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Draft preview: Panthers prepared to pounce

CHARLOTTE - In the inner sanctum of Bank of America Stadium, the process has been brewing for a year.

Among those who sit in the stadium on perfect autumn Sundays, it's been building for weeks if not months.

But when the 2016 NFL Draft at long last arrives Thursday night, after what will feel like an interminable wait for the Panthers front office and fans as 29 other teams mull their options, it may be over in mere seconds.

"We're in a position where you have to be patient in the first round," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "We'll see what happens."

What typically has happened is that Gettleman has no need to be patient once the Panthers are finally on the clock. While teams are allowed 10 minutes to submit their first-round selections, Gettleman has barely taken 10 seconds in his first three drafts.

In his first draft in 2013, the Panthers pounced to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei – forecast by some to be the top prospect in the draft – with the No. 14 pick. In 2014, sitting at No. 28, Gettleman knew immediately based on how the board developed in front of him to submit the name of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. And last year, when Arizona went on the clock one spot ahead of Carolina, Gettleman's decision to take linebacker Shaq Thompson at No. 25 was virtually made for him when the Cardinals took an alternate target in offensive tackle D.J. Humphries.

Time will tell if Gettleman takes such little time this year, but history indicates that he won't use any of his allotted time debating what position to pick. Gettleman will strictly be evaluating the players themselves.

"You can't pass up a guy at a positon just because you figure you're fine at that position," Gettleman said. "I don't subscribe to the theory that going into the draft, I've got to get one of these, one of those, two of these, one of these, three of these. We're not shopping at a supermarket. It's not the way I approach it.

"We're going to take the best player obviously with the assumption that he fits."

The importance of "fit" is undervalued at the draft. It's mostly an on-the-field concept, in the simplest terms referring to the Panthers not being interested in, for example, edge rushers better equipped for a 3-4 defense. More subtly, it might refer to a player who doesn't display the ability or at least the football-first mentality to effectively pick up the concepts the Panthers preach. And off the field, there are any number of reasons a player might not fit.

"When we set our board, everybody on our board fits us," Gettleman said. "Fits our scheme and what we want to accomplish."

That's one of the reasons – but not the only one – that Gettleman has been able to land players in the second round each year that the Panthers had a first-round grade on. It's important to remember that as much chatter as there is about the opening round, the draft is a three-day, seven-round affair.

Names like Kawann Short, Kony Ealy and Devin Funchess should quickly emphasize the importance of the second round, while Gettleman's lone third-round pick to date – Trai Turner in 2014 – was a Pro Bowler this past season. The third day and final day, which will kick off Saturday with the fourth round, has already produced in Gettleman's short tenure key defensive contributors Bene Benwikere and A.J. Klein and potential staples like Tre Boston and Daryl Williams.

Gettleman also has struck gold after the draft, with college free agents like guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Philly Brown.

"This time of year is roster-building season," Gettleman said. "We've got the draft coming up, and there are still things that happen."

Things might happen fast in the first round. Yet it's only the beginning – the beginning of what everyone involved hopes will be years of memorable moments from the rookies picked and signed over the next few days.


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