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Panthers’ Alexander knows Lotulelei’s plight

By Joseph PersonBy Inside the Panthers
Joseph Person
Joseph Person covers the Carolina Panthers and the NFL for the Charlotte Observer. You can reach him by email.

A defensive lineman is prohibited from working out at the NFL combine when doctors discover a problem with his heart.

Star Lotulelei, meet Frank Alexander.

Lotulelei was considered a top-5 pick before doctors in Indianapolis found abnormalities in his echocardiogram in February. The defensive tackle from Utah was recently cleared by a university cardiologist, who does not believe Lotulelei’s heart issue at the combine – his left ventricle was not pumping at full efficiency – is a permanent condition.

Lotulelei’s draft stock dropped after the combine, although he is still expected to be picked in the top 15.

Alexander, a fourth-round pick of the Panthers last year, understands what Lotulelei is going through. Alexander, a defensive end from Oklahoma, was not allowed to participate in combine drills last year after doctors told him they saw a small hole in his heart.

The news hit home for Alexander, whose father had undergone a pair of quadruple-bypass surgeries and was forced to retire before he turned 55. But when Alexander visited his father’s cardiologist in Louisiana after the combine, the doctor found no problems with his heart.

“Having to go through that and come to find out there wasn’t nothing wrong with me, for whatever reason, it was a misread test,” Alexander said last week in a phone interview.

“Who knows? I could’ve been a top contender at the combine,” Alexander said. “But I will never know that because they took that away from me.”

Like Lotulelei, Alexander saw his draft projections drop after what proved to be a wrong diagnosis. Alexander went from a mid-round to a late-round prospect.

But the Panthers, who examined Alexander before the draft, traded a third-round pick to San Francisco in order to take Alexander with the first of their back-to-back selections in the fourth round. Alexander played in all 16 games as a rookie, including three starts. He finished with 2.5 sacks and 18 pressures, which ranked third on the team behind Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, each of whom had 23.

The best news for Alexander? He had no complications with his heart.

“I’ve never been back to the heart doctor,” he said. “I played a whole season in the NFL and there wasn’t anything wrong.”

KIPER ON PANTHERS: ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper thinks the Panthers are going on the defensive side with their first two draft picks. In his latest mock draft, Kiper predicted Carolina would take Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson at No. 14 in the first round, then grab South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger in the second round.

Kiper has Lotulelei going to Tampa Bay, which picks one spot ahead of the Panthers at No. 13. If Lotulelei is still available when the Panthers pick, I think they have to take him, assuming of course they feel good about his medical exams.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has talked about the need to replace nose tackle Ron Edwards with a big space-eater to keep blockers off middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. At 6-foot-2 and 311 pounds, Lotulelei not only will occupy blockers, but make plays on his own.

Where it could get interesting for the Panthers is if they become smitten with a wideout. Rivera has not made it a secret that he wants to find another playmaker for Cam Newton.

Kiper referenced the Panthers during a conference call last week when he was asked whether New Orleans might be interested in Tennessee wideout Cordarrelle Patterson or West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin at 15.

“I think it’s a little early for Patterson. Patterson is raw. I don’t think he can help you necessarily as much as his talent indicates as a rookie,” Kiper said. “I think Austin is spectacular. I love Tavon Austin. I think he would be a guy to consider, especially when you look that St. Louis could take him at 16. You could even see him going to a team like Carolina a little earlier.”

Three extra points on the Panthers

•  The Panthers begin their offseason workouts Monday at Bank of America Stadium. Kuechly, who resumed his studies at Boston College this semester, has returned to Charlotte for the start of the offseason program.

Newton, who also went back to school at Auburn, will be back in Charlotte in another week or so. The last day of classes at Auburn is April 26.

Given Newton’s offseason history – he trained at IMG Academy during the lockout two years ago – I don’t think anyone around the organization is wondering whether Newton will get his work in.

•  Rivera and his offensive staff had an eye on Russell Wilson before last year’s draft as a backup to Newton. The thought was that they wouldn’t have to rip up the playbook if Newton were injured because Wilson could run the same zone-read plays in sort of a mini-Cam package.

The Panthers liked Wilson as a late-round pick. But Seattle took him in the third round and Wilson was one of the great stories in the league as a rookie.

You don’t hear as much talk about the Panthers looking for a possible backup quarterback in this year’s draft. One reason: E.J. Manuel, the most athletic quarterback in the draft, will be gone well before the Panthers would consider using a pick on a quarterback.

But it also could signal that with Rob Chudzinski gone to Cleveland, the Panthers plan to run less read-option – whether it’s with Newton or backup Derek Anderson.

•  If the Panthers began the season Sunday, the starting cornerbacks would likely be Drayton Florence and Josh Norman, with Captain Munnerlyn and D.J. Moore competing at nickel. Charles Godfrey and Mike Mitchell would be the starting safeties.

Have to think Dave Gettleman still has a couple more moves to make in the secondary.

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