Twenty years ago, the Carolina Panthers brought three team jerseys to New York’s Madison Square Garden for their first-ever NFL draft.
One had the name “Carter” on the back. One said “McNair.” And the third – the one that ended up in all the pictures – read “Collins.”
That would be quarterback Kerry Collins, who was the Panthers’ first pick in the 1995 draft. The Panthers were like first-time homeowners in that draft – they needed everything. They ultimately ended up with Collins rather than Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter (a running back who was compared to Gale Sayers at the time but was an injury-fueled bust) or Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair.
Like every draft, the one in 1995 was a hodgepodge of players you remember and players you don’t. Bill Polian, the Panthers’ general manager at the time, was ultimately responsible for the Panthers’ 11 picks that year. As a personnel guru, he was so successful that his official induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame comes this summer.
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At my request, Polian read over the 11 picks he had made in that two-day span and gave himself and the rest of the team an overall grade 20 years later.
Said Polian, who still lives in the Lake Norman area and works for ESPN as an NFL analyst: “I’d give it a B-plus. Anytime you get six starters out of the draft, you are doing pretty well.”
Those six started for varying amounts of time for Carolina, and in the case of Collins and Shawn King they had off-field problems that threatened their career (and ultimately derailed King’s). They were Collins, cornerback Tyrone Poole, offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer, King, center/guard Frank Garcia and safety Chad Cota.
The other five picks really didn’t work out. The Panthers originally had received two picks in every round in a one-time-only “double draft” for the NFL’s two expansion teams, but had two late-round choices taken away for tampering with eventual coach Dom Capers while he was still under contract with Pittsburgh.
Polian also made four draft-day deals in 1995, moving back from No. 1 to take Collins at No. 5 in the most significant one.
“Our No. 1 choice was between McNair and Kerry Collins,” said Polian, who was the GM in Carolina for only three years before leaving for Indianapolis before the 1998 season. “We felt like neither guy was the kind of quarterback that would be the first pick in the draft, the Peyton Manning type, but we felt they both would have good careers.
“Ki-Jana Carter was kind of the poster boy of that draft, but we were not all that high on him. We were able to move back with Cincinnati, which wanted to go up to take Ki-Jana. We kind of had a hunch McNair wouldn’t last until No. 5, but we were happy with Kerry, obviously.”
Polian pointed out that both McNair (with Tennessee) and Collins (with the New York Giants, after he flamed out in Carolina in large part because of an alcohol problem) got their team to one Super Bowl apiece but were unable to win it.
“They both had long and very productive careers,” Polian said. “It was a tragic end for Steve (McNair was killed in 2009, the victim in a murder-suicide committed by his girlfriend). For Kerry, he had some heartache here and fortunately overcame it.”
Of the other players he drafted in 1995, Polian said the best finds were Garcia and Cota – second-day picks who both became solid starters for Carolina.
Cota made one of the most famous interceptions in Carolina history, sealing the final game of the regular season over Pittsburgh in 1996. Garcia started 84 games for Carolina and now hosts a local sports talk radio show.
1995 draft by the numbers
Carolina’s picks in the 1995 draft, and some facts about that year’s selections:
QB Kerry Collins
CB Tyrone Poole
OT Blake Brockermeyer
DE Shawn King
OL Frank Garcia
DB Mike Senters
OG Andrew Peterson
DL Steve Strahan
QB Jerry Colquitt
S Chad Cota
DB Michael Reed
Hall of famers: There have been three from this draft so far. They were defensive lineman Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay selected both in the first round, at No. 12 and No. 28) and running back Curtis Martin (picked in the third round at No. 74 overall by New England).
Ty vs. Tyrone: Polian said the Panthers’ braintrust thought hard about picking Ty Law over Tyrone Poole at No. 22. Instead, Carolina went with Poole and New England went with Law at No. 23. Law became a five-time Pro Bowler at cornerback and had 53 career interceptions (to Poole’s 18).
Biggest sleeper: Carolina and everybody else missed multiple chances to select running back Terrell Davis, who was selected in the sixth round and would run for more than 1,500 yards in three straight seasons starting in 1996 for Denver.
Random fact: I went to New York to cover the Panthers’ first draft, then finagled my way onto the same flight to Charlotte with Collins that afternoon and interviewed him in the back of the plane. A flight attendant who dabbled in real estate tried to enlist the quarterback as a client while we talked. I asked him about whether he would win a Super Bowl for Carolina. “Maybe in my third year,” Collins said. “Maybe not until my 10th. But we’ll get one here.”