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Piecing together a winning draft


CHARLOTTE – What are the Panthers' needs entering the 2018 NFL Draft?

According to general manager Marty Hurney, the Panthers' No. 1 need is … the need to get better as a football team via the draft class – regardless of how the depth chart reads at any given spot.

"There's not one or two position groups where we have to say, 'Listen, we've got to go in and get a guy to help here,'" Hurney said at his pre-draft press conference. "With free agency and what we've done, we feel like we've got some depth at all positions."

That statement will make some fans cringe. It makes them fear a scenario come Thursday night where a safety they've heard touted by a multitude of mock drafters is just sitting there at No. 24, primed for the picking. But then the Panthers, subscribing to the "best available player" philosophy, pass him by in favor of a linebacker.

Panic ensues. The draft is a bust.

That scenario is similar to Hurney's last draft back in 2012. The Panthers, picking No. 9, just had to take a defensive tackle so the masses said, even more so with Fletcher Cox and Dontari Poe still on the board. But with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis already on the roster, and with James Anderson coming off a franchise-record performance for tackles in the season, Hurney selected a linebacker anyway.

Some guy named Luke Kuechly.

That's not meant to suggest that Hurney is an all-seeing genius and everyone else is a blind imbecile. No one – including Hurney himself - could have known with certainly that his pick would blossom into, well, Luke Kuechly. And, by the way, Cox and Poe (now with the Panthers) haven't been too shabby themselves.

But the Kuechly pick does speak to the validity of Hurney's stated goal.

"The first three rounds, we would like to get four players to come in and compete for a role and have some impact," Hurney said. "Then you want guys (drafted later) to come in and be special teams contributors and grow.

"As long as you do that and you draft good players, then everything takes care of itself."

Listen, Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera aren't blind to the fact that yes, there are areas of the roster that are in more need of assistance than others. They're not going to show all of their cards at a pre-draft press conference.

Rivera said the offense has enough weapons to compete while also acknowledging "a question mark at left guard." When he was asked about what makes a prospect the "best available player" when the rubber hits the road and Carolina is on the clock, Rivera talked about the player fitting both what the Panthers need and fitting with how the Panthers do things between the white lines. He also shared part of the process the Panthers use in the months leading up to the draft.

"When we finish every season, we discuss what happened and what we feel like our holes are and what we need to do to improve," Rivera said. "Then from there we start talking about individual players. We have some players in mind that we've talked about over and over."

Of course the Panthers have position groups they hope to improve via the draft, but this should be just as obvious: Regardless of position, the Panthers want every draft pick to improve the roster.

"At every position, if we feel like a guy has an opportunity to come in and make an impact, that's going to be open to discussion," Hurney said.

Defensive back has been a hot-button position for the Panthers leading up to this draft. The pass defense suffered through a suspect 2017 season, and the team parted ways with two starters – safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Daryl Worley – this offseason. In the second wave of free agency, after a failed physical thwarted a plan to sign top-flight cornerback Bashaud Breeland, the Panthers added corner Ross Cockrell and safety Da'Norris Searcy.

Those names don't move the needle like Breeland or a first-round draft pick, but they move the roster in a direction that makes the Panthers' preferred draft approach possible.

"The biggest thing is that we all know what our goal is. It's not to get in the playoffs; it's to win (it all)," Rivera said. "We all start with that, and then we share in philosophies about the type of offense we want to be and how aggressive we want to be on the defensive side and what we're looking for on special teams. When you start with that, it makes it easy when talking about players."

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