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"Positionless" Panthers a common thread through two days of the 2020 NFL Draft


During this year's NFL Combine, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule talked about wanting "positionless" players for Carolina's defense.

And while that could sound like a negative in some connotations, it isn't for him.

"There are certain traits you're looking for, but you're looking for positionless players because the offenses in the league are changing," Rhule said back in February, "so the guys on defense have to be able to do a lot of things."

Two months later, the first three picks of Rhule's tenure have all adhered to that philosophy, with Derrick Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos, and Jeremy Chinn all bringing versatility to play in more than one spot on Carolina's defense.

With Brown, that means playing everywhere along the defensive line — spurring his college position coach to compare him to seven-time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour.

Gross-Matos primarily played as a defensive end at Penn State, but also took snaps as an inside rusher.

And Chinn is listed as a safety but was a hybrid defensive back — sometimes lining up deep, sometimes lining up in the slot, sometimes blitzing.

So what does that mean as all three players have become Panthers? There's a vision for how each of them can be used in multiple ways within the defensive scheme.

"I think when you look at a player like the ones we took and you say, 'Hey, we can use them in multiples ways,' it excites you," Rhule said Friday night. "At the same time, none of these guys are short-term fix guys. These are guys that are only going to get better and better and better.

"It just makes it exciting as a coaching staff to know that we're going to be able to develop them and use them all over the field."

Gross-Matos recorded 19 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss at Penn State, becoming a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a senior. He said he feels comfortable playing both at end and tackle since he did it in college.

"I was asked to move all around the front four, so I have no problem going inside or outside and no issue with it preference-wise," Gross-Matos said. "So wherever they need me to be, that's where I'll be at."

Which is an offer Rhule will gladly accept.

"One of the things about him is he's a guy that can get on the edge, he can turn the corner. He's also gone inside and been a three-technique and rushed the quarterback," Rhule said. "He's a young guy. He's only at the beginning of his physical development at 266, 267 (pounds). I think he's going to continue to get big and provide us with that strong side defensive end presence to go along with Stephen Weatherly and Efe Obada."

With Chinn, the safety said he's tried to take elements from a lot of different players and integrate them into his game as a defender. He first mentioned Vikings safety Harrison Smith, before also shouting out Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ravens safety Earl Thomas, and Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu as well.

"There are a lot of guys in the league that I just try to take things after," Chinn said. "At the end of the day, I'm a very unique player and I take a lot of pride in being a unique player."

Rhule said Chinn will start off at safety, but he'll also get looks in multiple nickel packages.

"I think when you look at the NFC South and see the tight ends that we have to face, and you see the running backs that we have to face, having guys like him that can give us some matchups against those guys," Rhule said "And we have guys like Shaq Thompson already — it just gives you a lot of flexibility."

Flexibility. That's one of two themes that have emerged through two days of this Panthers' draft. The other is defense, which Rhule and general manager Marty Hurney openly admitted they'd address heading into the weekend. Carolina has done that with players who can play wherever they will be most effective depending on the opponent.

And that's what being "positionless" is all about.

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