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Fowler: Carolina Panthers should go big in 2013 NFL draft

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

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It has been a dozen years since the Carolina Panthers used a top-50 draft pick on a defensive tackle.

They need to do it again in the 2013 NFL draft – preferably with their No. 14 pick Thursday night, but if not there then definitely with their No. 44 pick on Friday.

This is the time of year that fans always want the sleek sports cars in the NFL draft – the fast offensive playmakers of the world. But the Panthers need at least one steamroller instead – and preferably two.

They need another young Kris Jenkins, the defensive tackle they drafted in the second round of the 2001 draft. That was the last time they spent a top-50 pick on the position.

By 2003, Jenkins was the best defensive tackle in the NFL. His play was a significant reason why the Panthers went to the Super Bowl that season. He was such an unstoppable force inside that he once blocked what would have been a game-winning extra point at Tampa Bay – with his elbow.

On the offensive line, the Panthers also need help. Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil aren’t getting any younger. The O-line as presently constituted has one more year together at best.

So the 2013 draft for the Panthers must be the draft for “hog mollies,” to use general manager Dave Gettleman’s colorful description. It is not the draft to take a flyer on an Armanti Edwards type.

“Big men allow you to compete,” Gettleman likes to say.

Hog mollies don’t score touchdowns. They don’t generate headlines. They don’t have a million followers on Twitter.

But they do push the line of scrimmage a yard forward or a yard backward on every play. Those brutal subtleties make all the difference on fourth-and-goal at the 1.

My colleague and friend Tom Sorensen advocates the Panthers taking a sports car – West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin – with their first pick. I disagree. The Panthers may want the sports car, especially since their premium model has some years on him in Steve Smith. But they need the steamroller.

On defense, that player makes it easier for Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy to generate sacks by pushing the pocket back into the quarterback’s face. On offense, he makes it easier for the Panthers to get to third-and-2 instead of third-and-8.

So which steamroller do they pick? I won’t pretend to know that. Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is the player most often linked to the Panthers and that No. 14 pick, but there are a number of others that make defensive tackle one of the deepest positions in the draft. North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams is a good possibility, as is Utah’s Star Lotulelei if he drops that far. Of the top 50 players in The Observer’s Top 100, five are defensive tackles – and there’s a sixth at No. 52.

“Guys that are heavy-bodied, line-of-scrimmage changers are big for the team,” Gettleman said last week.

Gettleman doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who will make an impulse buy on draft night. He’s in his early 60s and has been in an NFL draft room for nearly three decades – too old for that stereotypical mid-life crisis that only a sports car can cure.

But we don’t really know, do we? This is the first time Gettleman has held the keys to the kingdom, and so it’s the first time we see what kind of vehicle he wants to drive when money is no real object.

The Panthers are fortunate to already have their franchise quarterback, because this NFL draft may not have one. They are well-stocked at several other key positions, too, although because of their need in the defensive secondary and their lack of a third-round pick I wouldn’t be shocked if they traded down from No. 14 Thursday night to acquire another draft choice.

This is definitely not the draft to trade up, though. It’s also not the time to try to pull off a major trade for a defensive tackle (Sean Gilbert was introduced as a Panther in a press conference 15 years ago this week, and longtime Panthers fans still cringe at the price the team paid on that one).

It’s not the time for anything fancy. It’s not the time for a reach.

It’s time to flatten somebody.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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