CHARLOTTE – The Panthers selected five players in the 2016 NFL Draft, but it looks like they actually came away with at least seven draft-worthy rookies thanks to college free agents Jeremy Cash and Keyarris Garrett.
"Both of those guys were draftable guys," said director of college scouting Don Gregory. "Garrett with his height, weight, speed, and his production was off the chart. Then Jeremy Cash is a two-time captain, very productive – over 300 tackles. That type of production can carry over to the NFL."
Most assumed that Cash - the ACC Defensive Player of the Year for Duke - and Garrett – the nation's leading receiver for Tulsa – would be drafted, but when they weren't, the Panthers pounced.
One thing that may have hurt Cash in the draft was the idea that he was a "tweener" – not polished enough in pass coverage to play safety like he did at Duke but not big enough to play linebacker. The Panthers have no such concerns.
"He's a linebacker. We got him to be a linebacker," Gregory said. "He's 205, has been as heavy as 215, 220. He's got a frame to get bigger. We see him as an outside linebacker. His production translates to outside linebacker for us.
"He's aggressive, a very good tackler. He's smart and has cover skills. He fits into the mold of a poor man's Shaq Thompson. Now we have two of them."
Explanations for why Garrett wasn't drafted are even harder to come by. The routes he ran in college were limited by Tulsa's offense, but route running tends to present a learning curve to just about every rookie receiver in the NFL.
"He's a tall receiver that can run, can stretch the field. Long arms, catches the ball real well. Production off the chart," Gregory said. "He fits in with Kelvin (Benjamin) and (Devin) Funchess as a bigger receiver."
So how were the Panthers fortunate enough to score two such high-profile rookie free agents? Track record plays a role, with 2014 undrafted signees Andrew Norwell and Philly Brown playing prominent roles and 2015 signees Brandon Wegher and Dean Marlowe looking at potential roles of note this season.
It also has to do with the Panthers' pre-draft approach.
"I'm not sure a lot of teams send their coaches out like we do," Gregory said. "We personally worked out both of those guys. (Wide receivers coach) Ricky (Proehl) went out and worked out Garrett, and (linebackers coach) Al (Holcomb) worked out Cash. They were able to bring their feedback into the evaluation process and how they'd fit in.
"And when coaches go out there, they're recruiting, too. They can tell the players, 'Hey, this is how you would fit,' and they get an installation period on what we do – an hour on the field and an hour in the classroom. And we don't just work them out. We take them out to lunch, sit down and get to know them as a person. They get to know the coach as a person, and we have great coaches here."
Gregory, whose staff either worked out or brought in all seven of the Panthers' undrafted rookies, offered some insight on the rest of the class as well.
TE Andrew Bonnet, North Dakota State: "He's a utility guy. He can play fullback, H-back, tight end. He's a jack of all trades. We like his skill set, and he's very cerebral."
FB Devon Johnson, Marshall: "He can play both fullback and running back. He's got the power to be a fullback and the run skills to be a big running back. Plus he catches the ball well."
TE Jake McGee, Florida: "He's a receiving tight end who fits the mold of what we do with Greg Olsen."
LB Jared Norris, Utah: "As a WILL (weakside linebacker), he's very smart, very instinctive. He fits the mold that we look for in an instinctive linebacker."
WR Jenson Stoshak, Florida Atlantic: "He's a great slot. (Offensive coordinator) Mike Shula knows their coaches down there and knows how to use him. He's got really good speed, but really he's quicker than he is fast."
View photos of the seven rookies the Panthers added following the draft.