CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers entered the 2015 NFL Draft with nine picks at their disposal.
They exited the draft with five players they believe offer more than they could have possibly gotten out of their nine original slots.
"I love all five picks. All of these guys are legitimate NFL talents, and I'm thrilled we got them all," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "I feel right now that we're absolutely better."
It was by no means a defined plan entering the draft, Gettleman said, but Carolina twice traded a trio of picks to make a significant move up in a given round.
Friday, the Panthers traded their second, third and sixth-round picks to move up 16 spots in the second round and grab Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess. Saturday, they traded their fourth, fifth and seventh-round choices to move up 22 spots in the fourth round and take Oklahoma offensive tackle Daryl Williams.
Those moves, combined with the selection of Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson with the 25th overall pick, gave the Panthers two players they tagged with first-round grades and one they assigned a high third-round grade.
That – along drafting linebacker David Mayo and running back Cameron Artis-Payne in the fifth round with two compensatory picks – is what head coach Ron Rivera views as the very definition of draft value.
"As a coach, you see that and you feel good about that, knowing that we've studied this guy, we feel good about this guy, we've got him sitting there, and we go up and do that," Rivera said. "I really appreciate Dave willing to pull the trigger the way he did."
Added Gettleman: "It's just the way it worked out. Our board was picked pretty clean, and where we were with Devin and Daryl, we really believed they weren't going to drop what amounted to 25 slots. We just didn't think it was going to happen."
Gettleman was asked if conversely Carolina considered trading down in the first round and hoping that Thompson would still be available when they got on the clock.
"You can sit there and say, 'Oh, he would have been there at 34,' but you don't know," Gettleman said. "I've watched teams trade back and pass up guys that could start for them now and help them win to accumulate picks. What, to make yourself look like a brain surgeon? Where we were sitting, we felt that one or two guys we really liked would drop to us, and one of the guys we really targeted and wanted was Shaq.
"And you have to remember that the beauty of that first-round pick is you have the fifth-year option tag. You've got to think long and hard before you give that up."
The Panthers didn't want to take any chances with Thompson or Funchess, prospects that some teams had a hard time pegging for positions but players the Panthers believe opponents will have a hard time pegging on Sundays.
"Shaq has several positions that he can play. He can play either side at outside linebacker and can play out in space like a big nickel type, and Devin gives you all three (wide receiver positions)," Rivera said. "We want to create a situation offensively where we can use different personnel groups and we can run or pass out of those personnel groups. The more we do that for (offensive coordinator) Mike Shula and the rest of the offense, the easier it's going to be for (quarterback) Cam (Newton) to make things happen. It will make things better in terms of play selection.
"Everything we've done through free agency and the draft is to improve ourselves as a football team, but not just based on players but based on what we can do schematically. It's the same with Shaq and some of the things he will allow us to do schematically on defense."
Thompson and Funchess also demonstrated on their pre-draft visits to Bank of America Stadium that they're mentally equipped to handle what the Panthers plan to throw at them and their future opponents.
"We try to find out what kind of mental athlete they are as well," Rivera said. "Why? Because guys like that get on the field sooner.
"It's not just about, 'Is he a great football player?' Is he also a smart guy? That's very important to us."
In the final assessment, the Panthers showed smarts as well, accomplishing their goals by repeatedly positioning themselves to select players that will come to Carolina as complete packages.
"We did not even remotely come close to reaching for a player," Gettleman said.