SANTA CLARA -#8212; The Carolina Panthers' voracious defense -#8212; the second best in the NFL, based on total yards allowed -#8212; did not materialize out of thin air. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was the ninth player taken in the 2012 draft. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was the 14th player drafted in 2013, and outside linebacker Thomas Davis was No. 14 overall back in 2005. Bookend pass rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson were less highly regarded coming out of college, but both had established their NFL credentials well before the start of this season.
And then there is the Panthers' starting free safety. Mike Mitchell is familiar to many Bay Area football fans, and some of them may be incredulous at his success in Carolina. The guy who couldn't crack the starting lineup for one of the league's worst defenses in Oakland is now a mainstay for one of the league's best.
"The defense that we run here is perfect for me," Mitchell said by phone Friday. "I'm in the perfect spot. Carolina is home."
The Panthers are equally enamored of Mitchell, but they might not have realized what they had when they signed him as a free agent last March. He went into the season prepared to back up at both safety positions, then was cast onto the first team when starting free safety Charles Godfrey tore his Achilles' tendon in a Week 2 loss at Buffalo, a game that dropped the Panthers to 0-2.
Mitchell has started at free safety ever since, and has excelled, though he rarely played that position with the Raiders. Out here, he was noted more for his toughness than his coverage skills.
"A lot of people really get it confused, because they see me, and they see how I can be physical and hit people, and they think, 'Oh, he has no coverage at all,'" Mitchell said. "Whereas when I was in college, first and second down I was in the box against the run, and third down my coaches used me at free safety to help play against the pass."
Mitchell may have been a versatile player at Ohio University, but his selection by Oakland was the source of much confusion, and amusement, in 2009. The Raiders drafted wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 overall pick that year -#8212; with more decorated receivers like Michael Crabtree still available -#8212; and then one-upped themselves by taking Mitchell in the second round, at No. 47 overall.
Analysts were stunned. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. had Mitchell tied for the 40th top prospect at safety. NFL Network's Mike Mayock said he hadn't even heard of the kid until a couple weeks earlier. Mitchell had not been invited to the NFL scouting combine that year.
Mitchell became another emblem of Al Davis' erratic talent evaluations, and for most of his time with the Raiders he did little to overturn the notion. Mitchell started nine games in four seasons, mostly as an injury substitution. When he became a free agent last offseason, though, the Panthers were impressed.
"We had an opportunity to watch Mike's plays from Oakland and we really liked what we saw," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said. "He was a good-sized safety with good athletic ability and good speed. We saw some of the things that he did on special teams and saw that he was an impact player -#8212; when I say impact, I mean a physical, downhill tackler, things like that. He's a very smart football player."