Panthers upgrade speed to keep up with NFC South
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By STEVE REED
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) General manager Marty Hurney felt he needed to upgrade team speed after the Panthers failed to win the NFC South the last two seasons.
He believes he's done just that in the NFL draft.
The Panthers selected field-stretching tight end Ian Thomas from Indiana and speed rusher Marquis Haynes from Ole Miss in the fourth round, and middle linebacker Jermaine Carter from Maryland in the fifth. They closed out the final day by taking middle linebacker Andre Smith from North Carolina and defensive tackle Kendrick Norton from Miami in the seventh round.
Carolina placed a major emphasis on adding speed, a pattern established in the first two days of the draft when it took wide receiver D.J. Moore from Maryland in the first round, cornerback Donte Jackson from LSU in the second and safety Rashaan Gaulden in the third.
"I have always believed that you can't teach speed - and that is a big part of this game," Hurney said. "You have to be big and you have to be physical, but you have to be fast, too. Coming into this offseason that was one of our goals to add speed, especially to the skill positions."
The Panthers had won three straight NFC South titles before Atlanta won in 2016 and New Orleans triumphed in 2017.
They lost three times to the Saints last year, including a wild-card playoff loss at the Superdome.
"One of the things that you have to do is look at your division," coach Ron Rivera said. "To get into the playoffs you have to win your division. ... So when you compare those teams in your division with what you have you most certainly have to be able to match up with those guys across the board."
THOMAS' TOUGH ROAD
The Panthers got the third day of the NFL draft started by selecting Thomas with the first pick in the fourth round. They believe he is from the same mold as Greg Olsen with the versatility to catch passes and block.
Thomas was raised by his siblings after both of his parents died before he was 10 years old -his mother from a kidney infection and his father from a heart attack a year later. Thomas has eight siblings in all, but was primarily raised by his brother, Clif Farmer.
"I always thank him any chance I get for helping us growing up and for helping me become the man I am today," Thomas said. "He knows how much love I have for him and how much love he has for all of us. I know it's just a blessing to have him as an older brother and a role model."
WHAT A JOKER
The Panthers are high on Haynes, even though he's slight for an NFL defensive end at 235 pounds. Still, he broke Greg Hardy's career record for sacks at Ole Miss with 32.
But Rivera also likes that Haynes can drop back in coverage and play the team's "joker" position.
Rivera says Haynes' pass-rushing skills remind him of current Panthers defensive end Mario Addison.
"I got a knack for my first step, getting off the ball, because it really makes the offensive lineman really think that they have to overstep, I could then take an inside move," Haynes said. "But if they don't, I can just run right around them and get to the quarterback."
When the Panthers pulled the franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman two years ago, they lost some serious swagger in the secondary.
Well, that attitude appears back courtesy of second-round pick Donte "Action" Jackson from LSU. Although he's only 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds, Jackson is plenty confident. When asked who's the fastest player on the Carolina roster he responded quickly, "Me, Donte Jackson."
"Yeah I'm fast, but my mentality and my toughness and my confidence and my swagger is all there, it's all football," Jackson said. "You know, that's one thing I like to pride myself on. I never really liked to listen to people say I'm too small because I've been listening to that my whole life and it just adds fuel to the fire."
Jackson's father was in prison when he was growing up; he said he still speaks with him every other day.
The Panthers never did find a replacement for running back Jonathan Stewart, cut during the offseason in a salary cap move. Rivera said that Cameron Artis-Payne will get "the first crack" as the No. 2 back behind Christian McCaffrey. Carolina also didn't draft a guard despite losing All-Pro Andrew Norwell to the Giants in free agency.
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Updated April 28, 2018