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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."

Mitchell and his agent talked to the Raiders about re-signing, but ultimately were swayed by the Panthers.

"The two offers we had on the table, Carolina was just too good to pass up," Mitchell said. "When I came in on my visit, the coaching staff was very up front, told me I would have to earn a position, and I had no problem with that. I just wanted a fair opportunity. Felt like it was tough for me to get that for a couple years out in Oakland with the money guys were getting paid in front of me."

Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff, in particular, were safeties who proved hard to dislodge, though the Raiders released Huff nine days before Mitchell signed with Carolina. Mitchell's decision radically altered his career. Instead of another offseason at home, he is preparing to play in his first NFL playoff game against the 49ers this Sunday.

Individually, Mitchell was one of only two NFL players this season to record at least four sacks and four interceptions, the other being Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David.

"He plays hard, he communicates, I think he's a smart football player," Kuechly said of his teammate. "And he's done a good job at that free safety position for us this year. He stepped in, and he figured it out. He did a good job picking up the playbook and he's been a real asset for us."

Mitchell has also been a lightning rod for personal fouls -#8212; something that will surprise no one who watched him play in Oakland, where he was always considered the most likely candidate to hit a guy just after the whistle or get in an on-field jawing match with an opponent. After the NFL fined Mitchell for taunting St. Louis' Sam Bradford on a play in which the quarterback was injured in Week 7 -#8212; Mitchell's fifth fine of the season, by his own reckoning -#8212; he suggested the league targets certain players and opined that the fine money goes "right in Roger's pocket."

That would be NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, kind of a big deal as enemies go.

Mitchell concedes that he plays the game with passion, but insists he has learned when to toe the line.

"I'm still a young man, but there's things you do when you're younger," said Mitchell, 26. "You're more emotional. Whereas now, I'm really aware that it's bigger than me. There's 52 other guys, and coaches, that I gotta be concerned about. ... I might make an aggressive penalty, but I don't make emotional penalties anymore."

And he isn't about to take shots at the Raiders. Despite his unhappiness at not starting in Oakland, Mitchell remains grateful for the opportunity the organization gave him.

"The Davis family, Al Davis and even Mark, I'm very loyal to that family," he said. "Me and Mark had a great relationship, even after Mr. Al Davis passed away. I'd always talk to him before games. I got to know Mr. Davis really well when he drafted me. So there's a lot of positive vibes, and I'll always have those vibes for that organization, because those two men were really big in changing my family's life. They drafted me in the second round and paid me like a second-round player."

Now Mitchell is playing more like a first-rounder, proving that second chances are real in the NFL.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.