After sticking to a best-player-available model early, the Panthers filled some needs on the third day of the draft with players best described as solid.
Adding linebacker Luke Kuechly lends an immediate stability to a side of the ball that was a mess last year. He's a mature tackler and cover man, who will help mask some deficiencies up front. If he's a high-floor player, guard Amini Silatolu is high-ceiling. He's on the raw side coming from Division II Midwestern State, but his explosiveness caught their eye on tape.
Beyond those two, the Panthers checked off a number of boxes, adding competition to spots that sorely needed it. They've done a solid job drafting in recent years by not getting married to need, and picks such as Kuechly are reminiscent of earlier best player available choices such as center Ryan Kalil. Being willing to go that route has provided them value in the past.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly: Impressed coaches with his movement and intelligence, and looks like the kind of player you can build a defense around. One of the NCAA's most productive players on a bad college defense, he has a gravity the Panthers need. Along with Jon Beason, gives them a potentially dominant pair of linebackers.
Cornerback Josh Norman: With 13 career interceptions (along with four forced fumbles and four blocked kicks), he has shown a knack for the ball. That's something the Panthers needed, because opponents threw with impunity at the guy opposite Chris Gamble last year.
A closer look at the Panthers' picks:
Round 1/9 -- Luke Kuechly, LB, 6-3, 242, Boston College
A smart and steady linebacker who could play any of the three spots the Panthers use. Likely plays the middle in the long run, though he's fast enough to play the weak side without sacrificing anything.
Round 2/40 -- Amini Silatolu, OG, 6-4, 311, Midwestern State
A powerful blocker who will have to overcome level-of-competition concerns. With his strength and quickness, will have a chance to compete for the starting left guard job.
Round 4/103 -- Frank Alexander, DE, 6-4, 270, Oklahoma
Has shown good pass-rush ability (15.5 sacks last two years), and is known as a hard worker and solid character guy, with long arms and all the physical traits you're looking for. Has a chance to contribute in a thin group.
Round 4/104 -- Joe Adams, WR, 5-11, 179, Arkansas
Has home-run potential, and will get the first chance as a punt returner. Averaged 16.9 yards per return last year, with four touchdowns. If he can learn ball security (11 career fumbles) has a chance to be an impact player.
Round 5/143 -- Josh Norman, CB, 6-0, 197, Coastal Carolina
Good size and a solid frame, with good athleticism but not exceptional downfield speed. Good ball skills, and has shown the ability to create turnovers.
Round 6/207 -- Brad Nortman, P, 6-2, 213, Wisconsin
He's got an excellent chance to make the roster -- since he's the only punter they have at the moment. Veteran Jason Baker was a cap casualty, so the door's open.
Round 7/216 -- D.J. Campbell, FS, 6-0, 201, California
A four-year special-teamer but one-year starter at Cal, he's going to have to make his way running down kicks to make the roster.
--The Carolina Panthers were thinking about trading down.
At least until Luke Kuechly was on the board.
The Panthers took the Boston College linebacker with the ninth overall pick, bypassing more glaring needs at other positions.
"He was a guy that we knew, if he was there, he was the option," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "He's a smart, instinctive, explosive football player. He's a sideline-to-sideline tackler. He just has great football intelligence."
The Panthers think the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Kuechly can play all three linebacker spots, and there may be a need at two of them.
With weakside linebacker Thomas Davis coming off his third torn ACL, and middle linebacker Jon Beason recovering from a torn Achilles, the Panthers are hopeful but not certain about their health.
Now, after drafting the NCAA's leading tackler the last two years -- who set a record with double-digit tackles in 33 straight games -- the Panthers have cover if not more.
"He's one of those guys who makes the guys around him better," head coach Ron Rivera said.
Davis could be the first odd man out, though the Panthers could take advantage of his speed (if well) as a situational player. He took a huge pay cut to stay this offseason, and his medical file makes his situation tenuous.
Beason and strongside linebacker James Anderson also signed big extensions during the 2011 quick-strike offseason.
The most likely scenario might be Beason sliding to the weakside, with Kuechly playing the middle. Unless Davis proves to be trustworthy, they'd be the two in sub packages, as Anderson is not great in coverage.
Beason has gone along with but quietly resisted moves outside in the past. He sees himself as a true middle linebacker, and before the Achilles tear, his speed made him excellent in coverage.
The draft slot is Kuechly's second honor in Charlotte, as he won the Bronko Nagurski Award in December.
The Panthers will now hope to fill some pass-rush and cornerback needs in the second day of the draft. They have the 40th overall pick in the second round, but lack a third-rounder after last year's trade for tight end Greg Olsen. That's why they were thinking about trading back, but Hurney said once it became clear they'd have a chance at Kuechly, they didn't think about it again.
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