With a pair of second-year players and two guys in their 30s, the Carolina Panthers’ defensive tackle rotation is an equal mix of young and old.
Just don’t try telling that to Colin Cole, who despite turning 34 this summer, is not ready to start categorizing himself in the latter category.
“Young and young, you mean?” Cole said, answering a question about the age spectrum of the defensive tackles.
Regardless of how Cole qualifies it, the Panthers’ interior linemen were a big part of the defense’s success in 2013. The four-man rotation allowed Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the Panthers’ first two picks in the 2013 draft, to break in alongside veterans Cole and Dwan Edwards, who in turn could keep their legs fresh.
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And with the Panthers bringing Cole back on a one-year deal, the group is back together again.
“We’re so deep, especially inside,” said Edwards, who at 33 is entering his 11th season. “If we can keep guys fresh, we’ll be at a huge advantage throughout the game.”
Not every veteran – or highly drafted rookie – would be OK with sharing time and splitting reps. So why was Edwards agreeable to it?
“I’m old, now. At least that’s what they tell me,” Edwards said, smiling. “I can’t play 60, 70 snaps a game for a full season. It’s nice to be able to rotate and stay fresh and hopefully be in there in those critical situations where we need something to happen.”
Lotulelei, a first-round pick from Utah, started every game as a rookie, and Cole was alongside him in the starting lineup for 14 games.
But defensive line coach Eric Washington said he’s comfortable with any of the interior combinations.
“We feel like we have four starters we can put out there at any given time in any situation,” Washington said after Tuesday’s practice. “They all bring a little something different to the table. But they work extremely well together, and they support each other.”
Edwards and Short are the more natural penetrators. Short finished with only 1.5 sacks, but his 21 quarterback pressures were the most among the defensive tackles.
Lotulelei (6-foot-2, 320 poiunds) and Cole (6-2, 330) were the primary run-stuffers. Lotulelei’s 47 tackles led the group, and he wants to improve on last year’s sack total of three. Cole, who was out of football for two years before signing with the Panthers in 2013, isn’t a fan of the “space eater” descriptor coach Ron Rivera sometimes uses when discussing him.
Cole suggested “middle monster.”
He probably has benefited most from the rotation after a spate of injuries almost ended his career. The new training camp restrictions that were part of the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement also have helped.
Gone are the two-a-day practices in full pads, replaced by single sessions and several mandatory off days during camp.
“With this practice schedule and the rotation that we keep, I don’t have to do a ton of reps at practice,” Cole said. “My legs are really fresh. My body’s really fresh. I don’t have any aches or pains in my body. So if I can go through another season like this last season, there’s no reason why I can’t go and have another contract, preferably here in Carolina.”
The Panthers keep close tabs on the defensive tackle reps. Washington said even the rotation for training camp practices is carefully plotted out.
“We try and plan the reps that each player’s going to get prior to coming out here to make sure young guys are getting the experience,” Washington said, “but we’re saving some of the guys that have a little bit more game reps or years under their belt than others.”
Edwards, the Baltimore Ravens’ second-round pick in 2004, has more years in the league than anyone on the Panthers’ defense. But Edwards said he has no qualms being a backup, particularly if it means he’s better rested for another playoff push late in the season.
“Everybody wants to be out there. Everybody’s working to be out there and be the guy,” Edwards said. “But I think we’ve got something bigger in mind in how we want to play as a whole and not just individually.”