The Carolina Panthers addressed their biggest needs in the NFL Draft, bringing in wide receiver and secondary talent at the top of the draft, then adding to depth on defense later.
The overriding focus for Carolina was speed, as each of the Panthers’ draft picks make the team faster.
“I’ve always believed that you can’t teach speed,” general manager Marty Hurney said, “and I think that’s a big part of this game. Again, you have to be big and you have to be physical, but you also have to be fast, and I think coming into this offseason that was one of our general goals: to add speed to positions, especially the skill positions. When you get guys like that, guys who play fast, it’s something you just can’t coach.”
The Panthers added a game-breaking wide receiver in the first round, selecting Maryland’s D.J. Moore with the 24th overall pick. In addition to his speed, Moore is a physical receiver who Hurney said, “turns into a running back” after making the catch.
Moore was the Big Ten Receiver of the Year after setting a Maryland record with 80 catches. He is the highest-drafted receiver in team history, eclipsing previous first-rounders Kelvin Benjamin (28th overall in 2014) and Rae Carruth (27th overall in 1997).
Steve Smith, the top receiver in franchise history, praised Moore while providing analysis on the NFL Network’s coverage of the draft, saying that he reminded Smith of himself.
Moore joins a receiving corps that includes second-year speedster Curtis Samuel and veteran Torrey Smith, acquired in an offseason trade.
The Panthers went back to Maryland later in the draft to add linebacker Jermaine Carter in the fifth round. Devoting multiple picks to the same school has been a Hurney draft hallmark. In his first tenure as general manager, from 2002 to 2012, Hurney selected teammates in the same draft seven times, most recently 2011, when Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and tackle Lee Ziemba were selected in the first and seventh rounds, respectively.
Carter and UNC’s Andre Smith, selected in the seventh round, give the Panthers depth at the linebacker spot, where All-Pro Luke Kuechly has missed time each of the last three years.
“At linebacker, we needed a young dynamic guy to come in and be part of what we do and be a special teamer as well,” head coach Ron Rivera said.
While receiver was a need position, the most glaring weakness on the team roster was at cornerback. The team traded Darryl Worley in the offseason, then had their top free agent target, Brashaud Breeland, fail his physical.
The Panthers added corners in the second and third round. LSU’s Donte Jackson was the choice with the 55th pick. Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden was taken with the 85th pick. It’s the second time in three years that the team has spent second- and third-round picks on the position. The Panthers took James Bradberry and Worley in the 2016 draft.
“To get into the playoffs you’ve got to win your division, whether you win it at 7-8-1 or 15-1,” Rivera said. “So, when you compare those teams that are in our division and what they have, we most certainly have to match up with those guys across the board. We saw that with the defensive back position going out and doing what we did with the two young men we brought in. Both guys are quick, both guys have some foot speed, both guys I think can add something to what we want to defensively.”
With tight end Greg Olsen nearing a post-playing career TV gig and Ed Dickson leaving in free agency, the team added depth at the position in the fourth round, selecting Indiana’s Ian Thomas.
“He definitely has the abilities to come and contribute right away, but we think he has got a very high upside,” Hurney said.
The Panthers also needed help on the pass rush, with longtime defensive end Charles Johnson’s offseason release. The Panthers spent a fourth-round pick on Ole Miss edge rusher Marquis Haynes, who broke former Panthers’ standout Greg Hardy’s school record for sacks.
Haynes played outside linebacker in college and is undersized for an NFL end, but the team has had success with another undersized pass rusher in Mario Addison.
“That’s exactly what we looked at and we said this is a guy that compares very favorably to Mario,” Rivera said.
The Panthers finished off their draft by selecting Miami’s Kendrick Norton in the seventh round.
Carolina still needs to add depth at running back and on the offensive line, but the team definitely filled several holes in the draft.
“We think we filled some more needs today,” Rivera said. “We feel really good about filling those needs.”