At the end of a press conference Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, a reporter asked Carolina Panthers second-round pick Donte Jackson a loaded question about who is the fastest player on the team.
“Me,” Jackson said, smiling. “Donte Jackson.”
That might be true, but the Panthers’ incoming draft class could put together a pretty strong 4x100-meter relay team.
General manager Marty Hurney said during the predraft process he wanted to add speed at every position, then spent the weekend calling in picks to Dallas of players with football builds and sprinter’s numbers.
Well, most of them had football physiques.
And those who didn’t – namely the 5-11, 178-pound Jackson – promised to bring an attitude to Charlotte when they arrive for rookie minicamp in two weeks.
Jackson didn’t miss a game in three years at LSU, the school that produced undersized but productive defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Jackson indicated he and the “Honey Badger” are something like spirit animals.
“He believes as well there are very few guys that can run like me and him, guys who are willing to get out there and go be the size of a chihuahua but go fight with a gorilla,” Jackson said. “There are very few guys that come around like that.”
But Hurney and his staff found a few guys who can move.
Jackson, a state champion sprinter in New Orleans who ran track at LSU, tied for the fastest 40 time (4.32 seconds) among all 300-plus combine participants.
Two of the Panthers’ other draft picks – Maryland wideout D.J. Moore (first round, 24th overall) and Indiana tight end Ian Thomas (fourth, 101st) – were in the top five at their position in the 40 at the combine.
Carolina traded up in the fourth round Saturday to take Mississippi edge rusher Marquis Haynes, who set the Rebels’ sacks record held by ex-Panther and current MMA fighter Greg Hardy.
Haynes was in the top eight in the 40 in his position group in Indy, and Panthers general manager Marty Hurney described him like this: “He’s just flat-out speed off the edge.”
There was no aha! moment for Hurney after returning last summer when he decided the Panthers had a need for speed. He’s always believed in getting fast guys on the field, and wanted to get a few more of them at the skill positions.
“When you get guys who play fast, it’s something you just can’t coach,” Hurney said.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera acknowledged the draft strategy was shaped in part by what happened in the NFC South the past two seasons, when the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints won the division with lightning-quick, playmaking running backs and receivers.
“When you compare those teams that are in our division and with what they have, we most certainly have to match up with those guys across the board,” Rivera said.
The Panthers were able to add speed while checking boxes at positions of need.
After snagging Moore in the first round, they used their next two picks on defensive backs – Jackson and Tennessee safety Rashaan Gaulden.
On Saturday they filled gaps at tight end and edge rusher, while adding depth at linebacker with fifth-round pick Jermaine Carter. Carter and Moore were teammates at Maryland, where Carter was a two-year captain and a three-year tackles leader.
Thomas, who started only one year at Indiana, will need some seasoning to replace No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson, who went to Seattle in free agency. Thomas averaged 15.0 yards a catch as a senior last season, and looks to have the size and strength to handle blocking responsibilities.
“He’s going to be a work in progress,” Hurney said. “But he has all the tools.”
Haynes is a former UNC commitment who failed to qualify academically. He said Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora compared him to Julius Peppers in terms of explosiveness.
Now Haynes will play alongside the 38-year-old Peppers.
“Playing with one of my idols, that’s amazing right there,” Haynes said. “I guess it was meant for me to be in Carolina.”
The 6-foot-2 Haynes is a little light at 235 pounds.
But Rivera said he’s happy with Haynes at that weight because he doesn’t want him to lose his speed. Rivera envisions Haynes being used as a “Joker,” in which he’ll drop into coverage.
“We wanted an explosive guy with some juice,” Rivera said.
The Panthers didn’t address all their holes. They went through the draft without taking an interior offensive lineman or running back.
Rivera seems confident the left guard spot can be adequately filled in-house. But the Panthers will have to find outside help to compete with running back Cameron Artis-Payne for Jonathan Stewart’s old spot.
“Every draft is different and they all break different ways. We feel very, very happy with the way this one broke so far,” Hurney said. “But just because the draft ends we continue to look at all positions and anything we can do to help upgrade out team, we’ll do.”