Carolina Panthers

Pass rushing prospects available for Carolina Panthers at NFL combine

A first-team All-SEC performer last year, Mississippi State’s Preston Smith had 27 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in his career with the Bulldogs. He’s more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end, but Smith said some teams view him as a hybrid outside linebacker that can stand up on first and second downs and put his hand in the dirt on third down.
A first-team All-SEC performer last year, Mississippi State’s Preston Smith had 27 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in his career with the Bulldogs. He’s more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end, but Smith said some teams view him as a hybrid outside linebacker that can stand up on first and second downs and put his hand in the dirt on third down. GETTY

The offensive tackle and wide receiver group in this year’s draft are deep, and that’s fortunate for a team in need of both like the Panthers.

But general manager Dave Gettleman has said he can’t help himself. If there’s a top pass rusher available at No. 25 in April’s draft, he’ll take him.

With Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy likely done in Carolina, the Panthers could look for the next Hardy in this year’s draft. Two intriguing names at this week’s NFL scouting combine – UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa and Mississippi State’s Preston Smith – should still be on the board when the Panthers are on the clock.

A first-team All-SEC performer last year, Smith had 27 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in his career with the Bulldogs. He’s more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end, but Smith said some teams view him as a hybrid outside linebacker that can stand up on first and second downs and put his hand in the dirt on third down.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest attribute is his versatility. He played at left defensive end as a junior, flipped to the right side his senior season and moved inside to nose guard on third-and-long situations.

“On our defensive line you’re expected to know everybody’s role on defensive plays,” Smith said Friday. “You don’t want to not know what someone else’s role is and you do something else and go against the play. I knew every role on the defense and I asked coach to play along the line of scrimmage to create mismatches against centers or guards.”

Smith had his best game of the season against Louisiana State and top draft prospect La’el Collins. He registered two tackles for loss, a sack and stoned LSU running backs on consecutive goal line plays early in the game.

His versatility along the line is something the Panthers lacked last season without Hardy. Carolina went into training camp with several wrinkles in their defense that had Hardy standing up, with his hand in the dirt or inside on passing downs.

But when Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list before Week 3 due to an ongoing domestic violence case, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott had to scrap a lot of those plans.

At 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds with arms 34 inches long, Smith’s build is almost identical to Hardy. But Smith doesn’t have quite the same athleticism as Hardy.

To be a right defensive end in the NFL, one needs to have a burst off the edge to get around the more talented left tackles. Smith won’t run his 40-yard dash until Saturday, but he was visibly apprehensive when asked he believed he had the speed to be a right defensive end.

“I don’t know,” Smith said. “I feel like I do but I’m not the coach and I don’t know what the coach is looking for. I feel like I have that speed to be one of the best pass rushers on the team. If not I can go inside and show what I have. They can place me wherever they feel like I’m needed.”

Odighizuwa certainly looks the part of an elite defensive end at 6-foot-3 and a muscular 267 pounds. His strength helped him work past offensive linemen and get 11 1/2 tackles for a loss last season.

“They see me as both (a left and right defensive end) because of how strong I am at the point of attack,” Odighizuwa said. “They saw film of me at the Senior Bowl and what I was able to do on the (right) side. I think they see me as playing both. If they want me to play on the (left) side then I need to put on more weight but if I’m playing on the (right) side I’ll keep the same weight.”

He should test well in bench press Saturday and that will make teams with 3-4 defenses look at him as an outside linebacker. But the big question for him, like Smith, will be his speed.

Odighizuwa didn’t play in 2013 due to a hip surgery. He injured his right hip in the 2012 season but played through it before having offseason surgery. During the rehab process he required another surgery – this time on his left hip – and missed the season.

He said he has no restrictions and his medical evaluation came back clean.

Odighizuwa had a meeting with the Panthers set up for Friday night, and he lit up at the idea of replacing Hardy in Carolina.

“I love him,” Odighizuwa said. “He’s a great, phenomenal player. I watched him a lot. He’s a relentless dude.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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