We all remember how dominant the New York Giants defensive line has been in the past decade under the leadership of Panthers new general manager Dave Gettleman. The newcomer's plan for his first go round with Carolina proved to have the same philosophy: A strong front four can single handedly anchor an entire 4-3 defense.
Make no mistake about it; Dave threw some wrenches in this draft as well. Some of these head scratchers could foreshadow what is to come for the Carolina Panthers organization. The Panthers five picks could make an instant impact, or possibly have a big role in the future. Let us take a look at what these draft picks bring to the table.
1. Star Lotulelei DT Utah
I will start off by saying this: Lotulelei comes from humble beginnings. He chose not to attend the draft and stay home with his family. When his name was called he immediately got emotional and hugged his family while simply wearing a t-shirt and shorts, not a designer suit and tie. This is by far the Panthers best pick in the draft. Star can contribute immediately and have the biggest impact in the 2013 NFL season. A couple of months before the draft most thought Lotulelei would be a top 5 pick until a heart condition presented itself at the combine and forced Star out of action. It took the Panthers a mere 30 seconds to lock in their pick. That sends a strong message that they got their guy.
One of most impressive aspects of Lotulelei's game is his durability that is unmatched by any other player in the draft. At times, he played up to 85 snaps per game at Utah. He is 311 pound beast in the middle. He will command a double team every play he is out there.
There are qualities that will not show up in the stat sheet. Pushing the pocket. He may not get 10 sacks this year, but he will consistently make it difficult for opposing QB's to get the ball off cleanly. With Lotulelei's dominance, it might even allow DE's Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy see single coverage at times. Field day.
In my humble opinion, the best part about this selection is the fact that he will unleash the linebackers to flow freely and make plays. Even with a shaky DT position last year with the exception of the occasional Dwan Edwards sack, rookie Luke Keuchly still managed to lead to NFL in tackles. With Lotulelei manning the middle, we should expect to see Jon Beason and Luke maneuvering with less blockers in their path and making a huge imprint on the game.
Finally, he is great in the pass-defense area. If he can not quite get to the QB, he puts his paws in the air and deflects passes. Do you know what that means? Batted footballs going straight up in the air for interceptions. Did I mention, we drafted him to stop the run. Period. That is what he is here to do and the coaching staff expects him to contribute mightily to that area of the defensive game.
Expect Lotulelei to develop into an excellent DT for the Panthers for years to come. He is NFL ready, and his upside is tremendous. This pick alone could land the Panthers their first playoff berth in nearly 5 years.
2. Kawaan Short DT Purdue
This was an interesting selection in the second round to say the least. I think all of Panther Nation expected them to pick a second WR to learn from Steve Smith, or possibly a CB to replace Chris Gamble. I know I was shocked when I heard Short's name called. Now that I have gotten over the back to back DT selections, I see what Gettleman is building here. He is constructing this defense from the inside and out.
Short is an excellent pass rusher. Gettleman called him the best pass rushing defensive tackle in the entire draft. He will make an excellent complement to Star Lotulelei as the combine for stopping the run and rushing the passer. I know that DL coach Eric Washington has never been happier with a draft. I am stoked to see these two combine and create havoc for opposing QB's and RB's this season.
3. Edmund Kugbila OG Valdosta State
With the selection of an offensive lineman in the fourth round (Did not have a third round pick), the Panthers are clearly prepping for LG Jordan Gross to be on his way out soon. Age is a factor here. Gross restructured his deal in Carolina a couple of months ago to ensure his stability with the franchise. It is no secret; however, that Gettleman is looking into the future.
Kugbila played at a Division 2 school and is a great raw talent. The only knock on this kid is that he lacks aggressiveness and the "nasty" factor the Panthers offensive line has historically possessed. He is as quick as a hiccup, which will be great so he can block in a turbulent Panthers offensive scheme. Look for this pick to eventually be the Jordan Gross replacement.
4. A.J. Klein ILB Iowa State
No. No. No. This pick raised many eyebrows. Fans are saying, another linebacker? Yes. Personally, I believe this is Jon Beason's replacement. I am a huge Beason fan and absolutely do not want to see him go. With that being said, he has had some injury issues throughout his career and his price tag is one of the heftiest in the entire NFL. This could also be the Thomas Davis replacement. Who really knows? Keep in mind, these big moves probably will not be made this offseason, but rather next offseason. You have to wonder if the organization is moving on, by getting a young talent that can slide right into the defense to play alongside Luke Kuechly next year.
On the contrary, I expect Klein to make an impact in special teams this season. That is all. The linebackers are plentiful in Carolina at the moment after they added LB Chase Blackburn from Gettleman's former team, the New York Giants. The LB core will be dominant playing behind the monstrous defensive line the Panthers have conjured.
5. Kenjon Barner RB Oregon
This is the big wrench I referenced earlier. When Marty Hurney went on a historic spending spree in the offseason of 2009, he re-signed multiple Panthers to colossal deals. Can you name the running back he re-signed for an outrageous amount of money? That's correct. DeAngelo Williams. Williams is a personal favorite of mine that catches a lot of heat and criticism. I believe when DeAngelo gets an adequate amount of carries, he is one of the most productive backs in the NFL. Look back at the season finale of 2012 when Stewart was out with an ankle injury. Williams racked up 210 yards rushing and 2 TD's, and Panthers single game rushing record.
The only questions Dave Getteman has legitimately dodged so far in Carolina occur when questions are posed concerning DeAngelo's future. His most recent response was, "Right now, he's on the roster." This is foreshadowing what is to come, indicated clearly by his comment and his sixth round selection of Barner.
Kenjon is Williams replacement. If a trade is not posed for Williams before the season starts, then he will remain on the roster and probably start. If a team comes calling, you have to believe the Panthers will listen. Look for Barner to sit back and learn from Williams as the both have the same playing style. Barner is a shifty, change of pace back most relatable to Deron Sproles of the Saints. He can be effective in the return game as well. I believe the Panthers will try and get him on the field by involving him in the screen game and also some pitches of some sort. This was a great pick, as he was the best talent left on the board. Will we see an all Oregon backfield (Stewart, Barner) in the Carolina Panthers future?
It is obvious that Gettleman drafted for the future, as he only addressed one true need, DT. Overall, I give this draft a B. Some of the picks have big upside if utilized properly. A few questions remain: Can these picks contribute to a Carolina Panthers playoff run? Will they make an immediate impact? Are they replacements for all-time Panther greats? Only time will tell.