Sometimes connections between players from the past and present are hard to find. But there are plenty of connections between former Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker and rookie defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos.
The similarities between Rucker and Gross-Matos as draftees are particularly striking.
Rucker was the Panthers' 38th overall pick in the second round back in 1999, a defensive end listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds out of Nebraska.
Twenty years later, Gross-Matos was also selected at No. 38 overall, a defensive end listed at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds out of Penn State.
And for good measure, Gross-Matos' birthday is Feb. 26. Rucker was born on Feb. 28.
"It is kind of weird because when you've been drafted, you know what round you were in and exactly what pick," Rucker said. "So any time the team you played for takes somebody that kind of has the same makeup as you and they're drafted at the same spot, it jumps out to you."
Given that Rucker's career started in 1999 and Gross-Matos was born in 1998, the rookie doesn't have many memories of Rucker's playing days. But Gross-Matos is familiar with Rucker's career and was intrigued by the similarities when they were pointed out to him.
"I didn't know that we were drafted in the same spot — that's kind of wild," Gross-Matos said. "But I know he was a beast on the field, so those are big shoes to fill."
And Rucker, who ranks third on the Panthers' all-time sack list with 55.5 over a nine-year career, is intrigued by what he's seen from Gross-Matos.
"When I watched his highlights, I saw he gets on the edge. He uses his speed, which is always great," Rucker said. "But one thing that stood out to me is when he goes down and plays over the guard. A lot of times when you're 260, 265 (pounds), that's big guy territory. But being asked to do that and being able to do it well is good.
"He takes the inside, and he beats the guy between the center and the guard. You don't see that a lot because guys can get pushed around. But he uses the space, and he uses his speed."
While Rucker and Gross-Matos haven't spent much time together, Rucker did get to know Brown a bit during the pre-draft process. As a member of the NFL's Legends community, Rucker was at the NFL Combine in February to help mentor the league's incoming rookie class. The two even went to dinner one night as part of a small group that included Hall of Fame defensive end John Randle in Indianapolis.
"Obviously, those guys have been where I want to be," Brown said. "They've been where I am now, they've built to where they are now, and at the end of my career, that's where I hope to be. So I look up to them. It's something where I try to feed off of everything that they say and try to incorporate that into how I want to make my journey."
For his part, Rucker was impressed by Brown's curiosity and willingness to engage and listen.
"There's been times in the past you'll see a guy will be a top pick, and he's still going to be standoffish, and he's going do his thing. But Derrick was asking questions. He was engaging, he opened up, and he made himself vulnerable in those conversations," Rucker recalled. "If you're willing to ask questions and to learn and to add to your toolbox, that's gonna bode well for you."
As a fellow defensive lineman with both direct and indirect ties to Brown and Gross-Matos, Rucker is clearly looking forward to seeing how the duo develops. And, as always, he's willing to be a mentor and a resource to help them follow in the burgeoning tradition of strong Panthers' defensive linemen.
"You get good guys, and they're willing to pass that knowledge and be accessible to that next generation — to me, that's what it's about," Rucker said. "Everybody wins."
View photos of Carolina's first-round pick, Derrick Brown, out of Auburn.