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Playing it close to the vest

Posted Apr 20, 2010

General manager Marty Hurney. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)

CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers have a plan, but it's subject to change.

That's fairly typical of draft strategy, which is rendered fluid by 31 other teams, their draft plans and the potential of more trades that could further shake the Panthers' complement of selections.

But general manager Marty Hurney ackowledged it would be difficult to part with selections in order to move back into the first round, which the Panthers vacated last year in a trade for San Francisco's second-round pick in 2009 -- a selection that became defensive end Everette Brown.

"I'm always going to say, 'You keep an open mind,' and I don't think you ever say 'No' to anything. But with three picks in the first four rounds, I think you'd like as many picks as you can have," Hurney said. " We're always open-minded to anything, but I think it's going to be hard to give up draft picks."

"The part that makes it fun is to go in, be open-minded and see what happens. You can never predict what's going to happen. ... People can present something to you that you never think would come."

Or a player that the Panthers didn't expect might be sitting there in front of them -- even though it might be a position that seems secure on the roster.

"You want to fill needs, but you don't want to reach. You want to take the best player, and I think that we've had a couple of instances in recent history where we've done that and it's worked out."

Linebacker comes to mind; the Panthers selected Penn State middle linebacker Dan Connor with a third-round pick in 2008 when their first four linebackers appeared already set -- including 2007 first-rounder Jon Beason at the same spot. Twenty-four months later, two of those four linebackers -- Na'il Diggs and Landon Johnson -- have been released, and Connor stands ready with 2006 third-round selection James Anderson to compete for the weakside. Only in the future does the value of selecting the best player -- even if it not a perceived "need" -- become clear.

That being said, there are points of emphasis.

"Obviously, offensively, you look at skill players," Hurney said.

Starting, perhaps, with wide receiver -- comprised of veteran Steve Smith and a group of young wideouts that only has a combined four starts among them -- and quarterback, where Matt Moore and Hunter Cantwell are the only men under contract.

But only possessing a pair of passers doesn't mean that the Panthers feel an urgency to emerge from the draft with a quarterback, no matter what.

"I don't think we have to get anything going in," Hurney said. "Obviously, you'd like to get some players at positions, but I think it's a dangerous mindset to go into the draft thinking that you have to get something. That mindset has worked for us.

"Sometimes it's hard to stick with, but I think you make the best decisions having that mindset -- to let the board decide what you do ... But if guys are close, obviously you're going to lean to need. I think everybody would do that."

On defense, where the Panthers released starters Damione Lewis and Na'il Diggs and lost Julius Peppers to the Chicago Bears in free agency, replenishment of depth could be a priority. The depth of last season -- including Connor, Anderson, Brown and Tank Tyler -- will be asked to step forward, but as they do, other voids are created on the depth chart's second and third tiers.

"Defensively, we could probably help any position group," Hurney said. "You look at the positions where you've lost players, and obviously you point directly to them.

"But the biggest key is that we stick to the philosophy we've had in recent years, go by our board and pick the best player. With that said, when you align your board, obviously you have to be very careful because your needs are in the back of your mind." The other point of emphasis Hurney underscored was the focus on a player's on-field production, rather than his workout measurements and statistics.

"The grades that our scouts did in the fall carry a very high weight for us," Hurney said. "When you go to these offseason workouts and look at the gymnastics numbers, they're one piece of the puzzle to match up with how they played, but the bottom line is you're drafting a guy for what he is as a football player."

NOTES: Hurney said that several of the Panthers' restricted free agents had signed their contracts, but cornerback Richard Marshall was not among them. Marshall had a second-round tender placed on him prior to the start of the signing period. Hurney "is assuming" Marshall will be on the field for minicamp next weekend ... Hurney reiterated his stance on filling roster voids primarily from within rather than through free agency. "I think we have a core of good young football players that will be the nucleus of our team, and our focus is on them," Hurney said. "We have picked up some players that might not be big names but will come in and fill roles for us, but our philosophy all along has been to fill through the draft."