Coach: Protecting Cam top priority

ByDavid Newton ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 29, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Coach Ron Rivera says it's more important for the Carolina Panthers to find a player to protect Cam Newton than to give his franchise quarterback another weapon.

That's as close as Rivera or general manager Dave Gettleman came on Tuesday to hinting what the Panthers may do with the 28th pick of next month's NFL draft.

"I think protecting him" is more important, Rivera said. "You have so many opportunities to get playmakers on the field. Other than the quarterback, there are five other guys who can make plays for you. I think right now what we've done is bring in guys who have the ability to make plays for us. I feel very comfortable with that."

But don't read too much into that. Gettleman remained adamant he would take the best player available. Noting the draft is exceptional at wide receiver, he said he wouldn't be "sad'' if a top cornerback fell to No. 28. He also said he wouldn't hesitate to pick up what he called a "blue goose'' pass-rusher or defensive tackle.

"When you have made up your mind you're going to take a position because you need to fill that spot, more often than not you're going to make a mistake,'' Gettleman said.

Rivera also said there are no plans for Newton, recovering from left ankle surgery to tighten ligaments that have been bothering him since college, to run less in 2014. He believes Newton will be stronger than ever once he fully recovers, likely by the start of training camp.

"We don't want to take away a weapon,'' Rivera said.

A year ago, the Panthers took defensive tackle in the first and second rounds. Both played key roles in Carolina going 12-4 and winning the NFC South.

"If you trust your evaluation process, don't fight city hall,'' Gettleman said. "When you reach, you're in trouble.''

Gettleman also said he wouldn't insult the intelligence of the media by saying the team won't select a top wide receiver or left tackle if the right player is there. He said there are nine or 10 players at those positions he considered first-round worthy.

He would not break them out separately.

Left tackle became a primary need for Carolina when Jordan Gross retired after last season. Although Rivera and Gettleman say they feel there are several players on the roster -- including Byron Bell and Nate Chandler -- who could protect Newton's blind side, they did not rule out selecting a tackle in the first round.

The Panthers also are looking to pick up a quality young receiver after losing their top four from last season. Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, was cut. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon signed with other teams in free agency.

They were replaced by Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay). Gettleman reminded it's rare that a wide receiver taken in the first round makes a major contribution in his first season. Rivera noted that the Panthers ranked fourth in the NFL in time of possession last season because they ran the ball more, and he'd like to continue in that direction. He said he felt comfortable with the receivers on the roster.

Gettleman said the team's draft board is far from set, but he feels better about the process in his second year as a general manager than his first. Last year's draft was considered a huge success, particularly with tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds.

Those two helped elevate Carolina's defense to No. 2 in the NFL. That's why Gettleman wouldn't be opposed to taking a top defensive player if one were available at 28, reminding the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and most of the top NFC teams were great defensively.

"If there is a blue goose pass-rusher there or a blue good tackle there, I'm not going to be afraid,'' he said.

Regarding pass-rushers, Gettleman declined to comment on why the team agreed to pay defensive end Greg Hardy $1.3 million of the $13.1 million he's scheduled to make under the franchise tag to attend all of the offseason workouts.

According to a source, this is the first such deal for a player with the franchise tag.

"I wanted him to be close to me,'' Gettleman joked.

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