The Carolina Panthers had the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year in linebacker Luke Kuechly, and they have a chance to go back-to-back in that award after the 2013 season is over.
Carolina made defensive tackle Star Lotulelei its pick in the 2013 NFL draft, and he'll slide right into the middle of the Panthers' defense when training camp opens and the season starts in September.
The team's official Twitter account had this post to confirm the news:
With the 14th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Carolina #Panthers select Star Lotulelei, DT from Utah.— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) April 26, 2013
The 6'2", 311-pound Lotulelei has had one of the more notable stories surrounding his name during the 2013 NFL draft process. From being a potential top-five pick, to not being able to work out at the NFL combine due to a heart condition that was later cleared as a minor setback (h/t Lya Wodraska of The Salt Lake Tribune), Lotulelei has been one of the most talked-about players with respect to his final landing spot.
It turns out it's Carolina, and he'll step right in as a starter next to Dwan Edwards.
Now that he's officially a Panther, the big question for Carolina fans is simple: What does Lotulelei bring to the table that will help make Carolina a better team on defense in 2013?
Lotulelei made his living taking on blocks as a two- and three-technique with the Utah Utes, a big reason why he was rated so highly before the heart condition rocked his draft stock after the end of the NFL combine.
Although comparisons from NFL.com place Lotulelei closer to 3-4 specialist and Baltimore Ravens NT Haloti Ngata, Lotulelei will have a similar impact with the Panthers in their 4-3 scheme.
As a versatile lineman who has both the strength and the speed to play all over the front seven, he gives Ron Rivera and company tons of flexibility with respect to the blitz schemes and defensive packages that the coaching staff wants to use.
The Panthers got a huge steal with this pick, especially considering Sharrif Floyd was still on the board and the New York Jets took Sheldon Richardson just before Carolina's pick went in.
Lotulelei might not help Carolina's pass-rushing woes right away, but he frees up Jon Beason and Kuechly to make tackles just by being in the starting lineup. His wide frame and explosive first step should pose problems for offensive linemen, making it easier for the linebackers to shuck just one blocker that is hung up on keeping Lotulelei at bay.
The run defense got an immediate upgrade, and there's little doubt that Lotulelei has the potential to be a three-down, multi-tool player at the next level. It's up to he and the Panthers' defense to put the pieces together, but Lotulelei should add depth and talent to a front seven expected to stop Steven Jackson, Doug Martin and the New Orleans Saints' three-headed monster two times each per year.