Panthers bolster defense, add punt returner
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - The wheeling and dealing Carolina Panthers bolstered their defense and added a game-breaking punt returner on the third day of the NFL draft.
The Panthers began Saturday by trading up to the fourth round to take defensive end Frank Alexander from Oklahoma with the 103rd overall pick. That gave the Panthers back-to-back picks and they selected punt returner Joe Adams next, helping solidify a gaping hole on special teams.
They finished up by adding cornerback Josh Norman from Coastal Carolina in the fifth round, punter Brad Nortman from Wisconsin in the sixth and safety D.J. Campbell from Cal in the seventh.
The Panthers previously selected linebacker Luke Kuechly from Boston College in the first round of the draft and guard Amini Silatulo from Division II Midwestern State in the second round.
The Panthers didn't have a third round pick this year - and won't have one next year either.
To get Alexander the Panthers surrendered next year's third round pick and one of their two sixth round picks this year to San Francisco. But general manager Marty Hurney, who has made trades in five of the last six drafts, said he was thrilled to acquire Alexander after unsuccessfully attempting to trade up into the third round Saturday night.
"Frank Alexander was the one guy where if we could get in the fourth, we were going to make a trade,'' Hurney said.
Rushing the quarterback is Alexander's specialty.
The 6-4, 270-pound Alexander was named the Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year by the conference's coaches last season, racking up 8.5 sacks for the Sooners. He amassed 20.5 sacks over a four-year career in which he played in 48 games and started 31.
"He can play in critical pass rush situations and he can play on third downs,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "He has the kind of ability that lends to making plays and we are really excited about him. We were actually watching (tape) of another player and he just kept popping up. The more you watch tape you realize hey there is something to this guy.''
The Panthers view him as part of the rotation at defensive end that includes Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Antwan Applewhite and Thomas Keiser.
Alexander had planned to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine but was sent home early after a scare involving his heart.
"The doctor told me that he thought I had a hole but that he wasn't 100 percent sure,'' Alexander said. "It was hurtful experience to make it to the combine and to be told that you can't compete. For a competitor, that's a hard deal. I just gave it up to God, and I knew he was going to work it out for me.''
Alexander said he got four different opinions after the combine and none of the doctors found anything wrong.
"They said my heart is healthy, that it was just a misread test,'' Alexander said.
Hurney also said he checked out fine medically.
The addition of Adams, the preeminent punt returner in college football the last two seasons, could spell trouble for former third-round draft pick Armanti Edwards.
Adams had five touchdowns returns in his final 20 games at Arkansas.
The 5-10, 174-pound Adams averaged 15.8 yards per punt return for his career, the second-best career mark in SEC history.
The Panthers surprised many by making a huge investment in Edwards when they traded a second-round pick in 2012 to New England to move up to get him in the third round. The Patriots would get the first pick in the second round (33rd overall) last year after the Panthers finished with the worst record in the league in 2011.
The Panthers haven't gotten much out of Edwards, who had trouble making the adjustment from college quarterback at Appalachian State to NFL wide receiver and punt returner.
Edwards was 25th in the league last season averaging 5.5 yards per punt return.
Hurney said Edwards will have "a chance to compete'' for a receiver spot, but made it clear Adams is their punt returner.
"Joe Adams' punt return skills we think are special,'' Hurney said. "When you put the tape on you watch his explosiveness, his vision, the way he runs with the ball, the way he creates, he averages over 16-yards per return which is great. He gives you one less first down to get. There are a lot of positives he brings to the table with his return ability.''
The Panthers also view Adams as a slot receiver down the road.
Adams said he idolizes Carolina's Steve Smith, who first made a name for himself as a Pro Bowl punt returner as a rookie before establishing himself as a dominant wide receiver.
"To get a chance to learn from him is a great feeling,'' Adams said. "This is a great situation.''
The Panthers went back to upgrading their 28th-ranked defense after that.
Carolina drafted Norman with the 143rd overall selection in the fifth round of the NFL draft.
The 6-foot-3, 203-pound cornerback gives the Panthers added depth at cornerback behind starters Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn and top reserves Brandon Hogan and Darius Butler. A three-time All-Big South selection, Norman had 13 career interceptions. He started 39 of 46 games, recording 196 tackles with seven stops for losses and four forced fumbles. He also blocked four kicks.
The Panthers added Campbell in the seventh round hoping he'll provide depth at safety and some energy on special teams.
Nortman is the first punter ever draft by the Panthers and he has a good chance to make the roster. The Panthers released veteran Jason Baker earlier this offseason and finishing last in the league in net punting.