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Carolina Panthers’ past 4 first-round picks have come up aces

If there’s one draft pick you can’t get wrong, it’s your first-round selection.

People can lose their jobs if they miss on one first-round pick, and laws of probability show that, eventually, you will miss.

But in the past four years, that hasn’t been the case for the Carolina Panthers. Since 2011 they’ve drafted a franchise quarterback, the reigning top defensive player in the league, a stalwart at defensive tackle and, through the preseason, a sure-handed receiver with rare size.

Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei and Kelvin Benjamin are Carolina’s four aces when it comes to recent drafts. Some teams draft players out of necessity, but the Panthers and coach Ron Rivera say they have picked the guy atop their draft board each of the past four seasons.

Since 2011, the Panthers have had the first, ninth, 14th and 28th selections in the drafts. Each time, they got their man.

“Cam was a no-brainer. Luke ended up being a no-brainer,” Rivera said. “He was a guy that you put in the pot and say, ‘If he’s available, this is our guy.’ He was our guy, and sure enough he was available.

“We said, ‘OK, these are our guys we were projecting to be there and hoping to be there.’ Well, lo and behold, these are the guys that were there.”

There have been changes in the organization between the time the Panthers picked Newton and when they took Benjamin. General manager Marty Hurney was replaced by Dave Gettleman before the 2012 draft, and there have been some philosophy changes. But overall, the mentality of taking the best available player rather than drafting for need has remained.

Borne out of that mentality are the cornerstones of the team’s offense and defense, a trustworthy defensive lineman and a receiver whose ceiling is higher than any other in the franchise’s 20-year history.

Benjamin: WR has high ceiling

When the Panthers drafted Kelvin Benjamin in May, the message was managing expectations.

The team knew the 6-foot-5, 240-pound wide receiver would be viewed by fans as the next Steve Smith, who the team unceremoniously released in the offseason. Benjamin had one year of big-game experience as a redshirt sophomore out of Florida State, and it was unreasonable to compare Benjamin to a 13-year veteran receiver.

“I’m not looking at it like taking Steve Smith’s spot,” Benjamin said minutes after being drafted. “I’m a big fan of Steve Smith. He is a great receiver in my book. I’m just coming in there to do something like he did. Come in be the best player like he was, come in and be the best player that I can be. I’m a big fan of Steve Smith.”

Said general manager Dave Gettleman: “We don’t feel it’s going to be too big for him, and like any other rookie it’s going to be a process.”

Said coach Ron Rivera: “We think he has the opportunity to ascend. He has a high ceiling, so we’ll see how he fits in and how things continue to grow as far as our offense is concerned.”

Clearly the Panthers didn’t want to heap expectations onto Benjamin, but he has looked every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver through his first preseason.

Benjamin didn’t drop a pass during team drills in training camp until the next-to-last day at Wofford College, when his quarterback and close friend Cam Newton sat out. He admitted his focus waned as camp came to a close and Newton was inside rehabbing his ankle.

He has shined in the exhibitions, including a 31-yard touchdown against the Bills that he made falling to the ground and a nice first-down pickup against New England cornerback Darrelle Revis.

The Panthers have surrounded Benjamin with veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery to help him learn to be a professional off the field while he’s the Panthers’ biggest receiving star on the field.

“I think we have a great group of wide receivers here,” Benjamin said. “Our vets are teaching me a lot about being a young receiver. I’ve been playing football for a minute now so the game hasn’t changed.”

Kuechly: First-step phenom

The Carolina Panthers had some scouting help when evaluating Luke Kuechly.

The son of coach Ron Rivera’s former Bears teammate and good friend Jim Morrissey was roommates with Kuechly at Boston College. Morrissey watched Kuechly’s every snap for three years, and the former linebacker knew Kuechly had something special.

“And Jim, being a linebacker, said he had the best first-step quickness he had ever seen,” Rivera said. “The thing I noticed, Luke can take a bad step, but his recovery step is better than anyone’s I’ve ever seen. Better than (Hall of Fame linebacker) Mike Singletary’s.”

Kuechly was a two-time All-American at Boston College and won any defensive award of merit in his junior season.

