The Carolina Panthers entered the 2013 NFL Draft with some of the same nagging problems and one big change. The nagging issues for the Panthers have been at the wide receiver and defensive tackle position; two areas the team had attempted to nickel and dime into a good unit. The result is that neither unit is good enough and at best they got some depth out of the picks they have used on the two units. The big change for the Panthers was the loss of their offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, who was hired to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. There was some discussion that the Panthers head coach, Ron Rivera, might not survive after last year’s struggles and reportedly was kept, in part, because of the effectiveness of Chudzinski, especially in the development of quarterback and franchise center piece, Cam Newton. With Chudzinski in Cleveland, more pressure would be on Rivera to deliver this year and new general manager Dave Gettleman went into this draft looking to help their head coach put his best foot forward. The Panthers were patient and let the draft come to them but they were able to potentially make one big weakness into a strength which potentially makes talent they do have that much more effective.
Going into the draft, it was almost universally projected that the Panthers would take a defensive tackle if one was available; the question was whether one of the big three (Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei, Sharrif Floyd) would last for the Panthers to take one of them or if Carolina would reach for one or go in a different direction. The draft set up almost perfectly for the Panthers as Richardson was the only one picked, who went to the Jets the pick at thirteen. When the Panthers were on the clock, they were able to choose between Lotulelei and Floyd and opted to go with Lotulelei. It is still unclear how a talent like Lotulelei was able to last until the fourteenth pick in the draft, but the Panthers were thrilled to be able to select him and put him in the middle of their defensive line.
Lotulelei is a tremendous nose tackle prospect who had the size and power to clog up the middle of the offensive line to help stop the run and create opportunities for the rest of the line, most notably Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy on the edge. The other huge benefit of Lotulelei is if he plays up to his ability, he should enable the Panthers stud second year middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly to fly around and make plays. Lotulelei is a strong run defender with decent range but he can collapse the pocket and rush the passer. Perhaps as important as anything Lotulelei brings to the table is the fact he played around 92% of Utah’s defensive snaps this past year. Being able to contribute that much makes a huge difference but the Panthers would be smart to reduce the workload Lotulelei has enabling him to go full bore more often. When Lotulelei got going, he dominated stretches of games and if the Panthers keep him fresh, the more stretches he can bring that kind of impact. Lotulelei should walk into camp and be the starting nose guard as a 1-tech. This is a great pick, a great, fit, and a potential game changer for the Panthers defense for all of the benefits he brings to the table.
In the second round, the Panthers were again rewarded for their patience and let Kawann Short, the defensive tackle from Purdue to fall right into their laps. Although not as big as Lotulelei, Short played nose guard for the Boilermakers and lost weight for the draft process, presumably to test better. He played nose but showed the ability to shoot gaps and rush the passer as well. Like Lotulelei, Short showed the ability to take over stretches of the game and dominate but does not have the motor or stamina Lotulelei brings and needs to improve in this area as well as be rotated more.
With Short and Lotulelei, the Panthers have options. They can line them up as a 1 and 3-technique respectively, use two 2-techniques that gives them the ability to be more unpredictable in how they attack and makes it so either player can do any role on any given snap. First and foremost, it gives them a good setup to stop the run and gives Kuechly more free range to fly around and make plays behind them. And if they do their job and collapse the pocket, it creates more favorable matchups for their ends. If they stop the run more effectively, it puts opponents in more obvious passing situations which also create more favorable situations for their ends. Short will have to compete with Dwan Edwards and Sione Fua for playing time, but he has the talent to win that competition while the Panthers suddenly have a good defensive tackle rotation. These two picks give the Panthers the potential to go back to the days of Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker, Julius Peppers, and Brentson Buckner; a dominant defensive line that played a huge role in getting that team to the Super Bowl.
The Panthers traded their third round pick the previous year in a deal with the San Francisco 49ers to select Frank Alexander, so their next pick was in round four where they selected Edmund Kubigla, guard from Valdosta State. Kugbila is similar to the guard the Panthers took the previous year under GM Marty Hurney, Amini Silatolu, who was also selected from a small school in Midwestern State. Like Ziggy Ansah, Kugbila was born in Ghana and his family moved to the United States when he was 10 years old after winning a Visa lottery. A number of prominent SEC schools looked at Kubigla coming out of high schools but he did not have the SAT to qualify. He was an extremely effective player at Valdosta State and helped them win the national title in 2012. Kubigla brings a great combination of size, strength, and agility to develop into a starter at the next level.
Although Kubigla may start out as depth for a year to adjust to the level of competition and get down the offense, the Panthers would not be upset if he challenged journeyman Geoff Hangartner for the right guard spot. With Silatolu at left guard, it seems unlikely they have any plans of moving him, so Kubigla’s best path to starting is to take the right guard spot. The Panthers have a pretty good core of offensive lineman with the one player that is slightly older as Jordan Gross, the elder statesman at left tackle, so if they can find a long term solution at right guard, they could have a good unit for a few years.
In the fifth round, the Panthers added Iowa State inside linebacker A.J. Klein. He played middle linebacker for the Cyclones but is more likely to compete at strong side linebacker on the Panthers, though he could provide depth at both spots. His skills suggest he can play both spots as he size and strength with the ability to take on and shed blocks but plays quicker than he times because of his instincts and ability to diagnose plays. Klein is a smart, blue collar linebacker that was a captain for Iowa State and good enough to share the 2011 Big XII Defensive Player of the year with Frank Alexander of Oklahoma, now his teammate. Klein was extremely productive while in Ames, Iowa with impressive tackle numbers but with tackles for loss and interceptions on his resume as well.
