In last April’s draft, Dave Gettleman selected Utah DT Star Lotulelei with the No. 14 overall pick as his first draft choice as a the Carolina Panthers' general manager. I saw this as one of the better value picks in the entire 2013 draft. Gettleman showed excellent patience to sit back and allow Lotulelei -- we had him in our top five with our final rankings of the 2013 class -- to fall to them in addition to filling a pressing need.
Last February at the NFL combine, doctors found a heart condition that prevented Lotulelei from working out in Indianapolis. He was later cleared, but this condition likely played a role, along with some concerns scouts had with his inconsistencies in terms of effort throughout various game tapes, in his fall to the middle of the first round.
The Panthers have received a strong early return for Lotulelei. He has started all three games while registering nine tackles and a sack and has made his presence felt on the interior. Lotulelei has been stout defending the run and has created disruption in the backfield while also showing impressive range.
At 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds, Lotulelei’s best trait at Utah was defending the run and showed flashes of dominance in this area on tape. He possessed the ability to anchor as a one- or two-gap defender. Lotulelei also displayed heavy hands and raw power both in his lower and upper body and rarely gave ground at the line of scrimmage.
Lotlulelei did not have ideal production as a pass rusher throughout his career at Utah. However, he did register a career high five sacks as a senior after notching just two during his first two seasons with the Utes. Lotulelei still needs to work on maintaining quality pad level off the ball as a pass-rusher, but he continues to develop in this area. He has displayed the ability to collapse the pocket with a bull rush while also showing quick hands to win in combat. He has also shown flashes of being able to disrupt the passer, which included him notching his first career sack against the Giants on Sunday. Lotulelei also has raw strength to go with his above-average agility. What Lotulelei showed on tape is what warranted comparisons to another interior lineman: Baltimore Ravens DT Haloti Ngata.
Ngata was bigger and was about 25 pounds heavier coming out than Lotulelei. He also had exceptional athleticism. I have had several conversations with Ngata’s former coach at Oregon Mike Bellotti, who has said pound-for-pound Ngata was the best athlete he’s ever coached.
Lotulelei does not have the same type of athleticism, versatility and has a long way to go to even be considered in the same conversation as the Ngata, the two-time first-team All-Pro. However, they shared a lot of similarities coming out of school, which included Ngata following a similar path in 2006 where he remained on the board until the 12th overall pick.
In the 2013 draft, Gettleman, a former New York Giants pro scouting executive, attempted to load up the Panthers' defensive line with the selection of Lotulelei in the first round and DT Kawann Short from Purdue in the second round. Carolina already had one of the better pair of book ends in the NFL in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. By adding Lotulelei and Short, Gettleman appears to have bolstered the interior not only to defend the run but also by generating an interior pass rush. Gettleman clearly has a vision of developing a disruptive front four that can cripple an offense which was the type of defense that was the baseline for both Super Bowl runs by his former organization.
After three games, the Panthers now have 10 sacks with seven coming against the Giants. The Panthers also held the Giants to just 150 total yards in a 38-0 win on Sunday. Carolina looks to be developing one of the best young front sevens in the NFL. While he wasn’t a Gettleman selection, MLB Luke Kuechly was a home run for the Panthers’ first-round selection in 2012. Last season, Kuechly led the league in tackles (164), while earning defensive rookie of the year honors. Adding Lotulelei up front frees up space for Kuechly to use his elite instincts to make plays. Kuechly appears to be on pace for multiple All-Pro selections if he remains healthy.
Despite the trashing of the Giants in Week 3, the Panthers have yet to win consistently. They must improve on offense particularly along the offensive line and they need to find playmakers at receiver. And Gettleman will eventually need to make a decision if Cam Newton is the future, as the QB's contract expires after the 2014 season. Carolina also needs to add talent and depth in the secondary.
While the Panthers still have holes to fill, one thing that can’t be denied is that their defensive front is playing at as high of a level than any other team in the league. With Lotulelei, the Panthers have appeared to have found their anchor on the interior and have a front line that should cause problems for opposing offenses for years to come.