14th Overall Selection by the Carolina Panthers
Overview: Carolina Panthers general manager David Gettleman took control in Carolina upon his arrival in January and inherited one of the more enigmatic rosters in the NFL. While the previous general manager Marty Hurney left him with a less than ideal salary cap situation, there were quite a few talented players in place for Gettleman to begin building around. One of the more prominent names on the defensive side of the ball was 2012 first rounder and 9th overall selection, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. After a successful rookie campaign which culminated in an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, the Panthers are looking for Kuechly and the defense in general to take their production to a higher level. Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera used the 14th pick in the first round on Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a big bodied run plugger who will help shore up the Panthers run defense and keep their athletic linbeackers clean and free to make plays sideline to sideline. The Panthers secondary is the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the football after adding Lotulelei and 2nd round pick Kawann Short at defensive tackle. With inexperienced and unproven players laced throughout the defensive backfield, the Panthers will rely on an improved front 7 to carry the unit against an ultra-competitive NFC South division.
Position Battles: Lotulelei has already ascended to the starting line up at nose tackle, but the Panthers will use a heavy rotation at both tackle positions. Kawann Short and Lotulelei both look to be featured, but veterans Sione Fua, Dwan Edwards, and Colin Cole will also battle for playing time. Dwan Edwards and Kawann Short should be the primary interior pass rushers, but Lotulelei should eventually become a more prominent part of that rotation as he has rapidly improved his rush technique throughout camp and was recently praised by head coach Ron Rivera for doing so. The depth and talent at defensive tackle is on its way to becoming a strength in Carolina, and the Panthers have quietly put together one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL.
Notable Match-Ups: Lotulelei will begin his career at home against the Seattle Seahawks and one of the NFL’s more well balanced offenses featuring quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch. Lotulelei’s run stopping prowess will be put to the test often as the Panthers schedules features several of the leagues top rushers. Division rivals Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons Steven Jackson will get multiple chances to get the better of Lotulelei and the Panthers. The Vikings Adrian Peterson, San Francisco’s Frank Gore, and New England Patriot Stevan Ridley will be among Lotulelei and the Panthers toughest challenges all year. Lotulelei will line up across from some premier guards this season, most notably being Carl Nicks of the Buccaneers, Logan Mankins of the Patriots, New Orleans Saints left guard Ben Grubbs, and San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Mike Iupati. One of the more interesting match-ups will be the week 6 game against the Cardinals in Arizona where Lotulelei will face off against fellow first round pick Jonathan Cooper, the 7th overall player selected in Aprils NFL Draft.
2014 and Beyond
The Carolina Panthers have put together one of the youngest and most talented defensive lines in the entire NFL and the future of their defensive success will rely heavily upon it. The 2014 projected starting defensive line will be Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson at right and left defensive end, with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short at nose tackle and 3-technique. They are a physical and disruptive group and can generate a significant pass rush without the help of a blitz. That front four and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly will spearhead the Carolina defense which is being built to win the competitive NFC South division which features two of the leagues premier passing attacks in Atlanta and New Orleans as well as one of the most productive rushing teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Charles Johnson is the elder statesman of the group at just 27 years of age, followed by Greg Hardy(25), Short(24) and Lotulelei(23). The Panthers are in prime position to have a dominant front four for the foreseeable future, a front four which will also will free up the ultra productive Kuechly(22) to make plays all over the football field. Head coach Ron Rivera is entering 2013 with his job on the line, but he has this Carolina franchise on the brink of making legitimate playoff noise on their way to becoming a title contender.