As much as he likes big guys, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t like the second-tier of offensive tackles enough to find Jordan Gross’ possible successor in the draft.
The Panthers went heavy on defensive backs Saturday during the final day of the draft, choosing to fortify the secondary rather than go after a tackle or to double down on another wide receiver.
Gettleman, who was wired in to the draft room via Skype after attending his son’s college graduation in Massachusetts, took North Carolina safety Tre Boston and San Jose State cornerback Bene’ Benwikere in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively.
The Panthers traded up to take Benwikere with the 148th pick, swapping their fifth-round pick with Minnesota and also giving the Vikings their seventh-round selection.
In the sixth round, Carolina took Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 1,709 yards in 2013 after skipping the 2012 season to play professional baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization.
The rationale for the defensive back picks became clearer when Gettleman revealed after the draft that safety Charles Godfrey has been moved to cornerback. The Panthers already had said Godfrey, recovering from Achilles surgery that sidelined him for the final 14 games last season, would compete at nickel corner.
But less than a week after Godfrey agreed to a $4.25 million pay cut in base salary, the Panthers said he would be a full-time corner – with no promise of a starting job. Godfrey was a corner at Iowa before the Panthers drafted him in the third round in 2008.
“We’ve guaranteed nobody anything other than the opportunity to earn the right to be the starter, and earn the right to be a Panther as we go into the 2014 season,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
The Panthers signed veteran safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud during free agency, and have second-year safety Robert Lester still on the roster. But they needed depth at the position after moving Godfrey.
The Panthers view Boston as a young Mike Mitchell, the brash, hard-hitting free safety who spent one season in Carolina before signing with Pittsburgh as a free agent in March.
Boston led the Tar Heels with 85 tackles and four interceptions as a senior. And though he gave up his share of big plays, Boston does not lack for confidence.
Asked during a conference call what type of safety he is, Boston said he can “do it all.”
“I don’t think I’m just one kind of safety,” Boston added. “I feel like I can ball hawk and I can come play in the box. When it comes to playing safety, I believe I am an all-around guy who can do it all.”
Benwikere (pronounced Ben-WICK-urr-rhee) also has ball-hawking skills. He shares San Jose State records for career pass interceptions (14), consecutive games with an interception (four) and single-game interceptions (three).
The Panthers moved up 20 spots to take Benwikere, who worked out for Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks in San Jose before the draft. Benwikere will compete with Godfrey for the nickel corner spot that opened when Captain Munnerlyn signed with the Vikings.
Benwikere, whose father is from Nigeria, said he knew the Panthers were interested in him – and the interest was mutual.
“After I had my workout with coach Rivera and coach Wilks, I immediately felt strong about that,” he said. “I looked at the roster, all the guys they had, the statistics and seeing how powerful their front seven is. I know they have a rusher (Greg Hardy) that had (15) sacks. I thought this would be a great fit and I’m excited about it.”
Gettleman said both defensive backs are smart players who scored 21 on the Wonderlic test.
“And that is important back there,” Gettleman said. “You don’t want people back there dropping coverages.”
The Panthers addressed two of their biggest needs, drafting Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round and adding a corner in the fifth round. But they will enter training camp with Byron Bell, the starter at right tackle the past three seasons, and former defensive lineman Nate Chandler competing at left tackle.
There were four tackles drafted in the first 16 picks Thursday night. But the Panthers were not impressed with the remaining prospects.
“Once you get past that top tier of tackles, there was a huge drop-off,” Gettleman said. “For us, we just felt the guys that we had on our roster that are going to be competing for those spots were just as good, if not better than, what we were starting at. Plus, the value wasn’t there.”
Gettleman said he gave a lot of thought to taking a second receiver to pair with Benjamin. But much like the tackle position, he wasn’t convinced any were better than young wideouts such as Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt.
“With the wide receiver group being so deep, it seemed like every pick you were talking about a wide receiver and he’d be in on the conversation,” Gettleman said. “But again, it’s value and it’s what you’re trying to become and where you’re trying to go. Because of the younger guys that we have on our wide receiver depth chart right now, we didn’t feel the need the pull the trigger on a second wide.”