1-9: Luke Kuechley, LB, Boston College
2-40: Amini Sitatolu, OT, Midwestern State
4-103: Frank Alexander, DE, Oklahoma
4-104: Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas
5-143: Josh Norman, CB, Coastal Carolina
6-207: Brad Nortmon, P, Wisonsin
7-216: D.J. Campbell, FS, California
All the head-scratching and sweat and research over the past few months that the Panther organization has done can be summed up in the 7 lines above.
Coming into the draft, Carolina team needs were (more or less in order of greatest needs first) DT, CB, (pass rusher), WR, OT, S, OG, TE. Yeah they need some help just about everywhere. Notice the one spot I did NOT list was linebacker.
The Panthers have an above-average group of linebackers when they are healthy, and the past two years has seem them drop like flies. I won’t least each individual malady, but suffice it to say the Panthers opening-day starting LB corps spent more time in the infirmary than on the field, and Luke Kuechly is not only the best ILB in the draft, he’s head and shoulders the best ILB in the draft. After 532 collegiate tackles, setting school and ACC records in the process, Kuechly has demonstrated every single elite quality you look for in an inside linebacker.
Leading up to the draft, I was thinking Brockers would be the pick. He was the best DT in college against the run, his tape was flawless, and he even saved his best play for the biggest games. Cox kept nagging at me and in the final week I figured it was going to be Cox because of his ability to blow up plays behind the line and pressure the pocket in the center – in the QB’s face.
Then, my editor asked us to write a piece on who we WANTED Carolina to take. Not who we thought they would, who WE – as writers – wanted to see.
I chose Kuechly.
The kid is a machine. He tackles anyone that gets near him with the ball and can play sideline to sideline. He can cover. The only concern I have is that he’s 245 pounds…not real big for an NFL MLB. He has no injury issues from college, however, so he’s proven himself on the field. Rivera wanted his own Mike Singletary clone to coach, and Kuechly is as close as he’s gonna get. In any case, Luke should go a long way to helping seal up the middle of that Panther defense that had such a soft underbelly last season.
Since not a single DT was taken, I have to think Rivera is satisfied with the progress the young Tackles we had last season played. Of particular interest to me will be how Frank Kearse plays, but Kuechly will clean up a lot of messes. He doesn’t “fill a need” but he fills a couple, really. Adding a starting MLB adds depth, since one of the existing guys won’t be starting anymore. He should also help greatly with overall team defense against the run with his range, instincts, motor, and physical ability and technique. The kid’s a winner.
Next, in the second round, came Amini Sitatolu at #40 overall. This pick underscores the difference in the amateurs and the pros. Even on TV, the Kipers, the McShays didn’t have much on this guy at first. Same with a handful of picks every year, actually, but it shows the pros look EVERYWHERE for big-time talent.
With Sitatolu, they’ve apparently found it. He played Tackle at Midwestern State and if Dontari Poe played offense with an attitude, this guy would probably be close to the result. Sitatolu probably left behind 300 pounds as a sophomore in high school. Think Cordy Glenn without the polish. Although a tackle, he will probably be kicked inside to guard at the NFL level with the idea of possibly moving him back outside later in his career when he picks up some tools for the toolbox. He’ll see action immediately on short yardage/goal line sets and FG/punt blocking I would think as he learns pass protection. He’s got the run-blocking part down, boy does he.
The fourth round saw a pair of picks come off with consecutive choices. Frank Alexander, A DE from Oklahoma and then a WR from Arkansas, Joe Adams.
Alexander was an interesting pick. He was way far down the list on a lot of boards, but the Panthers saw something that made them want to nab him. In fact, they traded a 6th-rounder and their 3rd-rounder in 2013 to get him.
A routine physical exam exposed what doctors thought was a hole in his heart similar to the condition that caused former Patriots star Tedy Bruschi’s stroke when a blood clot broke off and went to his brain. The hole was repaired, however, and Bruschi played four more productive years at the same level he had prior to the condition’s discovery. This is key, because it kept him from performing at the combine.