Klein will be expected to contribute on special teams as well as contributing as depth, likely for both inside and strong side linebacker spots. He has the potential to start but also serves as an immediate insurance policy for Thomas Davis, the Panther’s current strong side linebacker, who has had horrific luck with injuries throughout his career. The Panthers have had an extremely talented group of linebackers the last several years but have had not been able to put them on the field all at the same time because one or more of them has been hurt. Obviously, the Panthers hope Davis stays healthy and productive all year but Klein provides depth if he does indeed get hurt again.
With their final pick of the draft, the Panthers took Kenjon Barner, running back from Oregon in the sixth round. There are a couple things at work here. First, it is a good idea to take a running back every year somewhere in the draft because the position tends to have an impact instantly and show what they can do right off the bat. They had also moved Mike Goodson in a trade with the Raiders for swing tackle Bruce Campbell. The other aspect of this move is that Barner can contribute in the slot as a receiver. Although he did not do it a ton, the Ducks had enough running backs that they could move Barner around including having him play in the slot. And with his quickness and speed, he has the potential to be excellent in this area if he can develop his technique there. He was an effective receiver out of the backfield while in Eugene.
Regardless of where he ends up, Barner gives them an explosive speed threat with short area quickness that can make an impact out of the backfield, as a receiver whether out of the backfield or in the slot, and on special teams. With the duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, the earliest impact Barner can make will be as a specialist in certain spots, whether as a returner, third down back or as a receiver if they choose to go that route.
So much was made of Tavon Austin and deservedly so, but Barner has that type of versatility and speed and comes at a fraction of the price in the sixth round, so while Barner is unlikely to be a franchise player, he is someone who can make an impact and be a nice weapon in the NFL. This has the potential to be a steal and no one would have blinked if he went in round four.
The Panthers traded their seventh round pick to the Raiders for wide receiver Louis Murphy, who has subsequently been signed by the New York Giants. The move to add Murphy was an audition to see if he could bring something to Cam Newton as a receiver but the results were mixed and both parties decided to move on from the situation.
My Thoughts: The Panthers could not address all of their needs, but I really like the moves made by Gettleman in his first draft. He attacked the lines which helps the Panthers get back to what they want to do, running the football and play good defense, taking pressure off of Newton who does not have a ton of great receiving options at this point. Rivera gets to focus on what he knows with the first two picks; playing good defense, stopping the run, and getting more opportunities for the offense. Gettleman was somewhat hamstrung by not having a third or seventh round pick, but he made the most of the picks he did.
I love the pick of Star Lotulelei because of what he can do for that team. I have no idea if it was the heart issue scare that turned out to be a temporary issue or what, but Lotulelei warranted a top five pick based on his talent and what he did for Utah. He was a game changer and impact player and was the best defensive tackle in this draft class for my money. He should instantly make Kuechly and those defensive ends better.
Following that up with another player I liked in Kawann Short made the Lotulelei pick even better for me. Short has some motor questions and stamina questions that need to improve, but in a good rotation that is able to keep fresh, Short and Lotulelei could potentially wreak havoc inside. Both guys can take collapse the pocket as well as demand double teams, but they can also rush the passer a little bit and were great fits as 4-3 nose guards. The Panthers all of a sudden have a lot of size and strength in the middle and Edwards and Fua get better by being able to rotate, whether they start the game or not. Rivera has to get these guys to deliver but it could make a huge impact on the Panthers’ success this season and in the future.
Kubigla and Klein may not see much game action this year but both are guys who could potentially contribute as starters down the road and continue with the theme of running the ball and stopping the run. The Panthers needed depth at both positions and now they have it as well as guys who can develop into more. These two picks might be frustrating from the fans point of view because they may not see much of them in their first year, but they could pay off down the road.
I really liked Kenjon Barner throughout the draft process. I thought he was little misunderstood because of the design of the Oregon offense and many painted him as a guy who bounced everything outside when he was actually supposed to bounce outside. He is certainly not a guy who moves the pile up the middle but he was willing to go there when needed. I think the Barner pick is as good as the offensive system is creative. If they grab Barner and just use him as a running back, they could be disappointed with the results. If they look at Barner as a potential player used as a back, receiver, and returner, he could be a nice weapon and a play maker. He may never get more than 10 touches in a game but he could be someone the opponent has to account for in those 10 plays. And considering what they spent to get him, it has a lot of potential to be a great pick.
It is not easy to operate in the draft with only five picks but I like the approach they took and the attitude they took in this draft. If these picks work out and they are not worried about addressing the defensive line next year, they can get Newton some more weapons and help the secondary. Next year, they have all of their picks except the seventh rounder they dealt for Colin Jones to the 49ers, so they will have an opportunity to make a bigger splash, but in his first year with limited resources, I like the way Gettleman operated in this draft.
Tags: 2013 Nfl Draft A.J. Klein Carolina Panthers Edmund Kugbila Iowa State Cyclones Football Kawann Short Kenjon Barner Oregon Ducks Football Purdue Boilermakers Football Star Lotulelei Utah Utes Football Valdosta State