If you've been a Panthers fan for at the last few years you're probably well aware of the fact that Carolina hasn't had a pair of quality DT's since Kris Jenkins and Ma'ake Kemoeatu were on the roster. If you're scoring at home, the last time those two were on the field together for the Panthers was 2007. It's been a long five years with a bunch of mediocre talent sitting in the middle of the defensive line, and for most fans the biggest frustration hasn't necessarily been the players' inability to be effective, but rather the front office deciding that the position wasn't important enough to spend quality draft picks on.
That feeling was erased in new GM Dave Gettleman's first year at the helm in Carolina when he double-dipped at DT by taking Utah's Star Lotulelei in the first round and Purdue's Kawann Short in the second round in last weekend's NFL Draft.
A lot of fans are still wondering why Carolina drafted Short after they spent their first round pick on a DT, especially when the team has so many other weaknesses that need to be addressed. It's a valid concern because there are weaknesses in other places besides DT, but I believe if you put yourself in Gettleman's shoes and think about how important a quality front four is to the defense, the selection of Short starts to make sense.
In our post-draft open thread, I said the following:
What was the biggest problem we had last year? Closing out games in the 4th quarter when we had either established a lead or brought the game to within one score. How did we struggle closing out games? By allowing the other team to use their UDFA RB and shove the ball down our throats at will. Why did this happen? Because we didn't have good DT's. What is the best way to fix a problem of not having good DT's? Getting good DT's. What's the cheapest and easiest way to get good DT's? By drafting them. Well guess what - Gettleman did that by taking Star and Short. He fixed our biggest problem in two draft picks. We now have a DT rotation of Star, Short, Dwan, Fua, and Cole who will eat up space, allow the DE's LB's to make plays in space, and allow each other to have breathers on the sideline so they're not barely able to walk in the 4th quarter.
Gettleman said he wanted starters - well he got two starters in the first two rounds. Short will probably start at UT instead of Dwan. If he doesn't, he'll get enough snaps in the rotation to be considered a starter. Both DT's are going to get plenty of snaps and are going to be part of a four or five man group that rotates in and out to stay fresh and continue to plug the middle and allow the playmakers on defense to make plays.
Does anyone remember our secondary in the Super Bowl year? You may or may not know their names, but guess what - none of them were elite, and none of them (save for Mike Minter) were really even considered more than a JAG. Why was our defense so good? Because we had a front seven who didn't let the QB expose the secondary. Well guess what? WE HAVE ONE OF THOSE NOW! That's why they double dipped at DT. This isn't like it was when we picked McClain and Fua - they didn't reach for these guys. They picked players who are going to help the defense, and believe it or not - they are going to help Cam as well.
Some of you have said that you wish we would have gotten weapons for Cam. Well, we did. We gave him a defense that won't blow the lead that he just got. We gave him a defense that will let him get on the field with the ball in his hands instead of a defense that forces him to watch Brees, Ryan, et al torch our team and put him in a situation where he has to score 35 points a game just to have a chance to win. We don't have to do that any more. We should be able to win games by scoring less than 30 points now. That helps Cam way more than a 2nd or 4th round WR would have helped him.
I know it's a lot of words (and it's not even the full comment!), but if you think about it, double-dipping at DT makes a lot of sense for the Panthers. Whether it was from extensive film study or seeing him dominate at the Senior Bowl, Gettleman was very high on Short throughout the pre-draft process, going so far as to call him "The most natural pass rusher out of all the defensive tackles in the draft." in a press conference announcing the 2nd round selection.
When you look at Short's production on paper (see the sidebar above for his notable stats), you have to keep in mind that he was mostly the nose tackle at Purdue, and according to him he played at 320 pounds - 10 pounds heavier than his preferred playing weight. It must also be noted that the Panthers don't plan to play him at NT very often since they drafted Lotulelei in the first round. Instead they will rotate him at UT with veteran Dwan Edwards, a plan that if executed properly will keep both players fresh throughout the game and prevent a breakdown on the interior defensive line in the 4th quarter.
If Short is able to maintain a weight between 300-310 lbs (where he said he's comfortable), then he should be able to be an effective pass rusher at the next level. His Pro-Day 40 time of 5.08 would have been the 6th best time at the Combine (Short held out of the Combine due to a hamstring injury), so he has the necessary speed to disrupt the backfield. He won't win a footrace with most people, but he's fast enough for a 300+ pound defensive lineman.
The one knock on Short is that he has a reputation for taking plays off. In his post-draft interview, Short said that the reason he appeared to take plays off is because he wouldn't let the coaches take him out of the game when he was tired because he knew the team needed him on the field.
He wasn't taking plays off - he was completely devoid of the necessary energy to keep up with fresher players since he was playing overweight and on the field for nearly every snap all season. Short also said that if he could go back and do it again, he would have taken himself out more to preserve energy. Luckily for Panthers fans, he'll be a part of a 3 man rotation so the "taking plays off" issue shouldn't be an issue at all when he suits up on Sundays.
Whether or not Gettleman's assessment of Short is correct is yet to be seen, but the rest of the Panthers' defensive line should be able to take advantage of having a guy like Short on the field. He can take on multiple blockers, rush the passer, and stuff the run - something the Panthers have needed from the DT position for years.
It's hard to argue the fact that the Panthers have weaknesses in the secondary, but it's also easy to see that Dave Gettleman has given the Panthers an identity - one that Panthers fans from the early 2000's should be familiar with. The Carolina Panthers now have one of the nastiest defensive lines in the NFL, and even though the secondary could use a little tinkering, nothing is better for a secondary than a front seven who can swallow the opposing quarterback and running backs whole. Doing so takes away the run, negates the effectiveness of the play-action pass, and limits the effect of the downfield passing attack.
Beefing up the defensive line was the best thing the Panthers could do for Cam Newton, because now he doesn't have to shoulder the weight of trying to score 40 points per game to account for a weak defense. Cam can now focus on playing his game, and he can focus on ball security and clock management because he knows the defense won't let the other team run up the score and put the offense in an abyss they can't climb out of every week.
So, while Gettleman may have upset fans on the second day of the draft by making a two-for-one purchase at the big fat fatty store, what he's done is take the team's biggest weakness and turn it into a strength. Those are the moves that winners make, and in time the decision to double dip at DT has potential to be the best move Gettleman ever makes as GM of the Carolina Panthers (if everything goes according to plan, of course).