The Carolina Panthers threw in a first-round surprise over the weekend, but otherwise their third draft as a franchise went about as expected. It looks like a decent, defensive-themed crop -- stocked with players from very large schools who produced at a high level in college.
The surprise: wide receiver Rae Carruth. Carolina really didn't want to pick a wideout in the first round -- the team had used its first-round pick the past two years on offensive players already in Kerry Collins and Tshimanga Biakabutuka.
But when Carruth dropped way out of the top 15, where most draft analysts had projected him, Carolina started thinking about him. General manager Bill Polian called Carruth at his home in Sacramento, Calif., during the draft.
"What's wrong, Rae?" he asked. "Are you hurt or something?"
"I'm perfectly fine," Carruth answered. "I have no idea what's going on."
Carolina had Carruth rated as the best receiver in the entire draft, so the Panthers ultimately gulped and took him.
Coach Dom Capers' biggest concern, however, is building a bridge from his aging defense to a set of new players. And the Panthers concentrated on that for the rest of the draft, selecting four straight defensive players after Carruth. Most are somewhat undersized, but the Panthers look less at height, weight and speed than they do at collegiate production and character.
Three of the new draftees project as linebackers -- Tarek Saleh of Wisconsin, Matt Finkes of Ohio State and Kinnon Tatum of Notre Dame. The Panthers' second-round choice, Mike Minter, is a "cover" safety who will get the chance to play very quickly. The Panthers are very thin at that position, and Minter could even challenge Pat Terrell or Chad Cota for a starting job by mid-season.
The Panthers have been working all off-season on upgrading their team speed. After the picks of Carruth and Minter, Polian joked: "We've got half of a good relay team now."
Carolina's final pick, Kris Mangum, was the only other foray the Panthers made onto the offensive side of the board. The Panthers hope Mangum can develop into a poor man's Wesley Walls -- they need another pass-catching tight end.
Round 1/27 -- Rae Carruth, WR, Colorado
A fine (and unexpected) pick. Carruth will probably be used in a slot position for most of his rookie season -- the Panthers want someone there that can go deep. It's unlikely (but not impossible) that he will start right away in front of Muhsin Muhammad or Ernie Mills, but he will get a quick chance to contribute.
Carruth was the best receiver in the draft in Carolina's book, and easily the highest-rated player Carolina had left on its draft board when the Panthers got ready to pick at No.27.
"He certainly upgrades our team speed," Polian said of Carruth, who has been timed in the 4.3s in the 40-yard dash. "He can go get it, and he can run it after the catch."
Carruth averaged a dazzling 20.7 yards per catch for Colorado and had back-to-back 50-catch, 1,000-yard seasons as a junior and senior.
Round 2/56 -- Mike Minter, S, Nebraska
Minter is fast and fills a need for Carolina. He will get a chance to play quickly. Capers believes that Minter could eventually take over the role of calling signals out to the defensive secondary and making adjustments because he's a smart player.
Minter guarded Carruth a number of times in college. "He didn't catch a pass on me, so that's pretty good," Minter said, laughing. Like Carruth, he should play quickly.
Round 3/87 -- Kinnon Tatum, ILB, Notre Dame
This one may be a reach. Tatum is 5-11 1/2 and 222 pounds -- quite small for a linebacker. But the Panthers have already had success with one undersized linebacker in Sam Mills and feel that Tatum can compensate for his lack of size with athleticism. He will start out in training camp as a backup to Micheal Barrow at inside linebacker.
Round 4/122 -- Tarek Saleh, OLB, Wisconsin
Sounds like a winner. The Panthers hope that Saleh can be groomed to replace Kevin Greene in a few years. As an undersized defensive end (242 pounds), Saleh led the Big Ten in sacks with 14 this past season and had 12 the year before. He wouldn't work in a 4-3 defense, but in a 3-4 he could be very good.
Round 6/189 -- Matt Finkes, OLB, Ohio State
Finkes was also a defensive end in college, but he played at about 270 pounds. The Panthers want him to lose 15 pounds before July's training camp. Finkes doesn't seem to be quite as good a fit at the OLB position as Saleh could be, but he did have 11 sacks and four blocked kicks in his best season with the Buckeyes before dropping to four and five sacks his last two years.
Round 7/228 -- Kris Mangum, TE, Mississippi
Wait, it's a Wesley Walls clone! Mangum grew up and went to school at Ole Miss (like Walls), he's about 6-5 and 250 pounds (like Walls) and he can catch the ball (like Walls). Unfortunately, he is also slow as molasses. But he knows the game and has a brother in the NFL -- Chicago defensive back John Mangum -- so he'll have a decent chance to stick.