He got not just a second opinion, but a third, fourth, AND fifth one. Turns out it was all a false alarm, and he’s healthy as a horse. One of the groups that checked him out were the Panthers’ doctors, and his Dad just had 2 bypass surgeries after a heart attack in 2010, adding to the drama of the situation.
As for on the field stuff, the kid is a beast. He had 44 tackles for a loss and 20 sacks in his career with the Sooners and the Panthers found him almost by accident. They were watching film on another Oklahoma player when coaches and GM Marty Hunley noticed “this kid kept making plays,” so they did some digging on him. What they found was a player improving with the passage of time, having 15.5 of those 44 tackles for a loss in his last 9 games. Since he comes with no character issues, the Panthers traded up to select him.
Scratch the pass-rusher off the list.
Right after Alexander, the Panthers got Joe Adams, an electric WR/return man from Arkansas. Fitting they took him here since in my own mock of the Panthers needs I had Chris Givens going to them in the 4th but was worried he wouldn’t be around. Givens indeed went at the top of the 4th round to the WR-needy Rams.
Adams, however, has his own unique skill set. He reminds me of Dexter McCluster of the Chiefs physically. He’s 5-11 179 so he’s slightly built for an NFL player but should fit in as a slot reciever. He was named the inaugural winner of the Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers National College Football Return Specialist Award last season, which probably kicked him up a round or two from where he would have gone otherwise.
Not a polished receiver, he has work to do before I think he becomes a consistent threat, and he runs “only” a 4.55-40, but it’s funny…often some of the most dangerous return men do not have ultra-high top speed but they’re harder to actually tackle than a greased pig. This is one of those guys. He hits that 4.55-40 speed after his first step and has incredible agility and body control which allows him to be a very elusive guy with the ball in his hands. He’s going to drop some passes when he’s wide open, yes.
He had 4 punt returns for TDs last season alone and averaged nearly 17 yards per punt return which is insane. The skinny on him is that he’s going to be a weapon in the return game for the Panthers, and a badly needed one at that, from opening day. He’ll take longer to work in as a slot receiver as his learning curve there is steeper, but he has all the physical tools and gifts to be an annoying player for opposing defenses to cover with Steve Smith and Greg Olson being in the mix…not to mention Cam’s ability to tuck and run always being around.
Next, we’ve got a CB from tiny Coastal Carolina – the same school that produced QB Tyler Thigpen. Josh Norman ran a very slow for position 4.66-40 at the Combine. His size (6’0 197) allows him to get a good jab in and has a fairly fluid hip swivel. Good athlete with good cover skills otherwise that fights for the ball and attacks. His 13 career INTs are a plus and he’s best at press man-coverage where he can use his physicality to reroute runners and has a surprisingly fast closing burst that he uses to bait QBs into throwing his way. He’s above-average defending in using his strength to shed blocks from WRs but needs to get stronger to reliably do so at the NFL level. He’ll get burned with his slow 40-time against quicker receivers, so scheming him correctly in the Carolina defense will be critical to his success or failure. He could become a solid NFL corner or be out of the league in a few years.
In the sixth round, the Panthers drafted a punter from Wisconsin. Brad Nortmon started all 4 years as a Badger and routinely hit 45-50 yard punts with good hang time to wipe away any chance at a return. He’s also showed very good touch with 19 punts downed inside the 20 his senior season. The negatives are a mechanical catch and steps that may need to be sped up a bit against NFL punt rushes and he’s shanked a few in his career under duress…but mostly early in his career.
Lastly, we’ve got D.J. Campbell, a FS prospect from Cal. At the Pro Day, he ran a 4.5-40, which is quite good for a safety. He’s quite the leaper, with a 38″ vertical and a 10’7″ broad jump. He ran a 4.11 short shuttle and a 6.9 3-cone. Anything under 7 in the 3-cone is outstanding, so he’s a very athletic player. He also did 22 reps so all of his measurables would have put him at or near the top in every category among safeties at the Combine. He had 72 tackles, 2.5 for a loss, and 2 INTs his senior season so here in the seventh round, he’s worth a flyer.