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Star Lotulelei will plug Carolina Panthers’ biggest gap

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
NFL Draft Panthers Football
Rick Bowmer - AP
Star Lotulelei looks on as his uncle Ti Akau cheers after Lotulelei was selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah.

Poll

Poll: Was Star Lotulelei the best pick at No. 14 for the Panthers?

Yes, he’s got that star-quality name, but what Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will really do for the Panthers will be more behind the scenes.

With a few exceptions like Warren Sapp, defensive tackles are the most anonymous players on any NFL defense. The defensive ends get the sacks. The linebackers get the tackles. The defensive backs either get the interceptions or get toasted for touchdowns.

But those defensive linemen make a huge difference. In the literal center of everything, they often can make or break an offensive play without actually touching the man with the ball.

The Panthers haven’t been good enough at the position for years, and Lotulelei is just the sort of space-eater the team needed. I like this pick. As I wrote in Thursday’s newspaper, the Panthers might have wanted a sports car but what they really needed was a steamroller. They just acquired a 6-foot-2, 311-pound one.

“What Star does is he impacts the game on every snap,” enthused new Panther general manager Dave Gettleman, who made the final call on picking Lotulelei.

Lotulelei becomes the first top-50 choice the Panthers have used on a defensive tackle since Kris Jenkins in 2001. In an ideal world, he will also be the player who occupies two blockers inside and frees middle linebacker Luke Kuechly up to make 12-15 tackles per game and Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson to each get 10-12 sacks next season.

Lotulelei is admittedly more of a run-stopper than a pass rusher, though. And there was a medical issue earlier this year with his heart (he was since cleared by doctors, but it undoubtedly dropped his draft stock to a degree, or else the Panthers would have never gotten him).

Gettleman said Thursday night he believed Lotulelei could be a “three-down” defensive lineman, meaning he wouldn’t have to come off the field on passing downs. He will be on the bench some, though, since the Panthers rotate their defensive linemen pretty frequently.

Panther coach Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker, knows the value of being able to roam freely as a linebacker toward the ball without having to first fight off an offensive lineman. “He can command the double team,” Rivera said of Lotulelei.

Echoed Gettleman: “The other huge thing he does is he’s going to occupy two quite often, which is going to keep Luke (Kuechly) free. So it gives Luke more protection, which makes our defense better.”

Gettleman also said last week he thought the Panthers could get two starters with their first two picks – their No. 44 overall choice comes up Friday night. Given this pick, I prefer they take either an offensive lineman or a defensive back at No. 44.

Unless Lotulelei sustains some sort of setback between now and September, he will be plugged in quickly as a starting defensive tackle. The Panthers’ defensive line suddenly sounds – well, not fearsome, exactly, but at least quite respectable.

“The guy’s a player,” Gettleman said. “He fits what we do. He’s very talented. He’s mature. And it gives us a chance. You look historically at the Super Bowl champions, and you show me one that’s had a bad defensive front. Doesn’t happen. I’m telling you.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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