NFL Nation: A.J. Klein

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are fitting running back DeAngelo Williams with a playing cast for his right hand that was fractured three weeks ago in a loss at Minnesota.

Coach Ron Rivera said there is a chance the team’s all-time leading rusher could play on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns after missing the past two games.

Rivera said Williams still hasn’t caught passes, and there is concern with how the hand will impact his ability to block. Williams was listed as limited in Thursday’s practice.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis was a full participant in practice after hyper-extending his left knee in Sunday’s 19-17 victory against Tampa Bay. Rivera said the bigger concern is linebacker A.J. Klein, who was limited in practice with an ankle injury.

Combine preview: Carolina Panthers

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Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman needed less than 90 seconds to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick of the 2013 draft.

Probably half of that time was spent in stunned amazement that the 6-foot-2, 315-pound giant he had rated near the top of his draft board still was available at a position the team considered a top priority.

Don't expect it to be that easy this year.

The Panthers head to the NFL scouting combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis with three huge needs -- wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback. It's more unlikely that a star such as Lotulelei will fall to them this year since their first pick isn't until No. 28 after a 12-4 season.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers need to add a playmaker like Brandin Cooks who has the potential to eventually replace Steve Smith.
They'll have to be even more thorough with their homework at the combine and individual workouts to find players to fill major gaps.

And they were pretty thorough last season, making sure the heart condition that forced Lotulelei to pull out of last year's combine was not serious.

They may need to find the next Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who developed into the team's sack leader (15) and a Pro Bowl selection this past season -- and into a player who could be lost to free agency if Carolina can't reach a new deal or use the franchise tag on him.

The good news is Gettleman & Co. appear pretty good at evaluating talent. Three of their first four picks -- Lotulelei, defensive tackle Kawann Short (second) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (fifth) -- were huge successes as rookies.

Sixth-rounder Kenjon Barner never got to show what he could do because of a logjam at running back and fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila spent the year on injured reserve.

"Of the three guys we got on the field, we're real pleased with,'' Gettleman said in his season review.

Which brings us to the combine, where the Panthers will be looking for players who can make similar contributions. Here's a closer look at their top three needs and why:

Wide receiver: This is where many of the draft analysts have the Panthers focused, and with good reason. No. 1 receiver Steve Smith is heading into his 14th season and wideouts Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are unsigned in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. In all likelihood, the Panthers will re-sign one or two of their free agents. Ginn makes the most sense because he's a proven threat as a return specialist as well as a deep threat. But the Panthers need a solid No. 2 receiver who could develop into a No. 1 when Smith retires. LaFell hasn't done that. This is one of the deepest receiver classes in years, so this an attractive spot regardless of whether it's the first or second round.

Possible at No. 28: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, LSU's Jarvis Landry, UCLA's Shaq Evans.

Offensive tackle: Gettleman loves to talk about the "hog mollies," his term for the men in the trenches. He also loves drafting them, as we saw last season when the Panthers went one-two with defensive tackles. He believes in building a team from the inside out, which is why I believe this is where the Panthers will go in the first round if the right player is there. Left tackle Jordan Gross is either going to return for his 12th season or retire. Either way, he's not getting younger and the Panthers need to find a future replacement for him. Ideally, they could find a starter at left tackle in the draft and move Gross to right tackle. Or groom a draft pick at right tackle as they did Gross for a year in 2003. The chances of finding a starter here is much greater in the first round.

Possible at No. 28: Virginia's Morgan Moses, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort.

Cornerback: As I noted after the Super Bowl, the biggest difference between Carolina and Seattle was the secondary. The Seahawks simply were bigger and better. Carolina must upgrade this position even if it re-signs starter Captain Munnerlyn. While I believe this is third among priorities for a first-round pick, if one of the top three corners (Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Lamarcus Joyner, according to Scouts Inc.) were to fall to 28 he would have to get serious consideration. It's definitely a position that should get attention in the top three rounds -- and at the combine.

Possible at No. 28: Florida's Marcus Roberson, Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Other needs: Don't be surprised to see Carolina go after a tight end to give quarterback Cam Newton another option there after Greg Olsen, a linebacker and a backup quarterback in the late rounds. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd could be an intriguing pick if he falls to the fifth round as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has projected. He has many of the same qualities Newton has as a running quarterback and could learn a lot from Newton as he makes the transition into the NFL. Tight end actually was under consideration last year when Lotulelei became available.

Injury update: Blackburn out, Klein in

November, 15, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rookie weakside linebacker A.J. Klein is expected to get his first NFL start Monday night when the Carolina Panthers face the New England Patriots.

Blackburn
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Klein was thrust into the lineup during Sunday's 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers when starter Chase Blackburn re-injured his right foot.

Blackburn has missed practice all this week and was wearing a cast Friday. He said it was "highly unlikely" he would be ready for New England.

"He's struggling with it," coach Ron Rivera said. "More than likely he won't [play]."

