After watching his NFC South rivals lean heavily toward defensive players at the top of the draft, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he wasn’t surprised.
Carolina became one of just five teams since 1991 to draft defensive tackles with its first two picks. But across the NFC South, teams loaded up with defensive backs and pass-rushers to keep up in a division marked by strong quarterback play.
“All four of us know that in our division it’s going to be tough because it’s an offense-oriented division. If you don’t look at our division and say, ‘You’ve got to match the quarterback play,’ then you’re kidding yourself and you’re setting yourself up for failure,” Rivera said Monday. “That’s why we drafted Cam (Newton in 2011). We had to have a guy that fit that mold.”
New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay drafted defensive players with at least two of their first three picks. The Saints took Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro at No. 15 – one spot after the Panthers picked Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
New Orleans forfeited its second-round pick because of the bounty scandal, but grabbed Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins with one of its two third-round picks.
Atlanta, which finished first in the division in 2012, selected cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford with its first two picks before adding Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman in the fourth round.
Tampa Bay traded its first-round pick to acquire corner Darrelle Revis from the Jets. The Bucs drafted another corner in the second round – Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks.
After picking N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round, Tampa Bay took defensive linemen with its next three picks.
“I thought Atlanta did a nice job trying to address a couple of needs, going after pass-rushers and corners,” Rivera said after playing in the pro-am of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. “Watching New Orleans, I think the safety’s a good pick for them. He’s a big, physical player.”
Many observers thought the Panthers would draft a defensive back. But Rivera said no corners or safeties were a great fit when Carolina was on the clock for its five picks.
“I guess the question to ask is, ‘Who should we have taken at 14? Tell me who was better.’ That’s our stance,” he said. “For what we needed and what we’re trying to build and what we’re trying to become … we chose who we felt was going to be best for us.”
Secondary help from undrafted ranks: Rivera believes the two undrafted defensive backs the Panthers signed – Louisiana-Lafayette corner Melvin White and Alabama safety Robert Lester – can compete for roster spots.
Lester, 6-1 and 220 pounds, was on two BCS-champion teams at Alabama. But he hurt his stock by running the 40 in 4.66 at the combine – the same time clocked by Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein, the Panthers’ fifth-round pick.
“I think he most certainly can come in and compete because where he played,” Rivera said. “He’s a two-time national champion and played for a pretty doggone-good coach (in Nick Saban).”
White, 6-1 and 203 pounds, is a physical corner who had 10 pass breakups and 60 tackles as a senior.
Panthers sign tight end: Carolina has signed former Oregon tight end Brandon Williams, who has not played since being diagnosed with a spinal condition before the Ducks’ 2011 season. The 6-foot-4 Williams was a junior college All-American, but caught only two passes for 48 yards at Oregon before doctors advised him to give up the sport because of a narrow spinal canal and a bulging disc in his back.
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