That which was a canyon is now a mountain. The DT spot has been a sore one for a long, long time ... but those days are over. By double-dipping in the draft and signing two veteran FAs, the Panthers defensive interior now looks to become the cornerstone of a rock solid front seven.
The Veterans: Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole
It's easy to become bedazzled by the rookie stallions from the draft. So do you throw them out there together as rookies in game 1? I say thee neigh (sic). We've got two grizzled vets that will be teaching the young superstars the tricks of the trade through Training Camp and Pre-Season.
Equally, if not more importantly, is the ability to use the veterans as part of a constant rotation, keeping all of them with fresh legs and full tanks. Doing so will prevent the rookies from slamming into the "wall" before week 12. Playing DT in the NFL is no easy task. Fighting double-teams play after play will drain anyone, especially 310 lb. behemoths.
Dwan Edwards: While probably over-rated by most fans, Dwan brought a veteran presence in 2012 that manifested itself in 6 sacks, 52 tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 2 tackles for loss (previous high in sacks was 2.5 in 2011 with Buffalo). Dwan turned 32 this month, and has been a very steady producer in multiple schemes for the past 5 seasons (didn't do much during his first 3 years in BAL). Dwan's performance for the Panthers in 2012 earned him a new 2-year, $3.6m contract, ensuring there is veteran depth at the UT position.
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 99%
Probability to see significant snaps: 90%
Colin Cole: During his first 5 years in Green Bay, Cole put up solid numbers as a backup/rotational player. He became an immediate starter in Seattle in 2009 where he had a strong year, and his production continued into 2010; until, that is, he suffered a severe ankle sprain on Halloween. Cole managed to get back in the lineup and helped the Hawks win the West with a 7-9 record. He gets brownie points from me for being in the lineup that knocked the Saints out in the first playoff round. Multiple off-season surgeries followed, and he was not ready to return in 2011. Before 2012, the Panthers and other teams showed interest, but nothing came of it. This off-season, he reached out again to the Panthers, and was the first FA signing for Gettleman. Cole is ready to play some ball, and I like his chances (read more on Cole in this Panther.com article).
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 85%
Probability to see significant snaps: 85%
Familiar Faces in Familiar Places: Frank Kearse and Sione Fua
Frank Kearse: Picked up as an FA from the Dolphins practice squad prior to the 2011 season, Kearse has played in 14 games with 8 starts over his two-year career. In those games, he's logged 23 total tackles and 1.5 sacks (notably, his one solo sack came last year on the great Matt Ryan). He's been a decent plug and play backup at both tackle spots when on the active roster. I may be mistaken, but it appears that Kearse still has Practice Squad eligibility remaining, and I think that's where he'll start the 2013 season.
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 25%
Probability to make the PS: 80%
Sione Fua: Fua was drafted as the back half of the infamous 3rd round DT double-dip in 2011. He was immediately thrust into the starting lineup along with fellow draftee Terrell McClain. Fua started 11 games in 2011, recording a nauseating 9 tackles before heading to IR. In 2012, he fared no better, playing in 13 games (1 start) and contributing 13 tackles. I'm guessing the Fua experiment is now over.
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 5%
Probability to make the PS: 0% (not eligible)
A Future So Bright: Starlite Lotulelei Jr. and Kawann Arcell Short
Star: The excitement was palpable as the 2013 draft began, and it built to a fever as Star was passed over again and again. The big run for O-Linemen, and a predictably curious decision by the Jets (taking Sheldon Richardson) kept the day one Open Thread hopping. And then, Star was there, and the Panthers pounced. Universally regarded as a top-5 talent (or better), Star slid perhaps in part due to a misdiagnosed heart abnormality at the combine. For the second year in a row, the Panthers benefited from the bumbling combine Doctors (last year getting Frank Alexander). On behalf of Panther fans everywhere, I am thankful for their incompetence.
Star is potentially an elite Nose Tackle, possessing a lightning quick burst off the snap, impressive strength, and incredible agility for such a large man (6'3", 311 lbs). Facing constant double-teams (and often triple-teams) as a Sr. at Utah, Star still pushed the pocket and garnered 44 tackles (9 for loss) and 1.5 sacks.
The consummate run-stuffer, Star acknowledges that he has room to improve as a pass rusher. Playing with CJ and Kraken, along with his draft partner Short, anything Star provides as a pass rusher would be gravy. He was and is a player opposing teams must game plan for every week.
