2014 NFL draft: Joel Bitonio dark horse for first round pick

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There could be a new name in play for the No. 28 pick.

The Carolina Panthers continue the slow march towards the NFL draft and fans are puzzled by what the team will do. Wide receiver is an obvious need, but filling Jordan Gross' vacated left tackle position is a far greater worry. Up to this point we've seen several potential players to slot in at No. 28, now there's another -- Joel Bitonio of Nevada.

Peter King wrote in his Monday Morning Quarterback article that head coach Ron Rivera is interested in the finesse offensive tackle.

Want a darkhorse for Carolina at 28-or, if the Panthers are lucky and he falls to 60?

Guard-tackle Joel Bitonio of Nevada. Coach Ron Rivera went to Reno to meet him and came away impressed, I'm told.

A head coach visiting a prospect is a big deal, not something to be taken lightly. This alone means Bitonio is very much in the discussion for the pick, whether that's the right call is another story.

It's not that Bitonio is a bad prospect, it's just unclear whether he's the right prospect for the Panthers. At 302 pounds he's one of the lightest offensive linemen in the draft and made up for this deficiency by displaying high-level athleticism and foot speed while at Nevada. There's a place in the NFL for guys like this and if they display elite technique they can thrive, but my problem is that I don't see elite technique on film from Bitonio.

Yes the NFL is size-obsessed, but with good reason. Bulk can mask a lot of deficiencies and allows an imperfect player to survive simply by being a mass that's difficult to move. The less weight the more technique matters and when you're a shade over 300 then technique is everything.

The big problem in projecting Bitonio to the NFL isn't just weight, it's measurables across the board. Every criticism of Zack Martin can be applied to Bitonio, but amplified. Ultimately the risk is that you wind up with a guy who's good in a specific system -- but only as a left guard, something the Panthers already have.

Amini Silatolu showed enough talent pre-injury that he could potentially move to right guard, should the need arise but at this stage he's spent two years making the transition from left tackle to left guard. He's still growing as a pass blocker and it's unclear whether his plus-level run blocking can handle working in the right side of the trench.

The flip side to this is Bitonio's upside. If he shows an ability to handle elite NFL pass rushers despite the lack of size then the potential is near limitless, especially in an NFL strength and conditioning program. It's a gamble, a big one -- but every player is a gamble when you're picking at No. 28.

Personally, the comfort level with Bitonio is far greater in the second round than first.

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