Carolina Panthers

OT? DE? Panthers face big decisions in NFL draft

Cris Carter, left, and Michael Irvin, right, interview Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon during introductions at a pre-draft rally of 2015 NFL Draft prospects, and various league legends at Pioneer Court on Wednesday.
Cris Carter, left, and Michael Irvin, right, interview Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon during introductions at a pre-draft rally of 2015 NFL Draft prospects, and various league legends at Pioneer Court on Wednesday. AP

Draft someone to protect his franchise quarterback? Or find a player to go after other teams’ quarterbacks? Those could be the choice facing general manager Dave Gettleman late Thursday when the Carolina Panthers finally pick.

Critics and fans have been calling for Gettleman to find a left tackle since Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season. Those cries only grew louder last season when the Byron Bell Experiment went woefully wrong.

Gettleman addressed the position in free agency last month when he signed Michael Oher to a two-year deal. And while Oher was the inspiration for “The Blind Side” book and motion picture, he’s seen as little more than a stopgap until Gettleman finds his left tackle of the future.

That could happen Thursday.

The Panthers’ third-year GM said he counts four to five players he believes could be long-term answers at left tackle. That group likely includes Miami’s Ereck Flowers (6-6, 329), although he could be off the board when the Panthers pick 25th.

The Panthers have shown interest in Florida left tackle and former Mallard Creek High standout D.J. Humphries. While some question whether Humphries (6-5, 307) is big enough after playing at 285 at Florida, the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah thinks Humphries will be a Day 1 starter at left tackle.

Gettleman said several of the tackle prospects are better suited to play the right side in the NFL.

“But do we feel we can get a solid left tackle? There’s a chance. Last year I think five went in the first 19 picks. It’s possible that could happen again,” Gettleman said. “But again, it’s a best player available scenario for us. I got killed last year because we didn’t take a tackle at all.”

Gettleman took a tackle in free agency, and he said Oher’s arrival could change the way the Panthers view the position in this draft.

“You don’t want any position to be a revolving door,” Gettleman said. “A lot was made of now we’re looking at our third left tackle in three years. ... You don’t want that. That was one of the reasons we insisted on a two-year deal with Michael. You don’t want a revolving door anywhere.

“You’re always looking for long-term solutions. Is there a long-term guy at the left tackle spot that could be available for us? Yes, at 25 there could be. But, who else is there?”

Gettleman’s affinity for pass-rushers has been well established, during both his time in Charlotte and New York, where the Giants never seemed to meet an edge rusher they didn’t like.

In Gettleman’s first two drafts with Carolina, the Panthers have taken three defensive linemen among their four picks in the first and second rounds.

And with Greg Hardy gone to Dallas, the Panthers need a defensive end who can disrupt an opponent’s passing game.

Two such players – Missouri’s Shane Ray and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory – figure to be available late in the first round after seeing their stock fall because of character or injury concerns.

Ray was cited for marijuana possession this week and might need surgery on his foot. Gregory tested positive for pot at the combine.

Gettleman said the Panthers “made our statement” on domestic violence in deciding to part ways with Hardy, who made $13.1 million last year for one game with the Panthers.

Gettleman said the Panthers won’t take a player off their board solely for marijuana-related offenses, but they’ll have lengthy discussions to ensure there are not bigger character issues.

“It’s take no prisoners. When they come in here, they get grilled pretty hard. We’re not hitting them with feather dusters. It’s two-by-fours,” Gettleman said. “We’ve got to find out what he’s about. One thing that’s really important to us is the culture in that locker room that we’ve developed over the last two years.”

The Panthers and every other team in the post-Ray Rice era will be cautious with LSU tackle La’el Collins, a first-round prospect who will be questioned in the shooting death of a pregnant woman in Baton Rouge, La.

Collins, whom police say is not a suspect, left the draft in Chicago to return to Louisiana to meet with authorities. NFL Network reported Collins plans to take a paternity test.

Ray and Gregory probably aren’t fits for the Panthers. But a speed rusher without baggage, such as UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, could be a target.

Gettleman drafted defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round last year a month before Hardy was arrested, and he might be inclined to look for another pass rusher early in this draft, as well.

“It’s a good group. There’s guys there,” he said. “There’s a bunch of guys that probably fit 3-4 teams better, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s edge rushers there.”

Gettleman believes there are also left tackles, although not everyone in the Panthers’ draft room agrees with Gettleman’s estimate that there are four to five in this draft.

“You’ll get arguments,” he said. “But that’s one of the nice things about being king.”

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