Why the Panthers drafted wide receiver D.J. Moore - and the legend he's compared to

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/CharlotteObserver) - In February, Maryland wide receiver D.J. Moore was told by a reporter at the NFL scouting combine that some people were comparing him to former Carolina Panthers legend Steve Smith Sr.

His draft-process polish completely fell away as his face lit up in a kid-on-Christmas grin. It was an honor, he said, to get that comparison.

Two months later, Smith, now an analyst on the NFL Network, proclaimed his opinion of Moore after Carolina selected him at pick No. 24 in the 2018 NFL Draft, the first receiver off the board.

"I think he can run every route on the route tree. A Ph.D. in route-running," said Smith. "He can line up in the slot and out wide. He's elusive - he'll run around you, he'll run through you, he'll run away from you.

"If you really want to know the truth about how I feel? They have never been able to replace me.

"Until today."

Moore has been on the Panthers' radar for a long time.

A Philadelphia native who broke records at Maryland for single-season receptions (80, 2017) and had 2,027 receiving yards (including 1,033 his junior and final year) despite catching passes from eight different quarterbacks, he immediately showed he could be a perfect fit for a team desperate to get quarterback Cam Newton some help.

"D.J. has speed, good play strength, excellent run-after-the-catch, he's a weapon," said Panthers general manager Marty Hurney.

"We had said we wanted to add speed, we wanted to add athleticism and we wanted to add weapons. He was there."

Carolina didn't actually think Moore would fall to them. They also liked Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley, who was still on the board.

But Moore's physicality and ability to create yards after the catch, as well as his explosiveness on any route, were what sealed it for the Panthers, Hurney and Rivera said Thursday night.

"He's excellent (when running) after the catch," said Hurney, adding that the 6-foot, 210-pound receiver acts more like a running back when he gets the ball in his hands.

"He's explosive. ... We just thought that his athleticism and his run after the catch is elite."

The Panthers, including new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, went to Maryland's Pro Day to work out Moore. There are videos from that visit that display Turner spending a lot time instructing Moore one-on-one.

Turner was grinning like a groom seeing his bride for the first time.

"I lit it up for them," Moore laughed. He also said when he came to Charlotte for a visit that he was told by the Panthers that if he fell to them at No. 24, they would pick him.

"I was happy, but I was just like, 'Yeah, it has to come to real life.' And it did today."

Rivera and Hurney aren't shy about the fact that they argue and make up each day in the office, as they troubleshoot various football operations.

During the predraft process, they argued a lot. And every day for six of the seven days prior to the draft, they watched film of their top prospects and verbally sparred.

"We went back and forth, back and forth," said Rivera.

On the seventh day, they didn't even speak to each other. They knew.

A high bar

Moore sounded as delighted to hear he was being compared by Smith to Smith as he spoke to reporters on a conference call from his draft party with his family and friends in Philadelphia as he was at the combine two months ago.

"That's kind of great coming from him," he said. "If he says that, that's a high honor but I'm just going to go in there and be the best me."

A high honor, and a lofty bar.

"Yeah, (Moore) has that play strength," said Hurney, comparing the two. "He's got that ability to break tackles and make yards after the catch. That's a pretty high bar to set."

Rivera laughed in agreement.

"Very high bar ... For Steve to say that, that's great praise. I'm pretty fired up. I really like who he is as a football player for us. I believe he's a guy who has the ability to come in and play any of our three wide receiver positions. He has an opportunity to come in and contribute right away."

Smith and Newton notoriously butted heads in Carolina, before Smith's clumsily-handled exit.

But it's a fresh start for Moore and the franchise quarterback, who texted his head coach two words after the pick was announced:

"Thank you."