CHARLOTTE -- There was once a time when the Carolina Panthers had more good defensive linemen than they could keep.
This offseason, when they were looking for defensive tackles of a certain type, the sad realization was that several they could have used were all working elsewhere.
One of them will be front and center today, as former Panthers draft pick Jovan Haye starts for Tampa Bay. But with Tony Brown starting on a dominant Tennessee front and Lorenzo Alexander playing a key role for Washington, it represents a migration the Panthers might have been better off stemming.
All were in the 285-pound range when they were with the Panthers -- too small to maul like Carolina wanted at the time. Now, they're the perfect speed if not size, it's just that they work somewhere else.
This offseason, the Panthers signed veteran free agents Darwin Walker and Ian Scott (who never made it out of camp) and drafted project Nick Hayden (now on the practice squad), but the answers they sought were once right under their noses.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney wouldn't talk specifically about the ones that got away, saying he didn't want to talk about other teams' players, but repeated the organizational stance that "we were pretty deep at that position at that point."
"Hey, hindsight's 20-20," said former Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "But the reality is, those guys they let go were perfect for what they're doing right now.
"(Panthers coach) John Fox is a guy who wants his foundation to be his line, and if he's got veterans, he's going to lean that way."
Haye would have been a particularly good fit now, because the Panthers spent the offseason fiddling with their defensive system,and adopting some of the same principles the Buccaneers use.
Rather than sinking a pair of 350-pounders over the guards to clog running lanes and keep blockers off the linebackers, the Panthers are now looking for smaller, quicker guys to man the front. The Bucs always referred to that spot as their "under" or "three technique" tackle (as opposed to a nose tackle, who still commands double-teams), and Warren Sapp made the position famous for his ability to generate pressure from there.
It's also the natural role of Damione Lewis, who was brought to the Panthers as a third-down rusher, but now starts with the absence of Kris Jenkins and the change in priorities.
"Back then, we wanted to stop the run with seven men," Buckner said. "That meant the DTs had to both command double teams to keep the linebackers clean. Those guys could make plays, but none of them at the time were big enough to command those doubles.
"Basically, the scheme at the time didn't allow guys like Jovan and Tony and Zo to stick."
Haye said he was stunned at being released in 2006, after the Panthers carried him the year before. He played in two games but was inactive for the rest of the season, including the playoffs. "I was very surprised," he said. "Because I knew I was doing everything right, was doing everything they asked."
He also rejects the notion that he couldn't have played inside here.
"I just never got a look at tackle," Haye said. "I think I could be an effective player in any scheme, because I could battle like a 350-pounder. They did what they had to do, and we're still moving on."
There were mitigating factors in the releases of all three.
Alexander's the easiest to explain, an undersized (6-2, 286 pounds), undrafted rookie in 2005, when the Panthers would go to the NFC Championship behind a strong, experienced line. They brought him back in 2006, but he was cut again from a deep field.
"He didn't pass the eye test," Buckner said. "But he was smart, a very fast learner, he just wasn't able to help us then."
Brown initially made the 2006 roster when they opened the year with 10 linemen but was cut in September when injuries necessitated promoting safety Nate Salley from the practice squad.
That one stung the Panthers, because they had groomed Brown. They originally signed him in 2003, kept him on the practice squad for 13 games, only to lose him down the stretch to Miami. Three years later, they allocated him to NFL Europe, where he won defensive MVP honors, and things looked good before they had to set him free. Now, he's starting next to Albert Haynesworth for the undefeated Titans, part of one of the game's best lines.
Haye was also cut in 2006, when it came down to a choice between him and his former high school teammate, pass-rush tease Stanley McClover. Of the lot, that one looks strangest in hindsight, and not just because McClover was cut this summer after three seasons of not producing.
The Bucs are tickled to have Haye. He led their team with four fumble recoveries and added 6.0 sacks last season, and has been hailed by teammates and coaches as a future cornerstone. But he's not just a try-hard mascot, as he has a quick first-step that makes him a dangerous interior rusher. The Bucs have always been willing to sacrifice bulk for someone who can get upfield, as Haye's now playing Sapp's old spot with verve if not the same results.
"I think the timing of Jovan coming here really helped him versus the timing when he was at Carolina," Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "When he came here, a lot of guys were banged up defensively up front. He maximized that opportunity to make plays and nobody has been able to unseat him since.
"He was one of the young players that you see growing into a veteran leader at some point around here. He just comes to work everyday, he says very little and at the end of the day he puts in a good hard day of work."
Sounds like the kind of guy the Panthers were looking for all offseason.