Carolina Panthers

At $780,000 per game, he could be the Panthers' most underrated player

Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short on his role in NFL, Panthers

Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short talks about his role in the NFL and on the Carolina Panthers on June 14, the third and final day of the Panthers minicamp.
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Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short talks about his role in the NFL and on the Carolina Panthers on June 14, the third and final day of the Panthers minicamp.

It’s hard to work up a lot of sympathy for a guy pulling in north of $780,000 a game this season – and Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short certainly isn’t looking for any.

While Short got his mega-contract (five years, $80 million) last year, what he has never gotten much of is his due.

NFL Network recently ranked the top 10 defensive linemen in the league, and Short came in at No. 5. The four players ranked ahead of him — Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy, Fletcher Cox and Geno Atkins — all have multiple Pro Bowl selections.

Donald, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, is in a class by himself.

Carolina Panthers minicamp concluded June 14, 2018 after three days in the heat. Observer beat writers Joe Person and Jourdan Rodrigue recap what happened for the team and what to look forward to going into training camp in July.

But Short’s statistics since the start of the 2015 season compare favorably with the three other DTs ranked ahead of him on the NFL Network list. Yet Short’s lone Pro Bowl nod came during the Panthers’ Super Bowl season of 2015.

What some players might consider a slight or snub, Short finds shrug-worthy. But then, that’s always been the personality of the 2013 second-round pick from Purdue.

Panthers Kawann Short mug
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short says his first goal for this season is to help his team get back to the Super Bowl. A Pro Bowl nod also would be nice. Chuck Burton AP

“I don’t look for all that,” Short said last week after the Panthers wrapped up their minicamp. "I’m not in the media trying to get myself noticed, nothing like that. I think I’m in good hands and in a good position.

“They paid me for my position and I’m good. I don’t need all that recognition (or to) make things more noticeable. But I’m doing my job and I’m doing it the best I can. I’m not worried about my name going across the (TV) screen every other day.”

A reward for production

Short’s name scrolled across the bottom of all the sports network screens in the spring of 2017 after the Panthers made him one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league.

It was a reward for both the production and resiliency that Short has brought to the organization since former general manager Dave Gettleman drafted him 44th overall in ’13.

Short, a high school basketball standout in East Chicago, Ind., has not missed a game over his first five NFL seasons.

Predictably, Short didn’t want to make much of his streak of 80 consecutive games, either.

“Nah, I don’t think about it. I just expect it. It’s been like that since college, been like that since high school,” he said. “Just knock on wood every day, man, and just be blessed that I’m able to get nicks and nags and still come out here and play at a high level.”

Panthers Kawann Short action
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) spent his first five seasons playing alongside Star Lotulelei, who left for Buffalo during the offseason. Now, Short will team with free agent pickup Dontari Poe on the interior of the defensive line. Phelan M. Ebenhack AP

Short has filled up stat sheets as well as just about any interior lineman not named Donald in recent seasons. Since 2015, Short ranks third in sacks (24.5), second in forced fumbles (six), fourth in tackles for loss (35) and sixth in pass deflections (eight) among defensive tackles.

Only Donald and Atkins had more sacks over that span, and Short trailed Donald, Atkins and Ndamukong Suh in TFLs.

But Short has only the one Pro Bowl selection to show for it.

Top of the game

Panthers coach Ron Rivera is trying to figure out why Short — and the entire defensive line — seem to get slighted. The Panthers’ front four did not make the NFL.com’s list of the league’s top eight defensive lines for 2018.

“It’s kind of funny because you go back the last few years and (Short) is right there at the top with those guys,” Rivera said. “The hard thing for us to understand, too, is to be left off that top-10 list of D-lines. We had (two) double-digit sack guys and couple that with KK and some of things he can do.”

Edge rushers Julius Peppers and Mario Addison each had 11 sacks in 2017, the total Short hit during his breakout season of 2015. Short realizes he set the bar high that year.

“Everybody wants that 2015 – 11 sacks and all that. But with those (statistics) come targets,” he said. “I’m just meeting my expectations, what the coaches ask me to do.”

A new partner

Short, 29, plays in a system in which the defensive linemen often are asked to occupy blockers to allow linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to make plays. Star Lotulelei, the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2013, took on a lot of that space-eating responsibility the last few seasons, but couldn’t match Short’s productivity.

Lotulelei is now in Buffalo after signing a free agent deal with the Bills during the offseason. Taking his place alongside Short is veteran Dontari Poe, a 6-3, 346-pounder who has been proficient at both taking on blockers and making plays.

Panthers Kawann Short practice
Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) became one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league in 2017 when he signed a five-year, $80 million extension. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

An effective Poe could help draw extra blockers away from Short.

“Look at him, man. He’s made a name for himself,” Short said of Poe, a two-time Pro Bowler. “And just to see what he does and his lead, and to bring that to our line, it’s going to be something special.”

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly talks about the changes to the coaching staff of the Panthers on June 12, the first day of Panthers training camp.

A different focus

The same could be said of Short’s play the last few years, which has not gone entirely unnoticed. It’s not like NFL Network left him off its list completely.

Pro Football Focus, the analytics site owned by NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth, had Short as its highest-rated, fifth-year player in 2017 – at all positions.

And while Short mentioned the Pro Bowl among his goals for 2018, it’s not his top focus.

First, we’ve got to get back to the Super Bowl,” he said. “But as an individual, try to be one of the best defensive tackles in the league and make the Pro Bowl."

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson
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