good.
"It goes back to the pass rush. You're putting pressure on the quarterback and he's throwing the ball before he wants to," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Dave has said it before in our meetings, it's hard to throw off your back.
"And not just on your back laying on the ground, but your back foot. We know that the opportunities are going to happen."
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES
--The average weight of the Panthers' first four draft picks was 294 pounds. With their final selection, they finally took a guy that won't clear out the buffet.
Sixth-round running back Kenjon Barner's listed at 5-9, 196 pounds, and according to general manager Dave Gettleman, "He can flat fly. The ball's in his hands, the fun begins."
Barner, who racked up 1,767 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior season at Oregon, will find it tough to crack Carolina's loaded backfield, but that doesn't mean he won't be able to earn a jersey as a rookie.
As a college freshman, Barner topped 1,000 kickoff return yards including a 100-yard touchdown return and he averaged 11.7 yards per punt return over his first two seasons.
"That's what got me started in college -- being on special teams, being a kick returner, being a punt returner, being a gunner," Barner said. "Getting back to that is something I'm looking forward to.
"Special teams will be key. Special teams will probably be the biggest reason why I make this team."
--After they were done drafting, the Panthers agreed to terms with 13 undrafted college free agents.
The name that sticks out the most is safety Robert Lester, who was a three-year starter and three-time national champion at Alabama.
Quarterback Colby Cameron could be another guy to watch, and his addition may mean the end of Jimmy Clausen's time in Carolina. What Cameron lacks in arm strength, he makes up for in accuracy. Last year at Louisiana Tech, he posted a 68.8 percent completion percentage, tossing 31 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
If Cameron can impress enough in camp, the Panthers may want to keep him around and cut ties with Clausen, who hasn't taken a snap since his disastrous 2010 season.
--Besides their draft picks and undrafted college free agents, the Panthers added former Oregon tight end Brandon Williams, who could end up being a remarkable comeback story. Before the Ducks' 2011 season, he had to give up football because of a narrow spinal canal and a bulging disk in his back.
Apparently cleared by doctors to play again, Williams will try to return to the field for the first time since 2010.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm very pleased with what we did with the defensive front. It's big. They're guys that are going to be very stout at the point of attack and going to let our linebackers run. They're going to help with the pass rush because the quarterback's not going to be able to step up." -- Head coach Ron Rivera, on the Panthers using their top two picks on DTs Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
A closer look at the Panthers' picks:
Round 1/14 -- Star Lotulelei, DT, 6-3, 311, Utah
The Panthers were very high on Lotulelei coming into the draft, but they weren't sure if he'd fall to them. When he did, they wasted no time taking him. He could provide the huge presence Carolina's been missing in the middle of its defensive line for years.
Round 2/44 -- Kawann Short, DT, 6-3, 308, Purdue
Even though they had bigger glaring holes in their secondary, the Panthers used their second pick on another defensive tackle. Short was at the top of their board at the time, and they're going to use the talented pass rusher in a rotation with Lotulelei and veteran Dwan Edwards.
Round 4/108 -- Edmund Kugbila, OG, 6-4, 317, Valdosta State
The Panthers need some depth on their offensive line, and Kugbila could immediately compete at guard. The native of Ghana may have lasted another round, but Carolina obviously saw enough in him to not risk waiting.
Round 5/148 -- A.J. Klein, LB, 6-1, 251, Iowa State
Klein should find immediate roles as a backup linebacker and on special teams. He could also be in the Panthers' future plans as a starter if this ends up being linebacker Jon Beason's final season in Charlotte.
Round 6/182 -- Kenjon Barner, RB, 5-9, 196, Oregon
With DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert already on the roster, this certainly wasn't a "need" pick. Barner could see action as a returner in 2013, and he could be groomed to be Williams' future successor.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2)
--DE Antwan Applewhite, who was limited to just five games because of injury last year, may be brought back. The Panthers could use him for depth at defensive end.
--S Sherrod Martin won't be back. The former starter lost his job in the 2012 preseason and an ACL tear cut short his time last year.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--DT Andre Neblett (not tendered as RFA) missed time last year with a suspension and injury. The Panthers might bring him back to help out their weak defensive tackle position.
--CB Nate Ness (not tendered as RFA), who was waived after suffering a concussion in the preseason, may get a training camp invite, but he won't make the final roster.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--QB Derek Anderson: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Richie Brockel: ERFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Dwan Edwards: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Ben Hartsock: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Captain Munnerlyn: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Jordan Senn: Potential UFA; terms unknown.
--LB Chase Blackburn: UFA Giants; terms unknown.
--DT Colin Cole: FA; terms unknown.
--CB Drayton Florence: UFA Lions; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR/KR Ted Ginn: UFA 49ers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Domenik Hixon: UFA Giants; $1.2M/1 yr, $250,000 SB.
--S Mike Mitchell: UFA Raiders; $840,000/1 yr.
--CB D.J. Moore: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB James Anderson (released/post-June 1 designation).
--TE Gary Barnidge: UFA Browns; $3.75M/3 yrs, $650,000 SB.
--DT Ron Edwards (released).
--CB Chris Gamble (released).
--WR Louis Murphy: UFA Giants; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Kenny Onatolu (released).
--LB Jason Phillips: UFA Eagles; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--G Mike Pollak: UFA Bengals; $780,000/1 yr.