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Strickly Panthers: Aligning the senior stars

Posted Jan 23, 2012

MOBILE, Ala. – With the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft in hand, the Panthers' coaching staff at the Senior Bowl a year ago felt like the world was their oyster.

They're back again this week, this time possessing a pick closer to No. 10 than No. 1.

Still, it's not like they're left to desperately dig for pearls.

"There are a number of good college football players that will be playing this weekend," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said before watching the North team practice Monday afternoon at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where the annual all-star game will be played Saturday. "This is a good opportunity for us to watch them in an NFL-style practice to get a sense and a feel for who these young men are."

Last season, the Panthers used the draft's top pick on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who wasn't eligible for the Senior Bowl because he wasn't a senior.

This season, with the Panthers picking either eighth or ninth (a coin toss will break a tie with the Miami Dolphins), several seniors could be in the mix.

"I wouldn't say it's easier – I think it might be harder because the truth of the matter is that there are a number of teams picking in front of us, so we've got to react to them," Rivera said. "Last season, we had 'the pick,' so that was easier – at least I felt it was."

Newton rejuvenated the offense as a rookie, so conventional wisdom might suggest that Panthers coaches and scouts would spend the majority of their time this week eyeing defensive prospects.

That's not necessarily the case.

"I'm always going to keep my options open – I really feel like you have to do that," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "We have a lot of spots where we can use help, and when you're talking about the draft, when you're in my position, the one thing you don't want to do is reach on the draft board.

"Obviously we know our needs – we know we need defensive help. But we also have some areas on offense and special teams that we could use help, and if the best player is there, we're going to take him."

While the Panthers plan to keep their eyes wide open, many of the players at the Senior Bowl are hoping to open some eyes. The draft isn't just about the first round, and players are jockeying for position up and down the draft board.

Among those in that boat are quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver T.J. Graham, former N.C. State players who were reunited in the North huddle Monday.

Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his senior season and produced the highest passing efficiency rating in college football history last season, but many were more focused on another number Monday: His height was measured at just under 5-11.

"There are guys in the NFL right now and in the past who have done it. It has no affect on me in my opinion," Wilson said. "I played behind the fourth-biggest offensive line in the country, and I had a great season doing it. I think that I've shown I can play at a very high level."

While Wilson is working toward moving up draft boards, Graham is hoping to be drafted. The Raleigh, N.C., native is the ACC's career leader in kickoff return yardage.

"Anywhere they need me – I'll play offensive line if I have to," Graham said. "Wherever I fit best, I'll play."

You can bet that the Panthers, whether they end up drafting Wilson or Graham, know a lot about them. They'll know even more about them and countless others after this week.

"We go out during the season and see them in their atmosphere – in a college atmosphere where they're comfortable," Hurney said. "Now they're coming here with the best players in the country with all the coaches and scouts from around the league, so we get to see how they'll react and who will step up.

"You always have to go back to what you see during the season and how they played because that's what you're really looking for – how they play for their team during games. But these are all parts of the puzzle."