From his first draft with the Carolina Panthers, general manager Dave Gettleman has not tried to hide his affinity for big defensive tackles.
He took two in 2013 in the first two rounds.
He took another one Thursday night when the Panthers selected Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler with the 30th pick in the first round.
Butler, 6-4 and 323 pounds, is a versatile athlete with a 7-foot wingspan who can play both defensive tackle spots – nose and the 3-technique.
And yes, he’s big.
When Butler was on his visit to Charlotte, offensive line coach Ray Brown sized Butler up and later told Gettleman: “There’s a whole lot of him.”
And there are a whole lot of defensive tackles, a group that as recently as early March had thinned to two – Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the interior linemen Gettleman took 1-2 in 2013.//The Panthers now have five defensive tackles, with Butler joining Lotulelei, Short, free agent addition Paul Soliai and recently re-signed Kyle Love.
“When you can roll guys in and out like we can, and there’s no dropoff, it makes for a long day at the office for offensive linemen,” Gettleman said.
And though Butler is a little raw and only had five career sacks against mostly Conference USA opponents, the Panthers expect him to make an immediate impact as part of the interior rotation.
“This kid is really talented. We were really kind of shocked he was there. We don’t know why he fell. It was like my first draft watching Star drop,” Gettleman said. “He’s big. He’s powerful. He’s athletic. He’s got all the stuff.”
The first round broke well for the Panthers in terms of defensive linemen. Gettleman, a collector of what he calls “hog mollies,” had his choice of Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd, Oklahoma State edge-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah and two Alabama defensive tackles – A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed.
Gettleman said seven teams called about trading up to 30. But Gettleman stayed put to draft Butler, a Mississippi native who didn’t start playing football until he was a high school junior.
Butler only had three sacks and 10 tackles for loss during his final season at Louisiana Tech, but scouts were impressed by his size and his nimble footwork. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he got excited about Butler’s upside after watching the tape of Butler at the Senior Bowl.
“I got to go up there and show the scouts and coaches what I could do,” Butler said during a teleconference with Charlotte reporters.
Butler said the Lions had told him they would pick him at 16. “A lot of people say a lot of things,” Butler said.
Rivera said Butler reminds him more of Short with his penetrating ability than Lotulelei, the nose tackle who is more of a run-stuffer who keeps blockers off the Panthers linebackers.
“When you watch him on tape, the biggest thing you see in comparison to KK is the ability to slither,” Rivera said. “He’s got a little bit to learn obviously, but there’s a lot of potential, a lot of upside. Especially for a guy who’s 320 pounds to move the way that he does. He is explosive, he is powerful at the point of attack, has heavy hands, he’s got good upper body strength.”
Short had a breakthrough season in 2015, setting the Panthers record for sacks (11) by a defensive tackle on the way to his first Pro Bowl berth. Carolina wants to get a long-term deal done this spring or summer before he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
The Panthers this week picked up the fifth-year option on Lotulelei for the 2017 season. And they gave Soliai a two-year contract worth $7 million, including $3 million guaranteed.
But Gettleman said stockpiling talent at one spot is a good problem to have.
“It’s no different than drafting (linebacker) Shaq (Thompson) last year,” Gettleman said. “You can’t have too many good players at one position. I just believe it.”