Remembering Carolina's Forgotten Draft Picks
By Blake Baxter
Believe it or not, there was once a time in America - before the prominence of the Internet, before the inescapable 24/7 news cycle and before the ubiquitous presence of ESPN - when sports seemed to actually end. For example, back in the 1970s, the NFL's season began at the beginning of September and was over by mid to late January. The regular season and the playoffs combined took up these five months and was not thought of again until the next fall. This was not because the league was not growing though. On the contrary, the merger of the NFL and the AFL, combined with the advent of Monday Night Football on ABC, led to a tremendous boost in popularity for the league. However, there generally was not very much to report in the offseason. This began to change the following decade when ESPN started televising the NFL Draft and the NFL Players Association started fighting for rights to free agency.
Fast forward to 2013: the NFL is a year-long spectacle and due to advances in technology, any factoid you want to know can be found in the blink of an eye. The actual season is a little bit longer, beginning in September and stretching into February. However, that is about the only similarity to its past. After the Super Bowl champion is crowned, analysts, writers and fans immediately turn their attention to the coaching job market. Who is going to get fired? Who is going to bolt for a better job? This talk and speculation dominates the airwaves and the blogosphere until mid-March when the even more volatile NFL free agency season officially kicks off. Offseason retentions and acquisitions are the highlights for most of the spring, except for one week in April when the sports media becomes captivated by the narratives of the NFL Draft. There are 250 or so players drafted every year. But after three exhausting days of being inundated with a barrage of names, statistics and story lines, it is difficult to sort out who is who. By summer, everyone is excited about who their team drafted in the first round, but has almost entirely forgotten those drafted in the other six. It is ironic that such a large chunk of these kinds of things fly under the radar in this "Age of Information".
This past April, the Carolina Panthers selected defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the first round of the draft, but they also selected four other players that have not garnered quite as much attention. Fortunately, it has been well documented that there are always gems hidden in the later rounds of the NFL Draft. The Panthers hope they found a few in their lower profile picks.
In the second round of the draft, the Panthers doubled down on the defensive tackle position by selecting Kawann Short with the 44th pick of the draft. Carolina was in need of an upgrade on the defensive line and you can never be too secure in the NFL Draft. Short is projected to be the backup left defensive tackle behind veteran Dwan Edwards, but expect to see Short get a chance to pair with Lotulelei on occasion to form a very young and inexperienced albeit exciting defensive line. The Panthers will not want to rush Short's development, so Edwards is likely to see the majority of the snaps this season. Edwards is still a solid performer 10 years into his career. He will be a good influence that will take pressure off of Short, and to an extent, Lotulelei as well.
The Panthers selected their first offensive player in the fourth round of the draft in the form of offensive guard Edmund Kugbila. He was among those at the draft who was discussed as much for his unique background as he was for his skill set. Kugbila was born in Ghana - a country where American football is all but unheard of. He and his family moved to the United States when he was 10 years old after they won residence through the green card lottery. Kugbila took up football in high school and netted a scholarship from the Division II Valdosta State University. Many pundits thought the Panthers took Kugbila too high in the draft. Unfortunately, it is unlikely he will be able to prove himself for a while due to injuries that have kept him sidelined throughout the summer. He will be backing up Geoff Hangartner or Amini Silatolu when the season begins.
In the fifth round, the Panthers went back to defense by selecting Iowa State inside linebacker A.J. Klein. At this point in the draft, teams are no longer looking for potential starters, but in a violent, unpredictable game like football, you never know when you have to depend on backups. Klein is projected to backup Jon Beason on the weak side. He had 361 tackles and recorded five interceptions, four of which were returned for touchdowns, in four seasons for the Cyclones and was named to the All-Big 12 first team in each of his last two seasons. Klein was also the Co-Defensive Big 12 Player of the Year in 2011.
With their last pick of the draft, the Panthers took their only skill position player in Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. The speedy Barner had an impressive career as a tailback on a perennially loaded roster at Oregon. He amassed 3,623 yards and 41 touchdowns for the Ducks and was also a sprinter for Oregon’s track and field team. He is likely to be the third string running back behind DeAngelo Williams and fellow Oregon alum Jonathan Stewart, but expect Barner to utilize his speed and athleticism on special teams.
Things have changed a lot over the past 40-plus years as the NFL has grown into America's most popular professional sports league by a large margin. Among the biggest change is that the conversation about the phenomenon that the league has become does not die down when the season is over. But sometimes there are so many aspects of this phenomenon being dissected and there are so many voices contributing to the chatter that some stray, though potentially important bits, get drowned out and forgotten. The Panthers are just another team hoping that some of their stray bits eventually become a larger part of the conversation.