In his third season, Short developed into one of the league's premier defenders and earned his first Pro Bowl berth. Often overshadowed in a defense that features Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Josh Norman, the defensive tackle's performance has been as good or better than all three.
"He's been the most dominant inside player in the league this year, in my opinion," fellow defensive tackle Star Lotulelei told the Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones.
Norman added, per ESPN's David Newton, "Kawann is a beast. He's indestructible. He's a titan on that line."
The former Boilermaker needed time to develop into that pass-rushing titan, though.
When the Panthers chose Short in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Purdue product became something of an afterthought. After all, Carolina already selected Lotulelei in the first round. Many viewed the Utah product as one of the top prospects in the class, and he likely only fell to the Panthers at the 14th pick because of reservations about a reported heart condition.
Lotulelei delivered with a top-notch rookie campaign. Short, meanwhile, contributed as part of the team's defensive-line rotation behind veteran Colin Cole. Over the past two years, Short continued to learn the nuances of the position and fully realized his potential this season.
"I have been paying attention to details, studying the game," Short said, per the Associated Press' Steve Reed. "I took all of these pieces of advice from other people, put them in the bucket, and now I'm using it."
His growing importance to the Panthers defense stems in part from a scarcity of defenders who own a similar skill set.
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In the NFL, a positional hierarchy exists. Four positions—quarterback, left tackle, edge-rusher and cornerback—are generally viewed as franchise cornerstones. Of course, quarterback is the game's most important position. Left tackles are paid handsomely to keep franchise signal-callers upright. Edge-rushers are expected to get after quarterbacks. And cornerbacks are often considered the game's best athletes.
Even so, a complete defensive tackle is harder to find than any of the aforementioned building blocks.
Consider this: 12 quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards in 2015. Only five defensive tackles managed at least six sacks this season. Granted, this doesn't include 3-4 defensive ends—some of whom line up as a 3-technique, depending on specific team schemes—but it shows how rare of a commodity an interior pass-rusher is.
Yes, the ability to come screaming off the edge, a la Lawrence Taylor, and obliterate an unsuspecting quarterback from his blind side still holds a high value, but a team's pass rush is built on more than edge pressure. Interior pressure can be invaluable.
Usually, defensive tackles are separated into two classes: massive run-stuffers and upfield penetrators. Why? Planet theory. There are only so many men on this planet big enough, strong enough, quick enough and athletic enough to be a three-down defensive tackle.
Few develop into the complete package. Teams are generally happy if their defensive tackles can be stout against the run on first and second down. The NFL, however, is a passing league, and a defensive tackle's value grows exponentially if he can make a quarterback's life miserable.
The ability to collapse the pocket and make a quarterback consistently uncomfortable because he can't step up can be more debilitating to an offense than having to game-plan around stopping long, lean edge defenders.
A strong interior pass rush makes everyone on the defense better. Short provided a perfect example against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC divisional round, courtesy of the NFL's Twitter feed:
The Panthers defensive tackle coupled his first-step quickness with an arm lift that left Seahawks guard Justin Britt in the dust. His presence as an interior rusher forced quarterback Russell Wilson off his spot and into a bad decision.
Short didn't register the sack, but his pressure on Wilson created the scoring play for Kuechly.
"Any time that the rush complements your coverage it makes your job easier," Kuechly said, per Jones. "Really I was just kind of standing there and he tossed it right to me. So that’s why I was trying to give KK all the credit because he deserved it all."
According to Pro Football Focus, Short finished third among interior defenders with 46 quarterback hurries during the regular season. He did so in fewer snaps (771) than both Atkins (805) and the Philadelphia Eagles' Fletcher Cox (999), who finished first and second, respectively. Short has added seven more quarterback hurries and a pair of sacks during the playoffs.
The third-year defender consistently wins with his first-step quickness.
"[The quarterback knows] that you’re coming,” Short said, per Jones. "He’s going to throw it a little faster or get off his spot. Or he’ll look for you coming and next thing he knows somebody else hits him. Once he knows that get-off is coming, that’s the most important thing."
When a defensive lineman is as quick off the snap as Short, offensive linemen find it difficult to handle on a couple of levels.
"That's the most important thing for a 3-tech, that first step," Short said, per Reed. "You have to get off fast."
First, the blocker knows he has less of an opportunity to land his initial punch in his pass set. His timing must be impeccable or he risks having Short run right around him.
Short's quickness changes blocking angles in the run game, too.
While getting to the quarterback makes the Panthers defensive tackle a rare commodity by itself, he's also a complete performer.
Short's skill set pairs extremely well with Lotulelei's. The 2013 first-round pick is bigger and more stout at the point of attack. At 6'2", 320 pounds, the Utah product transitioned well into the team's starting 1-technique.
"He and Star form a really good tandem inside," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, per Reed. "Star seems to do a lot of the dirty work, a lot of the physical work, and KK is explosive and a pass-rusher."
However, Lotulelei's "dirty work" shouldn't be mistaken for any type of shortcoming in his fellow tackle's game when asked to defend the run.
While Short might not be as strong in his upper body or as violent with his hands, his quickness pays dividends by consistently playing at heels' depth. He can slip blocks and get past blockers consistently, create disruption or make plays in the backfield.
"He's playing lights-out," Lotulelei said, per Newton. "He's made it easier on the rest of us to actually be who we are. Playing next to him, he takes a lot of pressure off [me] now that he's established himself."
What makes Short truly special is his overall athleticism. At 6'3" and a listed 315 pounds, the onetime second-round pick moves like a much smaller man.
"His focus, his work ethic and his massive size—can't nobody block him," Norman said, per Reed. "It's like playing a linebacker on the defensive line, except that he's 320 pounds. It's crazy."
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott can get creative with his play-calling because of Short. For example, in the NFC Championship Game, the defensive tackle dropped into coverage and made a solo tackle against Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson.
Below is a pair of screenshots to show Short's responsibilities. Before the snap, Short lined up in his normal spot as a 3-technique:
Once Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein snapped the ball, the Panthers brought a zone blitz and the defensive tackle opened his hips and dropped five yards into coverage:
Short worked his way to the flat and chased down Johnson, who caught the ball, and he held him to an eight-yard gain.
Yes, the Cardinals converted on 4th-and-2 with Johnson's catch, but Short showed off his athleticism and held the running back to a minimal amount of yardage.
While no one, especially Panthers staffers, wants to see this talented defensive tackle consistently drop into coverage, the play is a perfect example of how his talent offers flexibility within the scheme. Short isn't just a run defender or a one-gap penetrator. He's the total package.
"He's playing balls to the wall," veteran defensive tackle Kyle Love said, per Newton.
I love being around a guy like that because he motivates everybody else. Every day I'm constantly watching him, like, 'What are you seeing? What are you doing? What are you looking for?' It's amazing to see him, especially from last year to this year, how he's grown. It's crazy.
Short affects every aspect of the game when he's on the field, and he's grown into the player the Panthers originally expected Lotulelei to become.
"Star gives us an impactful three-down defensive lineman," general manager Dave Gettleman said after the team signed Lotulelei to his first contract in May 2013, per Bryan Strickland of the team's official site.
Together, Short and Lotulelei form one of the league's best defensive tackle tandems, but the real star at this point in their careers is the one Carolina selected with the 44th, not 14th, overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Short might not receive the same level of recognition as some of his teammates, but the Broncos know exactly who he is and the problems he presents as the two teams prepare for Super Bowl 50.