CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers learned a few years ago not to get too locked into positions, and proved it last year.
The benefits have been clear in the short term, and will have a chance to prove greater going into the future. As they prepare for this year's draft, more of the same should be expected.
"It's a wide variety of spots," general manager Marty Hurney said Monday when asked about the team's needs. "I know it sounds like a cliché, but the biggest thing is you want to make sure in those early rounds you get good football players that can come in and help your football team. It's probably no secret that there are several positions on offense that people have talked about -- offensive line, tight end, wide receiver, running back. If a good quarterback is there, you always have to look at him. On defense -- defensive tackle, defensive end, safety.
"You have a wide variety of spots that you can look at as far as positions go, but the biggest key is that you get good football players."
As hard as it was, the Panthers didn't lock themselves in last year.
They were looking for safeties when they traded down in the first round, but ended up with a near-Pro Bowler in Jon Beason. They weren't looking for a center at all in the second round, but when they found Ryan Kalil there a round later than they expected, they pounced. He's their starter this year, allowing them to release Justin Hartwig.
"A year ago, safety was a need, and we weren't able to address the safety position," coach John Fox said. "It wasn't that we weren't trying to. It just didn't fall that way. That's why I think the draft is so exciting. You never know what's going to happen until it happens."
Last year's selection meeting was a near-perfect example of what they want to achieve.
Picking 14th in the first round, they were hoping for someone to slide. The objects of their desire were Arkansas defensive end Jamaal Anderson and Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis. When they went off the board eighth and 11th, respectively, the Panthers executed a pre-planned trade with the New York Jets, who wanted Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis.
With the 25th slot, the Panthers figured they'd be looking at a certain clump of guys. They figured one from the group of second-tier safeties -- Reggie Nelson, Michael Griffin and Brandon Meriweather -- would be left, along with linebackers Beason and Paul Posluszny.
The safety they so desperately needed wasn't there, so rather than reaching for the next tier, they "settled" for Beason.
Sometimes these things just work out.
The theme continued in the second round, when they grabbed Kalil, who was mysteriously there when they got close to the 59th pick (which they obtained from the Jets). Hurney admitted that he expected Kalil to be a "late first or early second," so the choice to take him was clear.
This year, their needs are equally clear. They could use a starting tackle so they could move Travelle Wharton inside like they hope. They need defensive tackles since there are only four on the roster. They need some pass rush in case Julius Peppers takes another year off. They need a running back to go with DeAngelo Williams.
The entire braintrust talked about flexibility during the pre-draft news conference.
Fox said they "don't feel like we'd be out to lunch by any means," if they didn't draft a defensive end, although many have linked them to Florida's Derrick Harvey.
Fox said he could envision finding two starting guards from their free-agent class and leaving Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross in place, although many think they're drafting a tackle with the 13th pick.
They need a back and it's a deep class, but Gregory sang the praises of the top runners, Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Stewart.
"Any one of them is going to help your team," Gregory said. "They've all got speed and they're all different sizes. But I think they are very good running backs. Some are more explosive than the others and some of them are power backs, but I think all three of those are very good, quality backs in this draft. McFadden has done it in the Southeastern Conference and he's done it consistently. Mendenhall, he had a great year as a junior. He's coming out early. Stewart is in that same category."
Gregory didn't seem bothered by Mendenhall and Stewart playing in spread offenses in college, which some think artificially inflate rushing lanes and stats.
"Usually if they've been productive in college, they're going to be productive at our level," he said.
The Panthers weren't locking themselves into anything Monday, not even where they'd pick.
With 10 picks, they've got ammunition to make a charge up the order if a player such as Ryan Clady or Sedrick Ellis skids to them. If the early run on tackles takes place before them, they might bail out if someone wants to move up.
"You really force yourself to say everything is an option going in," Hurney said. "I think every team in the league would say they'd rather get picks than give picks. But you just have to see what the certain situation is. Being open-minded going into the draft is very important because when you get locked in, that's maybe when you make mistakes. You have to go in and let the board dictate what you do and let what happens on draft day dictate what you do.
"You really try to keep every option open, but obviously the more picks you can get, the better it is for you."