MOBILE, Ala. — It normally takes two or three years to fairly evaluate how successful a draft was, but the early returns on Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman’s first draft mostly are positive.
Gettleman continued a streak of strong first-round picks for Carolina by drafting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei at 14th overall, and he followed up in the second round with fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short.
The Panthers are treating fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila like a 2014 pick after he missed all season with a knee injury, and linebacker A.J. Klein exceeded expectations as a fifth-rounder. And outside of the draft, Gettleman and the Panthers scouting and coaching staffs hit on a handful of undrafted free agents.
Gettleman set the bar high for this draft, which could see the Panthers go after an heir to Jordan Gross at left tackle, an understudy to Steve Smith at No. 1 wide receiver and/or help in the defensive backfield.
Gettleman sat down with the Observer’s Jonathan Jones at the Senior Bowl. In the final part of a three-part Q&A, they discuss Gettleman’s draft philosophy and what he plans to do leading to May’s draft.
Q. When you come to something like the Senior Bowl where guys are playing with new teams and some of them out of position, what are you looking for?
A. If it’s a lower-level guy, you look to see if he steps up. When I was with Denver, John Mobley was a linebacker out of Kutztown (Pa.). When you’re a road (scout) and you evaluate a I-AA or Division II kid on down, what you want to do is, first of all, he has to dominate that level. Second of all, you have to close your eyes, and for Kutztown, the closest school is Penn State, so I’m watching the film on John and asking myself, can he start at Penn State?
John was a man among boys, so check that box. Yes I could picture him starting at Penn State. Then he got invited to the Blue-Gray game and played well, and then he got invited to the Senior Bowl and he stepped it up again. Now we’re in draft meetings and you’ve just watched that Senior Bowl film, and you don’t have to guess. You’re looking for a guy to step up, a guy from a (Mid-American) school, what he’s going to do against the SEC schools? That’s what you’re looking for.
How do they practice? How do they handle the all-star game hoopla? You can tell on the practice field. And then of course, are they going to be able to become pros? That’s not just physically, that’s about becoming a professional. Somewhere like where Luke (Kuechly) is. He’s in his second year, and it’s like he’s a 10-year vet.
Q. What are your draft priorities?
A. The purpose until March 11 (and the start of free agency), the whole purpose of this is to put yourself into a position so that when the draft comes, you can take the best player. I can’t say it enough. We had the perfect storm this year. The best player on our draft board at the time we drafted in the first two rounds was there.
I’ve talked about it with guys around the league, and guys will open up a little bit. There was one team in the top five that it was going to be either Star or the guy they took. But they ended up taking their guy. And then he’s dropping and dropping. And the Jets are in front of us, and I said there’s no doubt they’re taking Sheldon Richardson. Even if you don’t have the inside information, knowing Rex (Ryan), he was perfect. He was versatile, he can do a million different things with him, and that’s what Rex does. And it was a great pick for them.
And it took us 40 seconds. That’s my philosophy. And that’s what we did up in New York, and that’s what we’re going to do here.
If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But this next time you want to put yourself in the position to take the best player on the board. Because when you get into trouble is when you reach for need. That’s when you get into trouble.
Q. What’s your philosophy on potential No. 1 receivers? They can be found in the draft or free agency, so what do you tend to lean toward?
A. The draft history will tell you that it’s a tough position to make an immediate impact. In general, the 20-hour rule has really affected the player that we get. Back in the day, and I know you young guys are tired of hearing that, but when there basically were no rules, these kids for the most part came fundamentally sound. And that’s not happening now.
There was a wide receiver that got taken in the first round a few years back, he ran three routes in college. And didn’t adjust to coverage. He ran to three spots. So just think about what you have to teach that guy. So that’s kind of the thing that, depending upon where he went, he was in the spread offense. Another receiver who was taken in the first round that year, a different college, spread offense, he ran the whole route tree. It depends upon what program the kid came out of.
I don’t know if wide receiver has had a tougher time, but history will tell you the adjustment isn’t easy. (Houston’s DeAndre) Hopkins and (San Diego’s) Keenan Allen had quality rookie years. You have to go through the full process, and part of that full process is spending time with these kids, finding out what they know, what they don’t know. I thought last year that our coaching and scouting staff did a great job post-combine in that part of the process.
And as you know, you’re allowed to bring 30 kids in. You’re going to have 3-4 slots open. If there’s a late guy … they’ll spend a day with us and they’ll be on the board, they’ll spend time with Ron (Rivera) and coaches.
Because the way the league is, the quicker you get your young kids to play, the better you’re going to be. So we’ve got to figure out how quickly this guy’s going to be able to play.
Q. With the failures at the 1 in the San Francisco game, I know you’re a guy who loves his hog mollies. Obviously it’s bothersome what happened at the 1, but is it something that creates an impetus to focus in on the line in this year’s draft?
A. Let me say this, you can’t. … The first goal is to win your division. But really and truly the long view is to design your team to beat the best team you’re going to play. You understand? That’s the goal.
Q. You guys have Seattle next year ...
A. (Laughs) Yes we do.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9