If you had to describe the Carolina Panthers 2012 draft in one word, it would be "solid".
Carolina drafted players who weren't necessarily workout wonders, but players who performed during games.
Coming into the draft, one of the common perceptions was that the Panthers would look to increase the talent along their defensive line first and foremost. That turned out to be not true, as the Panthers took linebacker Luke Kuechly and guard Amini Silatolu in the first two rounds -- drawing the ire of fans and talk radio hosts in the Charlotte area.
That Panthers wanted to get the best player available -- impact players who were the best value on the board.
That's what the Panthers got in Kuechly, who draft analyst Mike Mayock said was the best pass dropping linebacker he'd ever seen.
"We knew that if he was there, he would be the option there," Hurney said of the Kuechly pick. "We had run through a lot of scenarios, and this is one of the scenarios where we were going to stick and take the player. We felt very happy that he was there.
"He's a solid, smart, instinctive, explosive football player. He's a sideline-to-sideline tackler, just very reliable and dependable. He has great football intelligence. He gets to full speed very quickly and is a great communicator at linebacker. He's just a very good football player."
With Thomas Davis coming off of his third ACL surgery and Jon Beason recovering from an Achilles tear, the Panthers were woefully thin at linebacker last season. The Panthers can't afford to bank on either of their recoveries, however it's more likely that Beason will recover in time than Davis returning to form.
Despite the obvious, fans and radio hosts alike wondered how the Panthers would proceed with potentially four highly rated (and mostly overpaid) linebackers on the roster.
"We're going to look at it and just see how it all meshes," Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera said. "We're not going to jump to any conclusions. We're going to put the best football players on the field, and we're going to play them. That's just how it's going to be."
Silatolu in the Second
In the second round, the Panthers went off the grid a bit and selected G Amini Silatolu from Division II Midwestern State (which is in Texas, for those of you not in the know). Silatolu is a mauler with an attitude with great athletic prowess and power.
The knock on him, according to the scouts, is allegedly his lack of intelligence. That's easy to do from afar -- seeing as how Silatolu attended a preparatory school, then a junior college, then had a chance to play for Nevada but couldn't qualify academically. That led to Silatolu sitting out the fall of 2009 until he attended Midwestern State.
"2009 was a bad year all around. I was out of football, and I lost my grandma and my uncle," Silatolu said. "It was a crazy year, but it motivated me."
Silatolu performed on the field, however, dominating his competition.
"I just wanted to start playing," he said. "I had a great spring over there (at Midwestern State), and I just balled out my next two years. I started thinking about the pros after my junior year, after different scouts talked to me. I realized I might be able to play at the next level, and here I am today."
"He'll drive a guy into a pile and just keep driving, and all of a sudden that pile will start to go forward. That's a nasty finisher," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of Silatolu. "He dominated the guy he lined up against. That makes you think it's going to be a fairly easy transition to our level – not easy, but fairly easy."
Rivera said Silatolu would have a chance to start at left guard, a position recently held by longtime Panther Travelle Wharton, who was let go due to salary cap reasons.
A Frank Conversation
The Panthers decided that they liked Frank Alexander enough to move their third round pick in 2013 and their sixth round pick this year to acquire the 103rd pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to take the Sooners defensive end.
"Frank Alexander was the one guy where if we could get in the fourth, we were going to make a trade," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "When you watch him on tape, he just makes plays. He's a hard worker that fits into the same mold as the guys we've already taken."
"He's a guy who can come in and be a part of the rotation," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He will play both sides of the defense for you. He can play in critical pass-rushing situations, and he can also play on first and second down. He's got the kind of ability that lends to making plays."
Despite some medical concerns that may have scared other teams away, the Panthers took the time to have Alexander checked and found out that there was nothing to be concerned about.
Alexander was the co-Big 12 Defensive player of the year last season, amassing 8.5 sacks last season alone. That'll help bolster a Panthers defensive line that had a hard time putting pressure on the quarterback last season.
"I'm just a hard-working, competitive player," Alexander said. "I'm physical, and I play the game smart. I try not to get into any dumb situations that jeopardize my team in any way. I try to go out there and play to the best of my ability and carry out the game plan.
"I have a good motor, and I play hard. I feel like I can bring a lot to the Panthers."
A Healthy Return
With the very next pick, the Panthers selcted WR Joe Adams from Arkansas. Adams, who was highly ranked by many draft "experts", fell to the fourth round despite having a second round grade by many.
Adams, an explosive punt returner and wide receiver, arrived at Arkansas as a running back and made his mark as a punt returner, returning five kicks for touchdowns during his last 20 games.
After experimenting with Armanti Edwards as the Punt Returner the last couple of seasons, the Panthers felt that it was time to get the real deal.
"When you put the tape on, you see his explosiveness, his vision, the way he runs with the ball and the way he creates," Coach Rivera said of Adams. "There are a lot of positives he brings to the table with his return ability, and then as a slot receiver he's a guy who understands the routes that need to be run and where he needs to sit down in holes, things like that.
"We really do look forward to having a young man like that on the team."
Adams has a good shot at getting playing time as a receiver, too, as the Panthers seem to be standing pat with Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Kealoha Pilares and David Gettis.
Around the Corner
In the fifth round, the Panthers selected CB Josh Norman, a big, physical corner from Coastal Carolina who drew up in South Carolina.
Norman has a chance to come in and compete at a position in flux, where there is no established starter alongside veteran Chris Gamble.
The Panthers hope that last year's fourth round pick Brandon Hogan can be that player, pushing Captain Munnerlyn to the slot. Norman has a chance to get a few plays a game and playing in some passing situations this fall. That Panthers like his size, playmaking ability and speed and think he could challenge for the starting spot if Hogan has a poor camp.
A Punt is Not a Bad Play
The Panthers entered the draft without a punter on the roster. They selected Brad Nortman out of Wisconsin with their sixth round pick. Nortman has a strong leg but a bit of a slow delivery. That surely will be worked on throughout the summer and into camp. With the Panthers' new offense, the need for a boomer isn't as big as the need for a guy who can "coffin" kick inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Looking out for Safety
With their last pick, the Panthers took Safety D.J. Campbell out of Cal. Campbell was a special teams ace during his career at Cal, and should be able to fit in well as a specialist with the Panthers. He's got tools to compete at free safety as well, but he has to understand that his greatest contribution will be on special teams.
Overall Theme: Improve team speed, special teams
The Panthers got considerably faster, tougher and skilled in all three phases of the game. This year's picks figure to be contributors right away in one of three phases, with specific attention placed on Special Teams with Adams, Nortman and Campbell.
The Panthers chose to take impact players rather than waste picks at perceived need positions by outsiders, something that surely will pay off immediately and in the long run as well.