NFL Draft: Panthers get physcial
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers used the three-day NFL draft to shed old philosophies.
Only need a game manager at quarterback? No more after Carolina clearly stated its need for a star under center by taking Auburn’s Cam Newton No. 1 overall.
Shy away from players with off-field baggage? Not only did they take once-arrested Newton, they selected West Virginia cornerback Brandon Hogan in the fourth round on Saturday. Hogan has had two run ins with police in a year — and is still months away from recovering from major knee surgery.
In a rapid shift from conservative to risk takers, the Panthers have taken different shape under new coach Ron Rivera.
“We had the opportunity to put young players in position to fill the needs for us,” Rivera explained.
And with numerous holes on a 2-14 team, the Panthers expect many of their choices from the draft’s final day to contribute immediately.
A day after taking two defensive tackles in the third round, they snagged Hawaii receiver Kealoha Pilares in the fifth round as they prepare to possibly be without Steve Smith next season. Carolina then selected Connecticut linebacker Lawrence Wilson and Washington State offensive lineman Zack Williams in the sixth round.
They closed it out by taking Newton’s former college teammate, offensive tackle Lee Ziemba, in the seventh round.
“One thing we wanted to was establish a physical presence,” Rivera said.
Clearly the most head-scratching pick was Hogan.
“I had a very nice conversation with him and laid it out,” Rivera said. “I tried to explain to him that there’s no three strikes.”
Hogan served a suspension last season following a September drunken-driving arrest after being pulled over for driving the wrong way on a street in Morgantown, W.Va. He also pleaded guilty in June to urinating in public stemming from an April 2010 incident in Morgantown.
Coach Bill Stewart also held him out of some practices last spring, saying he was out of shape and falling behind academically.
“I feel like I’ve grown up and put it behind me and I’m trying to learn from my mistakes,” Hogan said.
But Hogan has other issues to make it an even bigger gamble. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee late last season, missed the Mountaineers’ bowl appearance and said he wouldn’t be able to run at full speed until August.
“My knee is ahead of schedule,” Hogan insisted.
The Panthers are hoping the athletic, 5-foot-10 Hogan will bolster a secondary in need of depth. Starter Richard Marshall is an impending free agent.
Hogan, converted from a receiver in his sophomore season, would have been a tough sell for the Panthers in the past. The team has stayed away from players with off-field issues following a series of player arrests in the late 1990s.
But the Panthers overlooked his past the same way they’re convinced Newton will overcome questions surrounding his 2008 arrest and his father’s alleged pay-for-play scheme during his recruitment.
Hurney said he’d “separate” Newton and Hogan’s situations, but acknowledged the draft decisions did present a shift from previous, less risky moves.
Of course, Newton will be the key to the draft, and Pilares is looking forward to teaming up.
“It’s crazy what kind of physical specimen that guy is,” said Pilares, who met Newton at the NFL combine. “He’s huge and he’s a great quarterback. I feel he’s definitely the greatest athlete in this draft. To be on the same team with that guy, I’m thankful.”
The 5-foot-10 Pilares will join a receiving unit that’s in limbo because Smith has hedged on whether he wants to stay in Carolina. At teammate Jordan Gross’ charity kickball event on Saturday, Smith declined to answer if he’s asked for a trade
“It’s a private matter between me and my family,” Smith told The Charlotte Observer.
Hurney and Rivera said they didn’t talk to Smith on Friday before the NFL briefly opened for business until the a court order reinstated the lockout.
The 6-1, 229-pound Wilson, who led the Big East in tackles the past two seasons, said he’s most comfortable at weakside linebacker. He could provide insurance in that spot with uncertainty surrounding Thomas Davis’ return from two major knee injuries and James Anderson’s impending free agency.
The 6-foot-3, 309-pound Williams played guard as a junior before switching to center last season. The Panthers had little depth and no permanent starter at right guard last season.
“I know Ryan (Kalil) is over there at center,” Williams said, “so I’ll probably work my way in at guard.”
The 6-5, 317-pound Ziemba set an Auburn record by starting 52 games. He was a second-team All-American last season as the Tigers won the national championship.
Now he’ll join the NFL’s worst team, which is making bold moves to improve quickly.
“We got a quarterback, defensive line, wide receiver, defensive back” Rivera said. “We got young depth at offensive line. We feel very good about that.”