As Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera stepped up on a riser Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, the ties they wore the first two nights of the draft were gone and the collars on their button-down blue shirts were open.
There was still another round to go. But without a seventh-round pick, the Panthers’ draft – Gettleman’s first with Carolina – was done.
The Panthers had only five picks, having traded their third- and seventh-rounders last year to draft defensive end Frank Alexander and acquire receiver Louis Murphy.
But for such a small class, the operative word was big.
Gettleman began Saturday by drafting another wide body in the fourth round – Valdosta (Ga.) State guard Edmund Kugbila, who weighed 400 pounds as a freshman at the Division II school before slimming down to the 320 range as a senior.
The Panthers drafted nearly a half-ton worth of linemen with their first three picks: defensive tackles Star Lotulelei (311 pounds) and Kawann Short (308) and the 6-4, 317-pound Kugbila.
“These three kids are naturally large human beings,” Gettleman said. “They’re all broad-shouldered, big-back, big-boned kids.”
The Panthers went with the best players on their board in the fifth and sixth rounds, taking Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein and Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, respectively. Klein can play all three linebacker spots and should contribute in all four special teams phases.
Barner joins an already-crowded backfield featuring DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. But the Panthers thought Barner’s speed and big-play potential were too valuable to pass up.
“Kenjon Barner gives us a little scatback. He can flat fly,” Gettleman said. “The ball’s in his hands, the fun begins.”
There were calls by some observers for the Panthers to grab West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin, another diminutive play-maker, with the 14th pick in the first round. St. Louis traded up to take Austin at 8, although Rivera said the plan all along was to fortify the defensive line.
The Panthers believe they accomplished that with the additions of Lotulelei and Short.
“I’m very pleased with what we did with the defensive front. It’s big,” Rivera said. “They’re guys that are going to be very stout at the point of attack and going to let our linebackers run. They’re going to help with the pass rush because the quarterback’s not going to be able to step (up).”
After the Panthers released cornerback Chris Gamble and chose not to re-sign safety Sherrod Martin, many outside the organization thought Carolina needed to draft at least one defensive back. But with the moves the Panthers made in free agency in the secondary and the drafting of the two defensive tackles, Rivera said he’s comfortable heading to training camp with the defensive backfield as currently constructed.
He said Lotulelei and Short both have first-step quickness that will help collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks into the rush of defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 23.5 sacks in 2012.
Short, who had 19.5 career sacks and blocked eight kicks at Purdue, met Lotulelei at the combine in February. He’s confident the two can help the Panthers’ defense.
“We’re going to create havoc. We’re going to do what we do best,” Short said Saturday at the stadium. “Just play together and try to help out the ends around us, and just the whole defensive line in general.”
“(Star) is a powerful guy, and I’m more of a pass-rusher and a run-stopper,” added Short. “We’ve got different types of games, but we both will do a lot of great things on the field together.”
In drafting the Ghana-born Kugbila, the Panthers took a Division II guard for the second year in a row. Left guard Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick from Midwestern State in 2012, started the first 15 games as a rookie before injuring his wrist.
Kugbila, who won a national title as a senior at Valdosta, played the right side in college and is expected to compete with incumbent Geoff Hangartner for a starting spot.
“Kugbila is an exciting young player who’s raw. But he’s got tremendous upside. He’s got great skill and he’s a big, heavy body,” Rivera said. “Guys that are big, heavy bodies that move and have great athleticism are rare and hard to find. We’re very fortunate to have a guy like that.”
Not everyone was fond of the pick. Kugbila’s D grade was the lowest of any fourth-round pick in cbssports.com’s rankings.
But Gettleman, the New York Giants’ pro personnel director for 13 years, was pleased with his first draft as a GM after 25 years in the league.
“We felt like we didn’t reach for anybody. We felt like we got great value for every pick and feel real good about it,” Gettleman said. “Of course, nobody’s ever sat up in one of these (post-draft press conferences) and said they didn’t feel good about it. But no, I do. I really do.”