Given his former employer’s propensity to load up on defensive ends every April, many observers figured Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman would begin collecting edge rushers when he arrived in Charlotte in 2013.
That hasn’t been the case.
During an eight-year stretch when Gettleman was the team’s pro personnel director, the New York Giants drafted four defensive ends in the first three rounds. Three of the picks turned out to be Pro Bowlers – Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
In his first four Panthers’ drafts, Gettleman had taken only one defensive end, and that didn’t turn out so well. Kony Ealy is now the property of the New England Patriots after Gettleman dealt him last month to move up eight spots into the second round and jettison the inconsistent and stubborn second-round pick.
Most experts think Gettleman will draft a running back with the No. 8 overall pick this week, selecting Leonard Fournette or Christian McCaffrey from a deep running back class to take some of the burden off quarterback Cam Newton as the Panthers look to evolve their offense.
But Gettleman says group of edge rushers is solid, and includes some players who could thrive in either a 3-4 system of the four-man front the Panthers use.
And while the Panthers brought back future Hall-of-Fame defensive end Julius Peppers in free agency and re-signed Charles Johnson, Mario Addison and Wes Horton, all but Horton will be 30 or older when the season starts.
So is this the year Gettleman goes back to his Giants roots, thumbs his nose at a running back and drafts a top-10 edge rusher?
It could happen.
You can’t have too many good players at any position.
Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman
“We drafted Shaq (Thompson) two years ago. We were loaded at linebacker. Well, we still are,” Gettleman said. “That’s the point. You can’t have too many good players at any position.”
The Panthers don’t have much in the way of young players at defensive end. They’re hoping Ryan Delaire and Larry Webster will develop into dependable pass rushers, but both remain works in progress.
So adding some fresh legs at defensive end makes a lot of sense.
Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Stanford’s Solomon Thomas are widely considered the top two edge rushers in the draft, and could be the first two players taken Thursday.
The Panthers are believed to have Thomas at or near the top of their board. If Thomas were to slip to No. 8, Gettleman could grab a polished player who led the Cardinal in tackles last season and was a team captain.
But Gettleman said there’s “not really” a big drop-off from Garrett and Thomas to the next tier of edge rushers, a group that includes Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley and Missouri’s Charles Harris.
“The groups that are strong in my mind in the draft (are) the secondary – safeties and corners. Then the defensive end group is strong. I think the running back group is strong,” Gettleman said. “There’s a lot of really interesting defensive ends.”
Based on the list of players the Panthers reportedly have worked out or had in for visits, they seem to be looking primarily at edge rushers who will be available on the second and third days of the draft.
In his recent three-round mock draft, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. predicted the Panthers would take Kansas State’s Jordan Willis early in the second round with the 40th pick.
Willis (6-4, 255) is one of many edge rushers in the draft whom experts believe would fare well as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or as a 4-3 end.
Because the Panthers ask their ends to set the edge against the run, Gettleman said the challenge is determining “which of these smaller ... 250-pound guys” can anchor down against NFL offensive tackles.
Gettleman said “there are guys out there” that can do it, he said. “It’s a really nice group.”
Besides some of the more well-known edge rushers in this year’s draft (Thomas, McKinley, Barnett), the Panthers also have met with or worked out smaller-school ends such as Ohio’s Tarell Basham and Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon, a 6-7, 289-pounder with long arms and big hands.
Basham (6-4, 269) isn’t as big as Kpassagnon. But he was the Mid-American Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 11.5 sacks, and leaves Ohio U. as the school’s career leader with 29.5 sacks.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock likes that Basham showed up against better competition, with two sacks against Tennessee.
“I think he’s a guy that has very quietly helped himself throughout the process,” Mayock said. “His tape looks good. He’s from a mid-major. He gets to the Senior Bowl. He plays well, ran well at the combine, he’s done everything right.”