The Panthers were looking for insurance for Jon Beason. In 2011 the team made Beason the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history with a deal worth more than $50 million over five years, but he tore his Achilles that season and the team was unsure what kind of player he’d be upon his return.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said the team was looking for a player with year-to-year-to-year success as it built its defense, and the Panthers saw that with Kuechly, who set the ACC record for career tackles (532) in just three seasons.

The team tried Kuechly out at outside linebacker and tried Beason at middle linebacker, but that experiment lasted four games as Beason went on injured reserve and, eventually, was traded to the Giants.

Kuechly went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, and last season he won the coveted Defensive Player of the Year in just his second season when he led the league’s second-ranked defense.

“He’s got the ‘it’ factor, as we all know,” McDermott said. “Now we sit here and say did we know he’d be as good as he is as quickly as he is? I’d be lying if I said that was the case, at least for me. We thought we had something, but it’s a testament to Luke, it’s a testament to our personnel department and it’s a testament to the linebacker coaches that he’s had.”

Lotulelei: No stage too big

The 2013 draft marked a changing of the guard from Marty Hurney to Dave Gettleman.

Gettleman had long evaluated talent as a scout for the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos in the 1980s and ’90s to pro personnel with the New York Giants for more than a decade before coming to the Carolina Panthers. But he had never called the shots on a draft until 2013.

Gettleman saw to it that more of his assistant coaches traveled during the pre-draft process so they could spend time with potential draft picks. Defensive line coach Eric Washington went to Utah to visit Star Lotulelei.

The Panthers’ doctors found Lotulelei was fine health-wise after a heart condition scared teams at the combine. His left ventricle was operating below normal, but tests later showed the condition was likely because of a virus.

With that out of the way, Washington could evaluate Lotulelei on his talents.

“When he first came out and worked out the first time, he was not in good shape,” Rivera said. “We had a private (workout) with him, and Eric went out there and Eric said, ‘He’s still not in shape, but having said that, the kid can play and he is mature.’ 

Lotulelei’s maturity was a big plus for Carolina. He’s married with two daughters, and the team doesn’t have to worry about the family-oriented gentle giant going into off-the-field incidents.

After getting into better condition, Lotulelei became one of the top run-stopping defensive tackles in the NFL, according to analytics site Pro Football Focus. He produced 42 tackles and three sacks in his rookie season on the way to earning fourth place in the Defensive Rookie of the Year vote.

And just like the Panthers expected, the stage has never been too big for Lotulelei.

“I feel more comfortable with defensive scheme and all the plays, working on technique,” Lotulelei said. “It makes everything more comfortable.

“I know what my job is, I know what I need to get done and I know what the team expects from me. I just have to go out and execute and get the job done.”

Newton: The answer at quarterback

Early in the 2011 draft evaluation, there was some back and forth within the Carolina Panthers’ organization over whether Cam Newton should be the No. 1 overall selection.

The team was coming off a 2-14 season and it was clear Jimmy Clausen wasn’t the franchise quarterback. Newton was coming off a Heisman Trophy-winning year but had baggage after leaving Florida for stealing a laptop and being embroiled in a pay-for-play scheme at Auburn.

Pundits across the nation had Blaine Gabbert or Jake Locker, or both, ahead of Newton because, in part, they were safer bets.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera and then-general manager Marty Hurney did their homework, and instead of looking at the negatives of Newton, they looked at the positives. 

The two reviewed every completion and incompletion, touchdown and interception from Florida, Blinn Junior College and Auburn. They saw Newton make every throw, and saw he was better under center than shotgun. They were quickly convinced.

“There were so many more reasons as to why we should, and we put that to bed very, very quickly,” Rivera said. “One thing Marty said was, let’s find out why we should. And then we asked some of our scouts to look up certain things and check them out.”

Eight days before the draft, Rivera flew to Atlanta to meet Newton and his family. He had breakfast with Newton and his younger brother, Caylin. He then met Newton’s mother, Jackie, and later met Newton’s father and older brother, Cecil and Cecil Jr.

After the trip, Rivera’s notion that Newton would be their No. 1 overall pick was reinforced.

From there, Newton went on to have record-breaking success in his rookie season by passing for more than 4,000 yards and accounting for 35 touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl bid.

Through his second season he had more passing yards than any quarterback in NFL history to that point. And last season he led the team to a 12-4 record, a division title, a playoff appearance and earned his second Pro Bowl selection while quieting questions about his maturity.

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