Getting an elite nose tackle has been the ideal since the Carolina Panthers selected Kris Jenkins. In recent years there was always a bigger fish to fry, but lady luck shone on the Panthers Thursday night, as they got the perfect player for their team in Star Loulelei. It was an uncanny fusion of need and best player available. This wasn't just about getting an elite player for the defense, it was such an unlikely and uncommon scenario that it could have saved Ron Rivera's job.
Marty Hurney threw a Hail Mary in 2011 drafting Cam Newton, and it worked out. Getting a franchise quarterback amid so many questions bought Hurney an extra season, and saved his job. Had the Panthers gone in a different direction and finished 3-13, or 4-12 then he would have been fired a year earlier.
Last night there was another Hail Mary, but one Carolina had no control over. Forced to sit in the end zone and wait for the sailing pass, they got the perfect player for their defense -- and one that could be almost as important to the defense as Cam Newton was on offense. Ron Rivera had a very small amount of rope, and Lotulelei makes that rope considerably longer.
There's more to it than just getting a player to plug the middle. A force, he changes the complexion of the linebacker corps. Luke Kuechly was amazing last year, but he was often anchored to the middle of the field out of necessity. He couldn't roam without a threat of the DTs making a play at the point of attack, and now he can help the safeties, and rush the passer more. Concurrently, both Jon Beason and Thomas Davis can move more, and give offenses different looks.
Linebackers should be happy on Friday morning, but the linemen will be overjoyed. They still need a long-term under tackle, but as it stands this starting unit has the same potential the storied defensive lines of 2003 and 2004 had. Holding the point of attack will allow fewer opportunities to double the defensive ends, and Star will command a double-team as a rookie. It's hard to find another rookie defensive tackle who will command that kind of attention. It's more about what other players can do, than what Lotulelei will do.
A quarterback is the most important player on the field. Get that right and the rest is plugging holes, but getting a defensive tackle to Star's caliber takes a middling defense and immediately makes them a threat. If the Panthers can add secondary help in the rest of this draft they have chance to be very good defensively -- the biggest domino is now in place.
Dave Gettleman was clearly happy in their post-round press conference. He got his Hog Mollie, and the anchor for the Panthers defensive line. Ron Rivera sat adjacent, overjoyed at the pick. He got his anchor too -- not only for his defense, but for his lifeline.