Carolina Panthers Drafting Star Lotulelei Was the Best Pick of the First Round

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2013

November 17, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (92) lines up opposite Arizona Wildcats defensive lineman Kirifi Taula (75) during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers made the best pick of the 2013 NFL draft's first round when they selected monster defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick.

The former Utah linchpin gives the Panthers a potentially dominant defensive line. Put another way, Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan should already be dreading facing the Panthers twice in 2013.

Lotulelei is a dream fit on an already loaded defensive front. He will be the natural anchor on the inside alongside the disruptive Dwan Edwards.

The nine-year pro was one of the surprises of the 2012 season. He demonstrated a knack for applying pressure that was rarely seen before during his career.

Edwards collected six sacks last season. With Lotulelei next to him, he can expect to at least repeat that number this term.

That's because Lotulelei will command multiple blockers. He's not a true attacker, but he occupies blockers and muscles them into the backfield.

In many ways, Lotulelei is the classic table-setter. He'll create plays for his fellow linemen. That's not only great news for Edwards, but also for ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.

The rampaging duo combined for 23.5 sacks a year ago. With greater push inside from Lotulelei, Hardy and Johnson can expect more one-on-one rush opportunities on the outside.

In fact, adding Lotulelei to the mix will create a nightmare dilemma for opposing blocking schemes. They will naturally be tempted to slide their protection to either Johnson or Hardy.

However, that might not be possible with Lotulelei and Edwards demanding increased attention in the middle. Even if offensive lines are able to concentrate on Carolina's edge-rushers, leaving Lotulelei and Edwards single-blocked will be a dangerous gamble.

The play below shows how risky slide protection can be with Lotulelei in the middle.

Notice how far he pushes the guard into the backfield. That's a common sight with Lotulelei, and no quarterback can succeed with his own linemen in his face.

He's also nimble enough to alter his rush path and pursue the passer. That's a dream combination of size and mobility.

Lotulelei's benefit won't just be obvious along the line. Having him invite and stand up double-teams will open up attack lanes for blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

That will be a huge boost for the blitz-happy scheme that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott loves to call.

Lotulelei will also improve things in the running game. The Panthers were average against the rush in 2012, allowing 110.1 yards per game.

Lotulelei will change all of that. He's the natural focal point for any run defense. He fills rushing lanes and forces runners to redirect in the backfield.

Take a look at this play for a prime example of how Lotulelei wrecks a running game.

He's simply too strong to be blocked one-on-one. However, Lotulelei is also agile enough to slide through gaps and destroy a run at its source.

Consider how productive middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was as a rookie. He'll have the freedom to make even more plays with Lotulelei keeping him free from blockers.

In every way, picking Lotulelei was the ideal scenario for the Panthers. It's easy to imagine Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman tripping over each other to confirm the pick.

According to's Bryan Strickland, the head coach and general manager were "thrilled" to snatch Lotulelei at No. 14.

As well they should. It was frankly staggering that Lotulelei lasted so long. The heart condition that was revealed at the combine was naturally going to produce a slight fall.

However, once he received medical clearance, Lotulelei should have been back at the top of most boards. He was the most dominant player in this class, and more than a few general managers will wish that they hadn't been so cautious.

The Panthers, meanwhile, will have few regrets about making the best pick on the first day of the draft. Lotulelei will complete a fearsome front four that will help Carolina genuinely compete in the NFC South.


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