The Panthers’ day off Tuesday represented a rare break for the defensive tackles locked in one of the most intense competitions at training camp.
While most of the offseason focus centered on the contract negotiations involving Pro Bowler Kawann Short, general manager Dave Gettleman went about re-stocking a position he covets.
Gettleman exercised the fifth-year option on Star Lotulelei, signed veteran Paul Soliai, brought back free-agent Kyle Love and drafted Vernon Butler with the 30th overall pick.
The collection of talent and several highly drafted players has made it difficult on those who like to project 53-man rosters -- not to mention the coaches and front office.
“It’s a great battle. And it’s going to be one of our tough decisions,” Ron Rivera said recently. “Because as a coach you’re always concerned that you may have to release a really good football player.”
Returning starters Lotulelei and Short -- the first- and second-round picks in 2013 -- and Butler are locks. That leaves Soliai and Love battling for the final roster spot, unless the Panthers keep five defensive tackles as they did in 2015 when Lotulelei was injured at the start of the season.
“When we start getting ready to get to the numbers, if our sixth defensive tackle is better than our fifth defensive end or our seventh linebacker, we most certainly can carry that extra guy,” Rivera said. “But they’ve done a great job.”
Love, 29, re-signed with the Panthers in April knowing he was joining a stacked position group.
“Just that rotation, it’s going to be competitive everyday,” Love said. “People trying to make the team. People trying to feed their families.”
Love, who started the first two games last season in place of Lotulelei, said the veterans have been happy to help Butler with his transition because he’s not really viewed as competition. As a first-round pick, his roster spot is safe.
“I think it’s a good thing to have the veteran guys, especially mixed in with a new guy like Vern coming into his rookie year,” Love said. “We can kind of show him the ropes a little bit -- because he’s going to be here.”
Soliai, 32, was looking to join a perennial playoff team following two seasons in Atlanta. He’s thrilled about the abundance of talented players -- in the defensive tackle meeting room and up and down the Panthers’ roster. Soliai has been to the playoffs once in his first nine seasons -- a one-and-done appearance with Miami in 2009.
“Seeing how these guys commit to how they want to go somewhere -- I’ve been on some teams like that. But the commitment these guys have and the (work) they’ve put in is different,” Soliai said. “I’ve seen them every year go to the playoffs and that’s something I want to go to.”