Rookies fill needs, provide value

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Here's how the NFL draft is supposed to work.

Teams inevitably enter the draft with needs, and they address those while also keeping an eye out for an exceptional value that falls to them regardless of position.

It may sound simple, but it doesn't always work out that way.

In the case of the Panthers, however, it usually does.

Dating back to the 2006 draft, every Panthers draft pick still has been associated with the team come opening day of that season. With a near-record 10 draft picks currently in training camp, the Panthers might have a hard time keeping that streak intact (they averaged eight draft picks from 2006-09), but plenty of the 2010 selections seem to be in position to stick around.

"I feel like I fell into a beautiful spot," rookie Greg Hardy said. "I feel like I'm in a position where I can play, contribute, hopefully even start if the opportunity presents itself."

Hardy, a sixth-round selection out of Mississippi, plays defensive end. In the offseason, the Panthers parted ways with three of their four starting defensive linemen.

That has opened the door for Hardy and possibly Eric Norwood, a fourth-rounder from South Carolina who can play linebacker or defensive end. That's the kind of versatility that always benefits a rookie, regardless of the team's position need.

"It's definitely going to help me," Norwood said. "It's always good when you have guys who are versatile. I think some of the stuff I do and some of the stuff the coaches have come up with for me, I can use it to my advantage."

Third-round selection Armanti Edwards might be the ultimate example. A star quarterback at Appalachian State the last four seasons, Edwards is learning the wide receiver position and also could help in the return game. Special teams often provide a good opportunity for rookies to find their niche.

All told, the Panthers drafted three receivers: Edwards, fellow third-rounder Brandon LaFell out of Louisiana State and sixth-rounder David Gettis from Baylor. The retirement of Muhsin Muhammad leaves Steve Smith as the only proven receiver on the roster, and with Smith injured, LaFell has been working with the first team at times in camp.

"It was real surprising because when they drafted me, they said I'd have a chance, but I didn't think it was going to come this early," LaFell said. "I thought it would more be at the beginning or in the middle of the season, but the sooner, the better.

"With the guys we've got on this team, though, it's going to be real competitive."

At quarterback, following the departure of Jake Delhomme, the Panthers drafted Jimmy Clausen out of Notre Dame in the second round and Tony Pike out of Cincinnati in the sixth – both examples of players who fill a position need while also qualifying as exceptional draft value.

The Panthers' other three rookies were chosen to try to add depth to a secondary whose starters appear set: safety Jordan Pugh in the sixth round and cornerbacks R.J. Stanford and Robert McClain in the seventh and final round.

"They're not afraid to work hard and they're not afraid to do it enthusiastically," head coach John Fox said of his rookies, adding that it's too early to adequately judge the group. "Without playing any games yet, that's hard to really measure, but I like the way they go about their business."

While the rookies have turned some heads in training camp, Thursday presents their first opportunity to do so under the lights, when the Panthers open their preseason schedule at Baltimore (8 p.m., ESPN).

"This is the first test, and then we'll take it from there," Gettis said. "If you make plays, the rest of that stuff takes care of itself."

And the Panthers, as consistently as any NFL team, take care of their draft picks.

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