NFL Draft: Panthers get bigger, faster, more physical

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 27, 2008

Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó The Carolina Panthers wanted to get faster, bigger and tougher. Two long days, a big gamble and nine draft picks later, they need the plan to work to avoid disaster come this time next year.
The Panthers wrapped up the draft on Sunday by taking seven players, including safety Charles Godfrey of Iowa and Penn State linebacker Dan Connor in the third round.
They then added a pass-catching tight end in Gary Barnidge of Louisville, defensive tackle Nick Hayden of Wisconsin, North Carolina defensive end Hilee Taylor and two more offensive linemen, tackle Geoff Schwartz and little-known guard Mackenzy Bernadeau of Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
It came a day after Saturday’s bold move. After taking bruising Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart with the 13th pick, the Panthers traded three picks, including next year’s first-round choice, to Philadelphia to get the 19th pick. The Panthers then selected gigantic offensive tackle Jeff Otah from Pittsburgh.
It was a weekend of beefing up in hopes of returning to smash-mouth football. It’s clear the Panthers must win now. A third straight season out of the playoffs ó and no first-round pick next year ó would mean big trouble for coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.
“Your nucleus comes from the draft and we’ve always believed that,” Hurney said. “I think that’s the key to being a good football team, to draft well. That’s why this weekend is so important.”
Carolina stayed true to its principles on Sunday of taking the best player available, regardless of position. It’s why Connor joins a glut of linebackers.
Jon Beason, Carolina’s first-round pick last year, is entrenched at middle linebacker, the position Connor will likely start out at with Carolina. Thomas Davis and Na’il Diggs return at outside linebacker, but free-agent pickup Landon Johnson is expected to contend for a starting job.
With pressing needs on the defensive line, the Panthers couldn’t pass up on the physical Connor, Penn State’s career leader with 419 tackles, when they saw him slip to the 74th spot.
But even Connor acknowledged he was “shocked” when the Panthers took him.
“Yeah, there’s a ton of talent there,” Connor said. “It’s going to be great to be able to learn under a bunch of great linebackers and guys that have experience. I’m more looking forward to that, taking it all in and learning from guys who have proven themselves every week on Sundays. It’s something I’m excited about.”
Godfrey played cornerback in his final two seasons with the Hawkeyes, but will likely be a candidate to replace the departed Deke Cooper at free safety. The speedy Godfrey, who had five interceptions last season, is also expected to contribute on special teams.
“One thing about my value coming in was me being able to play more than one position in the secondary,” said Godfrey, taken with the 67th pick.
After grabbing Godfrey and Connor, the Panthers paraded the 6-foot-6, 339-pound Otah in front of the media, the best symbol yet for what the Panthers want to become.
“It feels really good to know that they think highly of me and want me here,” Otah said. “I’m just ready to start going to work and filling some of the holes that they might need.”
Carolina continued restocking the offense later in the day. At 6-5, the Panthers hope Barnidge will help ease the congestion around star receiver Steve Smith by giving quarterback Jake Delhomme a big target. Barnidge caught 53 passes for the Cardinals as a senior.
“I can stretch the field against linebackers,” Barnidge said. “I think that’s sort of a mismatch. I can line up at tight end and I can even split out if they ask for it because I’ve done both in college.”
Hayden, 6-4 and 291 pounds, recorded 132 tackles and 10 sacks in 44 games with Wisconsin and is known for his strength. The Panthers have little depth at defensive tackle after trading Kris Jenkins and not re-signing Kindal Moorehead.
Taylor, whose speed impressed the Panthers, joins Julius Peppers as the only Tar Heel to be picked by Carolina.
The Panthers wrapped up the draft by taking two more linemen. Schwartz blocked for Stewart at Oregon but his stock dropped after a back injury his junior year.
Bernadeau provides more depth on the offensive line, but faced weak competition playing in Division II.
“We wanted to get bigger, more physical and increase our speed in the skill positions,” coach John Fox said.
Now the new roster full of jumbo players will get together for a minicamp starting Friday. Delhomme and Stewart, both recovering from offseason surgery, will not participate. Most of the rest will, and Hurney can’t wait.
“It’s exciting because you know how important it is,” Hurney said. “You work this week and now you’re excited to see them go on the field for the first time.”