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Powerful transformation

The plan was devised early in the morning and activated late in the day during a tense hour of high-stakes bidding.

After weeks of preparing for the NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers decided shortly before the selections began that they were going to try something unprecedented in franchise history.

Their goal was to come away with two first-round picks instead of one, which would require trading away next year's first-rounder.

General manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox, whose job security was questioned during a disappointing 7-9 season last year, knew the risk was high.

But the potential reward was so enticing they couldn't resist.

“You have to have convictions about what you're doing,” said Hurney, “and you can't be afraid to make mistakes in this business.”

What took place in the Panthers' war room in a span of about 60 minutes that Saturday afternoon in late April became the centerpiece of a massive offseason roster transformation Hurney and Fox hope will put Carolina back in the playoffs and in contention for a Super Bowl.

Carolina entered the draft with the 13th pick in the first round and the 43rd in the second.

They planned to use the first-rounder on Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart if he was available.

There was discussion among team officials about using the second-rounder to trade into the latter portion of the first round to take an offensive tackle, but the vision for that move grew grander as the draft grew closer.

Information the Panthers gathered on the eve of the draft caused them to believe there was a good chance another player they liked enough to take at No.13, Pittsburgh offensive tackle Jeff Otah, might still be on the board with Stewart.

Let's get physical

Both players fit well with the changes the Panthers already had begun making in their offense during free agency.

Offensive linemen Mike Wahle and Justin Hartwig, and running back DeShaun Foster were released. Several hulking offensive linemen well in excess of 300 pounds, including guard Keydrick Vincent, were added.

The idea was to return the Panthers to the punishing, physical running game that personified the early years of the Fox-Hurney regime.

Hurney said the Panthers didn't give the transformation plan a moniker, but it could well have been called “Operation Smashmouth.”

The notion of getting the 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart for the backfield and the 6-6, 330-pound Otah to be one of the anchors of a revamped offensive line became a top priority.

“Really, during all the (pre-draft) meetings, we never thought there was a chance of getting both of those players,” said Hurney. “We really thought Otah would be long gone by – and possibly before – our pick.

“When we came in (on draft day) morning, and we looked at how we thought the first couple of rounds might fall, we got together and said if Stewart is there and we take him, starting at 14, let's try to call teams and see if we can offer next year's first to move up and get a guy like Otah if he's there.”

The Panthers picked Stewart and Otah was still there, so Hurney and other club officials started calling the teams picking in the 14th through 18th spots in the draft. Carolina offered next year's first-round pick and this year's second-rounder (No.43 overall) to move into one of those spots.

All five teams quickly declined.

“To get somebody to trade down from the teens to 43, that's a huge (move),” said Hurney.

Desperate measures

The Philadelphia Eagles were picking 19th and time was running out. Otah already had lasted longer than almost any mock draft predicted.

“We were surprised he was still there,” said Hurney. “Really, we knew if we didn't get him at 19, he was going to be gone.”

Hurney called Eagles team president Joe Banner and made the same offer the Panthers had given other teams.

Banner said he'd call back.

Hurney paced and Fox sat.

When Banner called back, he said the Eagles had received another similar offer.

Hurney then upped the ante, saying the Panthers also would trade a fourth-round pick.

Banner put Hurney on hold for more than five minutes.

“You look at the clock every 10 seconds and say, ‘Where are they?'” said Hurney. “It was a little anxious.”

Finally, Banner came back on the line and took the deal.

“Great!” said Hurney.

Fox and the others in the Panthers' war room knew that meant good news.

After the pick was officially made, they celebrated.

A steep price

Some draft analysts praised the deal, while others accused the Panthers of overpaying.

“You knew it was going to take a lot, and we gave away a lot,” said Hurney.

“But the feeling was it fit into what we wanted to try to accomplish. It really said what we thought of Jeff as a player. We thought he's a player who's hard to find.”

Otah is expected to start at right tackle for the Panthers when they open the season Sunday at San Diego. His arrival meant Carolina was able to move Jordan Gross from right to left tackle, and Travelle Wharton from left tackle to left guard.

Stewart, who essentially replaces Foster, is expected to split running duties with third-year veteran DeAngelo Williams.

Stewart was brought along slowly during the preseason, but broke loose on a 50-yard touchdown run in a 47-3 exhibition win against Washington.

Hurney said he's pleased with what he's seen so far, but knows the true test is only about to begin.

“If it doesn't work, it's something I'm responsible for,” he said.

“You certainly have to be right, and we have high confidence in both players.”

An entire blueprint is at stake.

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