NFL Draft Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN, NFL Network

Top tackles in NFL draft not likely to fall to Panthers

jperson@charlotteobserver.comApril 19, 2013 

Lane Johnson’s first pre-draft visit was with the Carolina Panthers.

It’s unlikely Johnson will be taking any post-draft trips to Charlotte.

It’s not that the Panthers don’t like the offensive tackle from Oklahoma. But the former high school quarterback doesn’t figure to be available when the Panthers pick 14th during Thursday’s first round.

The Panthers said as much to Johnson during his visit to Charlotte, which included dinner with offensive line coach John Matsko and an Xs-and-Os session at the dry erase board with offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

“They kind of mentioned I may be picked earlier. But you never know,” Johnson said during a recent phone interview. “It’s going to be exciting.”

Johnson’s athleticism and high ceiling excite a lot of NFL teams.

Johnson, who arrived at Oklahoma as a tight end, is considered the third-best prospect in a tackle group that is one of the gems of the draft. Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel could be the No. 1 pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is also highly regarded.

But Johnson, a relative newcomer to the position, could have the most upside. Johnson’s combine numbers – a time of 4.72 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a 34-inch vertical leap and 118-inch broad jump – looked more like those of a skill-position player, not a 6-6, 303-pound lineman.

“He’s right there with Joeckel and Fisher,” ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper said. “It’s really a three-way battle to see who is going to be the first tackle taken.”

Johnson was an honorable mention all-state quarterback in Texas and played the position for a season at Kilgore Junior College before moving to tight end. Oklahoma made Johnson a tackle before his junior year, a move he did not initially support.

“I wanted to play tight end. Going to tackle, I was kind of hesitant at first and then after a few weeks I was acceptable to it and gave it a shot,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a glory position, but it’s very important. And I’m very thankful. It gave me a chance to play at the next level.”

Johnson started 23 games at tackle for the Sooners, including 11 last season on the left side. He was still considered a raw prospect when he showed up for Senior Bowl practices in January.

But a strong showing in Mobile, coupled with his combine performance, sent Johnson soaring up draft boards.

While Kiper said Johnson still needs to improve his technique and lower-body strength, he should be a top-10 pick on Thursday.

“I think certainly his Senior Bowl week really helped him,” Kiper said. “He can play left tackle or right tackle. Lane Johnson is solidly one of the top 11 players in the draft. I think he goes in the top seven right now.”

That would make Johnson unavailable to the Panthers, who might be looking for a successor to veteran left tackle Jordan Gross. Whatever team drafts Johnson will have a good candidate for a trick play or two.

Johnson was asked whether Shula asked him to draw up a tackle-eligible play at the board.

“No, they never did any of that,” he said, laughing. “But I’m sure they’ll think of something if I wind up there.”

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