Blackburn's injury is one reason the Panthers on Wednesday signed Dan Connor, released from injured reserve by the New York Giants. Connor was with the team in Rivera's first season in 2011, so he is familiar with the system.

"Feeling pretty comfortable about that," Rivera said.

Rivera also is comfortable with Klein, a fifth-round pick out of Iowa State. Klein more than held his own against San Francisco with five tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.

"He stayed with it," said Blackburn, who came to Carolina from the Giants during the offseason. "The moment wasn't too big for him. He was able to go out there and execute. He didn't try to do too much and stayed within himself."

Blackburn, who he re-injured the foot trying to make a tackle on special teams, said he got his first opportunity the same way against the Chiefs in 2005.

"Just like that, I got thrown in," he recalled. I had a pretty good game just like that. It's always good when you give an opportunity to a young guy and he takes advantage of it."

Backup tight end Ben Hartsock also was on the injury report with a sore knee. Rivera remains optimistic he will be ready by Monday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You're going to hear a lot about the Carolina Panthers' second-ranked defense after Sunday's 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

You're going to hear how the front seven is among the league's best, how they stop the run and pressure the quarterback without using a lot of fancy schemes or blitzes.

You're going to hear how statistically they rank in the top five -- and in many cases top two -- in most categories and they're a major reason for the team's five-game winning streak.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who will face this unit Monday night at Bank of America Stadium, is so impressed that he said Tuesday on a weekly radio show in the Boston area "we'll see what we're made of."

But what may be most impressive is the Panthers (6-3) are so effective with three to five rookies on the field at critical times. Two of them, in a few cases three, are undrafted.

I asked defensive coordinator Sean McDermott what he would have said had I presented him that scenario during training camp.

"I've already lost my hair," said McDermott, whose scalp is as smooth as a bowling ball.

Seriously, McDermott added, "That typifies what we're all about. We play great team defense and there's not one person that is more important than the other. They take a tremendous amount of pride that they're playing for each other."

In case you aren't familiar with these young stars, here's a quick look:
  • Star Lotulelei, DT, 1st round: The 16th overall pick out of Utah is playing like the top pick many thought he might be until an echocardiogram administered at the NFL scouting combine indicated the left ventricle to his heart was operating at only 44 percent. The inside push he's getting prevents teams from double-teaming ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson as much as they once were and has blown up a lot of run plays. He has 25 tackles, a sack and seven quarterback pressures. A definite candidate for defensive rookie of the year.
  • Kawann Short, DT, 2nd round: He doesn't get as much publicity as Lotulelei because he doesn't start. But the former Purdue Boilermaker is doing many of the same things Lotulelei does as his 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 11 quarterback pressures and fumble recovery will attest.
  • Melvin White, CB, undrafted: Who is Melvin White? That's been one of the most asked questions this season. The former Louisiana-Lafayette player was inactive during a 24-23 loss to Buffalo in Week 2 but got his chance the following week against the New York Giants thanks to a rash of injuries in the secondary. He responded with an interception and a forced fumble, and moved into the starting lineup three games ago after Josh Thomas was beaten deep on two plays against the Rams. The coaches love that he makes plays.
  • Robert Lester, SS, undrafted: The former Alabama standout began the season on the practice squad but was moved up after starter Charles Godfrey was lost for the season in Week 2. He started that week against the New York Giants and had an interception in his first two games. He suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him against Minnesota, and replacement Quintin Mikell played so well that the two split the position now.
  • A.J. Klein, OLB, fifth round: When starter Chase Blackburn left with a foot injury against San Francisco this former Iowa State player stepped in to collect five tackles (second on the team), a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. He will start against New England if Blackburn doesn't return.
  • Wes Horton, OLB, undrafted: When Blackburn went out against Tampa Bay this former Southern Cal standout stepped in for 19 plays and the defense didn't miss a beat.

"It's a group of young guys that play fast," coach Ron Rivera said. "The things we do on the defensive side, in terms of keeping it familiar, has helped those guys."

And you're likely to hear about them for years to come.
The fifth round of the NFL draft is over, so let’s take a look at what the NFC South teams did.

At No. 144, the New Orleans Saints selected Oklahoma wide receiver Kenny Stills. The Saints have Marques Colston and Lance Moore, but they’re revamping their depth after those two. Stills will get a chance to compete with Nick Toon and Joseph Morgan for playing time.

At No. 147, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted University of Buffalo outside linebacker Steven Means. The Bucs have an opening on the strong side after releasing Quincy Black. Free-agent pickup Jonathan Casillas probably will get the first shot at that job, but Means could at least be in the competition and he’ll probably be a regular on special teams.

At No. 148, the Carolina Panthers chose Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein. He can play inside and outside and can provide depth behind Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. But Klein’s initial role is likely to be as a special-teams player.

At No. 153, the Atlanta Falcons traded up and drafted TCU defensive end Stansly Maponga. That came after the Falcons took defensive end Malliciah Goodman in the third round. It’s pretty obvious the Falcons are taking a scatter-shot approach and hoping one of their young defensive ends can provide a pass-rush complement to Osi Umenyiora.

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