The Carolina Panthers added to their defense in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but not at the position everyone expected.
The Panthers lost Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman to free agency after taking the franchise tag off of him a week earlier.
General manager Dave Gettleman, didn’t attempt to replace Norman in the first round. Instead of adding a defensive back, the Panthers drafted defensive tackle Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech.
WHO IS THIS GUY?
Butler is the highest drafted Louisiana Tech player since 1999, when receiver Troy Edwards went to the Steelers at 13. He’s a 6-4, 323-pounder with a seven-foot wingspan.
Butler is one of the most versatile defensive linemen in this year’s Draft. He can play both inside spots and also played end in college. He made first-team All CUSA and was on the watch lists for the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy.
Despite playing outside the Power Five conferences in college, Butler was a highly sought-after recruit. He turned down offers from Ole Miss and Mississippi State to attend Louisiana Tech.
It was a surprise that Butler fell to the Panthers in the 30th position. He told the Detroit Free Press that the Lions had promised him they’d choose him if he was still available when they picked at 16. Instead, Detroit took offensive tackle Taylor Decker.
“We’re really kind of shocked he was there,” Gettleman said. “Reminds me of my first draft, when Star fell. The kid is really talented. I’m not sure why he fell.”
Plenty of other teams were interested in taking the Panthers’ spot. Gettleman said he received calls from seven teams looking to trade into the spot.
“We had a bunch of teams calling us,” Gettleman said, “but the value was too good. This kid is big. He’s powerful. He’s athletic. He’s got all the stuff.”
HOW HE FITS
On the surface, the pick appears to be a case of the Panthers ignoring needs and adding to a position that already has two established starters. Gettleman’s first two draft picks as Panthers GM were Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
However, dating back to his days with the Giants, Gettleman has been a proponent of improving the secondary by adding to the front seven. Putting more pressure on the opposing quarterback helps relieve pressure on the defensive backfield, Gettleman believes.
“It makes people on the back end better,” Gettleman said prior to the draft, when asked about improving the defensive line. “I’ve been with teams that have big-time fronts and seen the value of that.”
Butler will join the Panthers’ rotation on the interior of the defensive line, spelling Lotulelei and Short. He’ll likely replace free agent Dwan Edwards, who, along with Kyle Love, were the top reserves at defensive tackle for the Panthers last season.
With Lotulelei and Short approaching free agency, Butler could also be an insurance policy, just in case negotiations on extensions for the 2013 draftees fall through.
Butler said his specialty is stopping the run, but “I’m looking to make plays in the backfield every time I get out of my stance.” He had 10 tackles for loss and a career-best four sacks as a senior last year.
“This kind of potential and ability for growth, you get excited about,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He can be a guy who can impact from the inside, and the quickest way to the quarterback is through the A (inside) gaps.”
B — The Panthers had bigger needs than defensive tackle depth, but teams generally don’t go wrong choosing the best player available. It’s tough to argue that Butler was that. Gettleman said he was the top player on the team’s draft board.
The Panthers will address other needs in later rounds — Gettleman all but promised that the team would draft a corner before the weekend was over. In the meantime, they added another “hog molly” to one of the league’s stiffest front lines.