By Joseph Person
The Panthers nearly drafted a safety last year, zeroing in on Mark Barron before Tampa Bay took him two spots before Carolina picked.
Former general manager Marty Hurney did OK with linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading the league in tackles.
But after the Haruki Nakamura experiment bombed, the Panthers could be in the market for a safety again.
It’s not the only position of need in the Panthers’ secondary. No. 1 cornerback Chris Gamble was released in March in a cost-cutting move, and retired a few days later.
Dave Gettleman, who succeeded Hurney as general manager in January, acknowledged last week that drafting a defensive back is “certainly a consideration.”
Picking in the middle of the first round, Gettleman and the team’s scouts have to decide whether there is a corner or safety worth taking at No. 14 ahead of a defensive tackle, another glaring need for the Panthers.
If the Panthers are able to trade back in the first round to acquire additional picks, the pool of potential defensive backs worthy of a first-round pick expands.
Jonathan Cyprien is part of the latter group.
The Florida International standout is ranked alongside Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro, LSU’s Eric Reid and Florida’s Matt Elam as the top safeties in the draft. But unlike the three big-school safeties, Cyprien had to wait until after the season to make a name for himself.
“I believe I was getting respect, but not as much as I am now,” Cyprien said Monday in a phone interview.
Cyprien reportedly had a private workout with Cincinnati on Monday, the latest in a series of pre-draft visits and workouts for the North Miami Beach, Fla., product whose only scholarship offer besides FIU was Western Michigan.
The Panthers are among the teams that Cyprien has visited. He said he thought his trip to Charlotte went well.
“Then again,” he added, “I had the impression that every team liked me.”
Cyprien piled up 365 tackles and seven interceptions in four seasons at the Sun Belt school, including four picks in 2012. The interceptions were nice, but ball-hawking is not his only attribute.
“I’m known as a big hitter, a physical player,” he said.
He also should be commended for his candor.
His freshman year at FIU, Cyprien got a chance to play against Florida, among the in-state schools that snubbed him. Somebody named Tebow was the Gators’ quarterback that season.
“It was an experience. It was fun,” Cyprien said of a game that FIU lost 62-3. “That was one of my best games as a freshman.”
So he must have gotten some shots on Tebow.
“Actually, I didn’t get any hits on Tebow,” Cyprien said. “But I got hits on other guys.”
Cyprien played free safety for the Golden Panthers, but said he can play either safety spot. Carolina signed free agent Mike Mitchell to compete with second-year pro D.J. Campbell at strong safety.
The Panthers also re-signed cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, and added free agent corners Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore. But Gettleman did not rule out drafting a defensive back last week when he met with local reporters.
Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner is expected to be long gone when the Panthers pick Thursday night, but Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes is the type of big corner (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) that Ron Rivera likes. Rhodes is an accomplished press-coverage corner, but has had to convince teams he can effectively play several yards off receivers, a coverage the Panthers’ employ in many of their schemes.
“His play speaks for itself. He’s by far the best press corner in this draft,” said Sunny Shah, Rhodes’ agent. “You can’t teach the size and the build because there’s no corner in this year’s draft as big as him.”