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Strickly Panthers: Dissecting the draft

Almost immediately after the Panthers announced a selection in the NFL Draft, the door between the press conference room and media work room at Bank of America Stadium swung open, and a member of the public relations staff hand-delivered bios of the drafted player.

In the moments that followed each draft choice, learning everything about the player was of the utmost importance.

Now, nearly a week after the draft began, the story shifts to how each player will impact the Panthers on the field come September.

In this two-part piece, I'll take a look how the newest Panthers fit into the equation, starting with the team's first three selections.


Luke Kuechly, LB

General manager Marty Hurney is steadfast in his draft strategy of taking the best available player, regardless of position.

The Panthers had multiple defensive linemen – perceived by many observers to be a big area of need – rated high on their draft board, but Kuechly was ranked even higher.

It's hard to find anyone who questions the ability of Kuechly, who left Boston College after three seasons as the second-most prolific tackler in major college football history. It's just as hard to find anyone who doesn't question what his role will be.

The bottom line is that it's a good problem to have, and one that invariably will work itself out.

First off, Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera stressed Kuechly's versatility moments after drafting him. He primarily played middle linebacker in college but also has experience on the outside.

Jon Beason is a stalwart in the middle for the Panthers but also has experience on the outside, having played there for half of the 2010 season and as a rookie in 2007.

The move in 2010  occurred because of Thomas Davis' absence from the lineup following his second of three knee injuries, and the Panthers' resulting desire to get their three best healthy linebackers at the time (Beason, James Anderson and Dan Connor) on the field at the same time.

Again this season, that will be the goal, with Beason, Anderson, Davis and Kuechly at the top of pecking order. Beason and Davis, however, are still recuperating from injuries that cost them virtually the entire 2011 season, a year in which the Panthers used eight different starting linebackers.

In time, the Panthers will determine the best alignment at linebacker, but the harsh reality is that injuries could derail their best-laid plans. That's why having a strong Plan B that starts with quality depth is paramount.




Amini Silatolu, G

The Panthers surprised some by taking an offensive lineman in the second round, but no one should be surprised if they listened to Hurney before the draft and after the pick.

Beforehand, Hurney said offensive line is a position he considers every single year because injuries can devastate the unit more than most. Afterwards, Hurney said Silatolu took was simply too good to pass on.

Fans might not have known much about the 314-pounder from Division II Midwestern State, but scouts around the league certainly did. Pro Football Weekly ranked Silatolu as the 22nd-best prospect entering the draft, and Peter King of Sports Illustrated rated the Panthers' selection of Silatolu at No. 40 as the best offensive pick of the entire draft.

The Panthers return four starters along the offensive line. Two – Jordan Gross at left tackle and Ryan Kalil at center – are entrenched.

Former undrafted rookie Byron Bell started the majority of the 2011 season at right tackle in place of injured starter Jeff Otah. Both should be in the mix next season, along with Bruce Campbell, acquired in a trade from the Oakland Raiders.

At guard, Geoff Hangartner returns after starting every game at right guard in 2011. He is now joined by Silatolu and Mike Pollak, a free agent with starting experience previously with the Indianapolis Colts. Garry Williams, who started 11 games at right tackle in 2010 and was set to start at right guard last year before suffering an injury, also is back.

The depth of the offensive line is quite remarkable, but only five can play at once, and getting a group of five that's capable of dominating the line of scrimmage is the ultimate objective. Silatolu could well be one of those five, and perhaps sooner rather than later.




Frank Alexander, DE

Charles Johnson has developed as an elite pass rusher over the last two seasons, producing 20.5 sacks.

The rest of the team, however, combined for only twice as many. The remainder of the roster has 41.5 sacks, which computes to the Panthers averaging less than two sacks per game since the beginning of the 2010 season.

Defensive end Greg Hardy is second on the team to Johnson over that stretch, with seven sacks.

Hurney and Rivera fervently believe Alexander can help, so much so that they traded for an extra fourth-round pick to grab him. The 6-4, 271-pounder grabbed his share of quarterbacks last season, pacing the Big 12 Conference with 8.5 sacks.

Hardy and undrafted rookie Thomas Keiser tied for second behind Johnson with four sacks apiece last year. At the least, the Panthers believe Alexander can do the same. At the most, he could emerge right away as a starter, or the competition he creates could spur Hardy, Keiser or perhaps someone else to emerge.

However it happens, the goal is increase the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Thursday, we'll take a look at the Panthers' other fourth-round choice – wide receiver Joe Adams – as well as subsequent picks Josh Norman, Brad Nortman and D.J. Campbell.

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