Carolina Panthers

Panthers defensive tackle analysis: Why it’s an important season for Star Lotulelei

It looks like the Panthers will let nose tackle Star Lotulelei play out his rookie contract before deciding whether to lock him up long term.
It looks like the Panthers will let nose tackle Star Lotulelei play out his rookie contract before deciding whether to lock him up long term. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

While the Carolina Panthers’ linebacker corps gets a lot of love – and deservedly so – the big guys in front of them should not be overlooked.

Carolina’s defensive tackle group features two first-round draft picks, a new $80 million man and a veteran who started a Super Bowl with the Patriots. With his contract extension, Kawann Short is now among the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league, and has said he expects to be in the top tier production-wise after a dip last season.

It looks like the Panthers will let nose tackle Star Lotulelei play out his rookie contract before deciding whether to lock him up long term. The play of Vernon Butler, who didn’t flash much during an injury-plagued rookie season, likely will determine Lotulelei’s future in Carolina.

Breakout candidate

It was difficult to gauge Butler’s upside last season given the former Louisiana Tech standout missed six games with a high ankle sprain. Butler had limited repetitions even before the injury, but he does seem to have a knack for getting his hands on the ball. Butler, only the second player in franchise history to block two field goals in a season, should get more of a chance to show what he can do.

VernonButler1
At defensive tackle, the play of 2016 first-round draft pick Vernon Butler likely will determine the future of 2013 first-rounder Star Lotulelei in Carolina. Bob Leverone AP

To be decided in camp

Kyle Love, who has played in two Super Bowls, seems to have the inside track on the fourth DT spot. Love returned on a two-year deal worth $2.2 million, so it’s not like cutting him was saddle the Panthers with a ton of dead money. But someone in the group of Eric Crume, Toby Johnson and Gabriel Mass would have to beat him out.

Underdog to watch

Johnson has bounced around several teams, mostly as a practice squad player, without doing much. But the former Georgia DT has intriguing size at 6-4 and 320 pounds, which is what likely drew the attention of Dave Gettleman.

Also keep an eye on ...

This is an important season for Lotulelei, the former first-round pick who has been overshadowed by Short, drafted a round behind him in 2013. Part of the production discrepancy can be attributed to Lotulelei’s nose tackle spot, which draws more blockers because of its proximity to the center/quarterback. The Panthers say they’re pleased with Lotulelei’s progress, but they’re not going to tie up too much money at one position unless Lotulelei forces their hand.

Three bold predictions

▪  Short won’t match his 11-sack outburst from 2015, but he’ll improve on his total of six from last season.

▪  Butler will block two more kicks – a PAT and a field goal – and become more productive on the defensive interior as well.

▪  Julius Peppers will align at defensive tackle in the majority of third-down situations as the Panthers seek to get their four best pass-rushers on the field.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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