After months of scouting and prep work, the Carolina Panthers needed just 90 seconds to make their first-round pick Thursday night.
That’s all the time first-year general manager Dave Gettleman needed to land his big “hog molly.”
Looking to fortify its defensive line and give middle linebacker Luke Kuechly some protection up front, Carolina took Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick of the NFL draft.
Lotulelei, a 6-foot-3, 311-pound native of Tonga, was considered a top-3 overall prospect before being diagnosed with a heart condition at the scouting combine in February. But he was cleared by a University of Utah cardiologist last month, and worked out for the Panthers following the Utes’ pro day.
It’s the first time the Panthers have taken a defensive tackle in the first round. Before Lotulelei, the Panthers had taken only one defensive tackle in the first 50 picks – Kris Jenkins went 44th overall in 2001.
Lotulelei becomes the fourth Utah player drafted by the Panthers. Two of the former Utes are the longest-tenured players on the roster and are destined for the team’s ring of honor – Steve Smith and Jordan Gross.
A week before his first draft as a general manager, Gettleman talked about the importance of adding big players on both sides of the line, calling such space-eaters “hog mollies.”
The way the draft unfolded, the Panthers had their pick of the two highest-rated defensive tackles in Lotulelei and Florida’s Sharrif Floyd.
Gettleman said the Panthers were considering three players at 14, believed to be Lotulelei, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
But they needed less than two minutes to go with Lotulelei.
“We’re very excited,” Gettleman said. “What Star does, he impacts the game on every snap in terms of the run game, pass game. He is a legitimate three-down defensive tackle. He’s not someone you’re going to replace in your sub-package defense.
“The other huge thing he does is he’s going to occupy two (blockers) quite often, which is going to keep Luke (Kuechly) free. It gives Luke more protection, which makes our defense better.”
Kuechly, the No. 9 pick last year, was the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading the league in tackles.
Putting a big, athletic nose tackle in the middle of their 4-3 scheme will help all of the Panthers’ linebackers, according to coach Ron Rivera.
“He’s going to command the double teams. He’ll hold the point of attack for us and our linebackers will be able to flow free,” said Rivera, a former Chicago Bears linebacker.
Lotulelei was a magnet for extra blockers his last two years at Utah, but still tallied 20 of his 22.5 career tackles for loss over that span. In three seasons with the Utes, Lotulelei registered seven sacks, five fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles.
He said it was a “big blow” learning he wouldn’t be able to work out at the combine, where doctors found his left ventricle was pumping below normal at 44 percent.
But Utah cardiologist Josef Stehlik said Lotulelei’s abnormal test may have resulted from a virus, and follow-up exams showed a “complete normalization of the heart muscle function,” according to ESPN.
“It ended up just being a virus I might have had from a cold. But everything’s been cleared. I’m ready to go,” Lotulelei said in a conference call Thursday night. “I couldn’t be happier with the team that picked me, with the Carolina Panthers. I’m ready to get down there and get to work.”
Lotulelei was invited to attend the draft festivities at Radio City Music Hall, but chose to remain at home in Utah with his wife, two daughters and the rest of his family.
He was watching it on TV when he got a call from Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington, who joined Panthers college scouting director Don Gregory and pro scouting director Mark Koncz at Lotulelei’s private workout.
The Panthers were impressed with his maturity, size and power. He’s not a finished product: Washington told Rivera he thinks Lotulelei can improve as a pass-rusher.
But he’s a big addition to a defensive line that had defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both finish with double-digit sacks in 2012. The Panthers also re-signed defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, whose six sacks last season were a career high.
“The guy’s a player. He fits what we do. He’s very talented. He’s mature,” Gettleman said. “You look historically at the Super Bowl champions and you show me one that’s had a bad defensive front. It doesn’t happen. He gives us a great rotation inside.”
Drafting defensive linemen has become a tradition for the New York Giants, Gettleman’s former employer. He was asked whether he might double down with another defensive lineman in the second round Friday.
Gettleman smiled and said, “Stay tuned.”
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