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Bold draft-day deal transformed Panthers

By Mike Cranston
Associated PressCHARLOTTE ó Rookie right tackle Jeff Otah kept opening giant holes Monday and rookie running back Jonathan Stewart kept rumbling through them. The night ended with the Carolina Panthers rushing for a team-record 299 yards in a decisive win over Tampa Bay.
General manager Marty Hurney looked like the shrewdest guy at Bank of America Stadium.
Hurney’s bold, draft-day trade that sent next year’s first-round pick to Philadelphia for an extra first-round choice this year allowed the Panthers to get both Stewart and Otah, key additions in Carolina’s turnaround from 7-9 a year ago to 10-3 this season.
“We felt like the combination of Jeff and Jonathan would certainly help enhance the personality of our offense,” Hurney said.
But getting them required a risky move that was met with plenty of skepticism back in April.
After missing the playoffs for the second straight season, Hurney and coach John Fox were under pressure to fix things quickly. They dumped running back DeShaun Foster, made DeAngelo Williams the starter and wanted another back.
The Panthers also were determined to get bigger on the offensive line. So as they gathered on the morning of the first day of the draft to decide what to do with the 13th overall pick, they mapped out a venturesome plan.
“We made the decision coming in that we were going to take Jonathan,” Hurney said. “But immediately after we made the pick we would get on the phone and see if anybody was interested in giving us their first round pick. … We thought Jeff was that good and he fit into what we were trying to do.”
Stewart was still there at No. 13, so the Panthers took the powerful, stocky Oregon product. Hurney then got on the phone with Chicago, Kansas City, Arizona, Detroit and Baltimore. All declined his offer.
The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Otah was still there at No. 19, and Philadelphia was willing to make a deal with Hurney. The Eagles were also weighing at least one other offer.
Hurney waited anxiously, and with three minutes left before having to make a selection, the deal was made.
The Panthers agreed to send their second- and fourth-round picks this year and their first-round choice next year for the 19th pick. The Panthers then quickly selected Otah, whose stock had dropped because of a lingering ankle injury from his senior year at Pittsburgh.
“You never like trading away draft picks at all,” Hurney said. “But I think the feeling was we were confident in our evaluations of him. We felt like big, athletic tackles like Jeff are hard to find. He fit into what we want to do.”
That was on display Monday night, when Otah dominated the left side of the Buccaneers’ defensive line. Stewart (115 yards rushing) and Williams (186) raced through huge holes as the Panthers took sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
“Both running backs did a great job running for all those yards,” the soft-spoken Otah said. “That’s the first time I did something like that, so it was kind of cool.”
While it looks like a great move now, the draft-day deal could have been disastrous.
What if Stewart and Otah didn’t produce? What if the Panthers failed to have a winning record for the third straight year and were faced with having no first-round pick next year?
“You don’t have a first-round pick in ’09. Well, that’s right,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “We have him in ’08, and he’s a year ahead of the ’09 first-round pick. It was a guy they targeted and a guy they wanted, obviously. To me, that’s smart drafting. If that’s what you want, go out and get it and hopefully it works out. So far we think it has.”

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