With draft approaching, Panthers looking at everyone

Darin GanttMarch 29, 2008 

CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers are clearly tipping their hand as to their draft intentions, with the way they're so openly talking to so many people.

Obviously, they plan on acquiring about a dozen first-rounders, since they've shown such interest in so many of the top players.

That's why they went to Illinois for a private workout for running back Rashard Mendenhall last week. And to Arkansas to see backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. It's not that they've suddenly got runners on their mind with the 13th pick, it's just that's what was on the schedule. The other week, all the offensive linemen worked out in sequence, leading to the week of checking out tackles Gosder Cherilus, Chris Williams and Jeff Otah if he hadn't been hurt. Miami safety Kenny Phillips has gone on the radio talking about how the Panthers have been all over him. And they've conducted private workouts with players from Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco to Appalachian State wide receiver Dexter Jackson and many more.

Still, they've only got one first-rounder, and eight picks overall.

One of the rites of spring is the campaigns waged by teams trying to disguise their true intentions. But the Panthers aren't spreading misinformation, they're merely gathering as much information as they can.

More than any year, the Panthers have blanketed the country in hopes of nailing down the draft. The scouts and assistant coaches have been going places as normal, but general manager Marty Hurney's been the one on the move, joining the scouting parties at many of the on-campus pro days. He's not just there to watch, as they often arrange meetings with the prospects, giving them a chance to interview players without the dog-and-pony show of bringing them to Charlotte.

Hurney has a personal distaste for such visits, partly because he doesn't like his business on the street, and thinks it's easier for word to get out that way. Of course, now that every college reporter has a live blog from pro days, and the draft has become a round-the-clock obsession for so many, the news is getting out anyway.

That's why you can scan the Internet and learn the Panthers "have shown interest" in everyone from the top players to the unwanteds and unknowns such as South Carolina quarterback Blake Mitchell, South Dakota State tight end Chris Wagner or McNeese State defensive end Bryan Smith.

You could change the names daily, and be right. They're looking at everyone with a harder eye, because they can't afford mistakes anymore.

• NO MORE 'TWO-TON': The easy punch lines to last week's acquisition of guard Toniu Fonoti were the fat jokes. After all, the last time anyone saw him, the former San Diego guard was reportedly 390 pounds.

But hold your laughter, because he's hardly the same guy.

According to multiple sources around the team who've seen him, he's closer to 330 now, in what one teammate referred to as "great shape."

If he can maintain that, he gives them an interesting component to a line that's undergoing significant change. The Panthers have made a clearly stated goal of getting bigger and (more importantly) more physical up front. If Fonoti's back to the shape he was in when he joined the league, he'd have a shot at a starting job, though they like free agent pickup Keydrick Vincent at right guard.

That Fonoti's still young enough to withstand the weight loss also contributes to the upside of the deal.

When the Chargers chose him in the second round of the 2002, he was the youngest player ever drafted, seven months short of his 21st birthday. He's only 26 now, a time when most players are considered to be hitting their peak.

• TAKING MATTERS INTO HIS OWN HANDS: Defensive end Stanley McClover would have been the only Panthers player subject to the hair rule the owners will consider next week. There's a proposal that would make players with long hair tuck it away, to keep it from covering the name on the back of the jersey or being used to pull them down.

Of course, it would have only applied to McClover the last two seasons, since he recently got rid of the long dreadlocks he's been growing since his senior year in high school. No word on whether he'll still be referred to as "The Predator" without the signature haircut.

• EXTRA POINTS: In case you were wondering, the potential for re-seeding the playoffs (which will be discussed at next week's owners meetings as well) would have never affected the Panthers.

In 2005, they had the same 11-5 record as the New York Giants when they visited the NFC East champs in the Wild Card round. But since they didn't face each other in the regular season and had the same conference record (8-4), it would have gone to strength of victory for a tiebreaker, and the Giants' wins were better that year by a slim margin. The Giants' wins were over teams with a combined 76-100 record, while the Panthers' were against teams that finished 72-104. ...

Wide receiver Steve Smith wrote a check last week, dropping $250,000 on the University of Utah to endow a scholarship. He spent two years there after leaving Santa Monica College and his native California.

"I hope whoever gets this scholarship will do the same thing, repeat the cycle and help somebody else out," Smith told the Salt Lake Tribune.

daringantt@carolina.rr.com

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