The Panthers sent three scouts and an assistant coach to Chapel Hill in March to watch former North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples at the Tar Heels’ pro day.
On Monday, coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney made the trip from Charlotte to Chapel Hill to meet with Coples, a league source said Tuesday.
The Panthers own the ninth overall pick in this week’s draft and have a number of needs, the majority of them on defense.
The Panthers could be interested in Coples at No. 9, or possibly later in the first round if they trade the pick. Hurney said last week that he is open to trading back in the right situation.
When the Panthers had the No. 1 pick last year, Rivera traveled to Atlanta to visit quarterback Cam Newton and his family days before the draft. Rivera said he wanted one more face-to-face meeting with Newton before the Panthers decided to draft him.
But with the ninth pick, the Panthers have to be more flexible and can’t zero in on one particular player.
“We’re going to take the best player there because I think if we just keep adding good football players to this team, we can keep making progress,” Hurney said last week.
Many of the top prospects came to Charlotte in recent weeks for personal visits with the Panthers, including Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly and Coples.
Hurney and Rivera have talked about the importance of pass rushers and defensive backs in a league and division featuring elite quarterbacks.
The Panthers had 31 sacks in 2011 – the same total as 2010. Defensive end Charles Johnson had nine sacks, but no other player had more than four.
Coples, a 6-foot-6, 290-pounder from Kinston, is projected anywhere from No. 7 to Jacksonville to the middle of the first round in most recent mock drafts.
Coples became the first UNC defensive end to earn consecutive All-ACC honors since Julius Peppers in 2000-01. But Coples’ sack total dropped from 10 in 2010 to 7.5 last season when critics say he took plays off and was more concerned about staying healthy for the draft.
Coples said the drop in production stemmed from moving to the right side, where he faced opponents’ left tackle, traditionally a team’s best pass-blocker.