Panthers make defensive history with 2020 draft class

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When general manager Marty Hurney chatted with local media earlier this month, he was asked what positions the Panthers might address in the upcoming draft.

Pre-draft press conferences are notorious for providing little to no useful information. But in this case, Hurney inadvertently revealed the entire plan.

"When you look at the defensive side of the ball, I think that's where we probably haven't added as much as we have on offense," he said that day. "So if you were to say, 'What area would you look at the most?' It would be defense rather than offense at this point."

To be clear, the Panthers didn't intend to use all of their picks on defensive players. But that's the way things worked out, and it's how Carolina became the first team in the common draft era — which began in 1967 — to spend each of its picks on defensive players.

"We really didn't come in with that plan," Hurney after it was all over. "But we basically did stick to the board and the groupings and it just happened it was all seven (on) defense. I mean, we knew coming in that we wanted to help our defense — we knew that. But we didn't come in planning that all seven picks were going to be defense. It just fell that way."

Hurney did admit to a couple of instances where the Panthers planned to take offensive players, but those linemen and tight ends went off the board before Carolina's selection. Meanwhile, head coach Matt Rhule had some fun with his offensive staff.

"I kept teasing (offensive coordinator) Joe Brady and those guys like, 'Are we even paying you guys for today? Are you guys even doing anything?'" Rhule said with a laugh. "It's a unique situation. There's been so much turnover this offseason, but I think the great thing is that you have this young cohort of defensive guys that are going to grow together in (coordinator) Phil (Snow's) system over the next couple of years."

As for Saturday's selections, the first helped fill a need at cornerback with Troy Pride Jr., who impressed the Panthers with his maturity throughout the pre-draft process.

"I had a great video conference with him one day," Rhule recalled. "My wife was actually cooking on the other side where I was doing the video conference, and afterwards she said, 'Who was that? That's a professional.' Just a really, really mature guy and he's played a lot of football."

Both Rhule and Hurney said they thoroughly vetted safety Kenny Robinson, who was expelled from West Virginia for a student code of conduct violation involving academic fraud. Robinson himself has been open about facing that discipline, writing an open letter in the Players' Tribune about it.

"We went through it all," Hurney said. "We did our research, and at the end of the day felt that he's a young man that made a mistake. But I think that you talk to the people that he's been around after that in the XFL, and people that know him and we got all positive reports."

Rhule knows defensive tackle Bravvion Roy well after coaching him at Baylor, but shared that Hurney identified Roy as a possible fit for Carolina back in January at the East-West Shrine Game.

"(Hurney) called me and said, 'Man, your kid,' — because Bravvion was playing in the East-West game — he said, 'He's killing it out here,'" Rhule said. "And Bravvion is such a big man that people don't realize how athletic he is. And he did not get invited to the Combine. So he got invited to an All-Star game but not the Combine. And had he gone to the Combine, at 330 (pounds), he would've run 4.8, jumped really high — he's just a really good athlete. And so, I think as a result of canceled pro days, he never got a chance to show what he can do. But, obviously, we've all seen it."

And with cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, Rhule said the defensive coaches had their eyes on the eventual seventh-round pick at the Combine.

"He ran a fast (40) time early. And (cornerbacks coach) Evan Cooper … he said to me, 'Coach, that kid's got size, he's got speed, he's got quickness. He's got all the skills. He's someone that we can develop. So we put him on our radar early."

Now that the Panthers have their draft picks, the work has already begun on bringing in undrafted free agents. And Rhule noted these players won't just fill out the roster, saying the club expects to have some of them make a significant impact. He pointed to the example of wide receiver Robby Anderson, who a few years ago was consulting Rhule about where he should sign as a UDFA and last month received a lucrative contract as an unrestricted free agent.

"The undrafted free-agent process, to me, is unbelievably important," Rhule said. "I don't look at it as first-round player versus seventh-round player, I look at it as players. Everyone gets here differently. It's about what you do when you get here."

While the Panthers feel good about where the roster is currently — Hurney acknowledged the hard changes made since the end of 2019 — the club isn't nearly finished making moves just because they've completed a historic draft class that's receiving a fair amount of praise nationally. 

"I always kiddingly say, 'We don't play 'til September,' but every day we're going to be looking to improve our team," Hurney said. "We're working hard on the undrafted free agent part of it, but you're constantly looking at the (waiver) wire for veterans who are out there and all avenues. Yeah, there's still work to be done. There's definitely work to be done."

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