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 200%
Probability to play significant snaps: 200%
Kawann (KK): The second day NFL Draft Open Thread was again alive with anticipation, with most expecting the pick to be either a Wide Receiver or Safety. The crowd was hoping against hope that Keenan Allen would fall to us. As it happened, Allen not only fell to us, he kept falling all the way to the middle of round 3. The Panthers card was turned in and the pick of "Kawann Short, Defensive Tackle, Purdue" was announced, and we were stunned. Whaaaat??? Another DT double-dip??? By the next day, most were over the shock and recognizing the extreme significance of solidifying both DT slots for years to come (see below for more on the synergy to be gained from having two complementary and extremely talented DTs).
At 6'3, 299 lbs., KK was a two-year Captain for Purdue, and had very impressive statistics as a 4-year starter - Averaging 16 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, and 3 blocked kicks over the last 3 years. When looking at his body type, one would never guess him to be a stellar athlete, but he most certainly is. While Star will manhandle blockers, KK uses his long arms, strong hands, skills, and quickness to penetrate the O-Line and make plays in the backfield.
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 150%
Probability to play significant snaps: 150%
The UDFAs: Lynden Gaydosh and Casey Walker
Gaydosh: Hailing from north of the border, Gaydosh was the first overall pick in the CFL draft. At 6'3", 305 lbs Gaydosh had a highly productive college career with the powerhouse University of Calgary Dinos. This production notwithstanding, it was his performance at the CFL combine that really raised eyebrows. Quoting some guy named Dator:
His bench press would have ranked him 3rd in Indianapolis, his broad jump was three inches behind Sharrif Floyd, and his vertical was up there with athletic freak Ziggy Ansah. If you want a true representation of Gaydosh, he was the CFL's Margus Hunt -- the player who caught everyone's eye, and became the talk of the combine.
When the Panthers brought him in for a workout, they were convinced enough to give the big Canadian a contract and a chance to display his talents at Training Camp. Having seen a little film and an interview, I really like the kid; but, there's no way he makes the active roster for 2013.
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 0%
Probability to make the Practice Squad: 60%
Casey Walker: I can tell you that Walker is 6'1", 306 lbs. and ran a 5.05 forty at the Oklahoma pro-day. That's all I've got.
Probability to make the 53 man roster: 0%
Probability to make the Practice Squad: 3%
This concludes my rundown of the Defensive Tackle position. I just want to leave you with a couple of interesting quotes regarding Star and KK.
"Super Nova" and the ironically nicknamed "Little K.K." are not merely great value picks. Bringing them on board has enabled Gettleman to upgrade most every player on the team.
Facing three or four defensive lineman who command double coverage is going to create a huge dilemma for opposing offenses. On virtually every passing play they will have to decide to keep either the tight end or running back in to protect the quarterback. This will greatly limit their diversity of play call options and will completely neutralize backs like Darren Sproles of New Orleans and Jacquizz Rodgers of Atlanta, since the defense will immediately know whether the call is run or the tight end is staying in to block.
With one offensive weapon and the quarterback removed from the equation, the defense will essentially be playing 11 on nine before the snap even occurs. If teams try to go to a three or four wide receiver set, the defense blitz, and the line will be hard pressed to account for the linebacker or safety.
This will set Carolina’s top-of-the-line backers loose to float, react, assist, and attack with more freedom.
With the linebackers covering the weak sides, and with the defensive line putting on constant pressure, hurries, and sacks, the below-average secondary should look far better. Expect nervous field generals to throw the ball off target or out of bounds.
Let’s not forget that having above-average backup linemen and linebackers in the rotation will allow everyone to stay fresh. This will translate to getting off the field quicker, and as the game wears on, they will get stronger.
After grabbing Star Lotulelei in the first round, Carolina follows that acquisition up with defensive tackle Kawaan Short in the second round. These two picks turn the Panthers' interior defensive line, which was a major weakness in 2012, into a strength and gives their defense a chance to take a huge step forward in 2013. I love new GM Dave Gettlemen's first two draft picks.
All of this will add up to a time of possession advantage that will wind and wear down the opposition. This will be immensely beneficial for a defense that has been prone to fourth-quarter collapses. Of the 19 losses in the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era, nine times Carolina was leading in the fourth quarter and once more they were tied. (Incidentally, five of those games came against NFC South foes and three against the NFC North.)