It's fairly common to hear that 'defensive tackles rarely produce as rookies'. But is this really the case? To find out, I decided to look at the previous NFL Draft classes to see how defensive tackles drafted in the first and second rounds have fared as rookies. Using these stats, I will try to better predict what we should realistically expect from Lotulelei and Short in 2013.
Obviously these projections will not be fully accurate, as there are several different variables in play. For example, these players play different positions in different schemes (NT/DE in 3-4 vs. NT/UT in 4-3), have different reasons for missing games (injury, suspension, poor performance), and the talent around them also greatly varies, which can impact their production and number of snaps played. However, it is still a good tool to get a general understanding and idea of what to expect from a rookie defensive tackle.
*All stats are from ESPN.com and Pro-Football-Reference.com
To get a better idea of what to expect from Star Lotulelei this season, I took the rookie year stats for all the first round defensive tackles taken in the last five drafts. I listed them out in a table, and then averaged out all of their stats.
As you can see, on average, first round rookie defensive tackles will start 9 games. They will get approximately 30 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and 2 passes defended. This is pretty average production from any defensive tackle in any scheme.
You'll notice that I added an additional row, called 'Adjusted Average'. These stats are my projections for Star Lotulelei in 2013, based on the information from the data above. Assuming Star is healthy the entire season, with no real competition at the nose tackle position, I predict that he'll be starting all 16 games. Therefore, by extrapolating using the previous averages, I predict that Star Lotulelei will have 42 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 3 passes defended and 4 sacks, which is very, very solid for a defensive tackle. For comparison, Panthers nose tackle Kris Jenkins had 34 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks in his rookie year. If Star can match or exceed Jenkins' production in 2013, the pick will be a success.
Same as above, except this time, I took all the defensive tackles drafted in the second round in the last five years and compiled their rookie year stats onto a table to average them.
A quick look at this table shows that there is a drastic falloff in production from first to second round defensive tackles in their rookie years. On average, second round defensive tackles only start 2 games in their rookie year, for 15 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack. These numbers are what you would expect from a backup in the NFL, not a starter in any scheme at any position.
For projecting Kawann Short's rookie year stats, I'm going to assume that he will not start immediately, and here's why: he's not a finished prospect yet, and could struggle greatly if he's pushed into a starting role too soon. He lacks pass rushing moves, and still needs to work on his leverage and hand placement so he can engage offensive linemen better. Also, the Panthers have a decent stopgap at the position with Dwan Edwards, so they won't need to throw Short straight to the wolves. However, I do expect that Short will eventually work his way into a grater role in the rotation, and towards the end of the season, I think he will start seeing more snaps than Edwards. So, I predict that in 2013, Short will start 4 games, have 23 total tackles, and pick up 3 sacks and 3 tackles for a loss, which is above average production from a second rounder. It would be similar to Kendall Reyes' production last season, and Reyes had a very successful year as the Chargers' 5-technique defensive end.
What can we learn?
'Defensive tackles rarely produce as rookies'
This varies wildly. For example, for a defensive tackle taken in the first round, it's almost guaranteed that they'll see a lot of snaps and produce as a rookie. However, in the second round, there is a significant drop off. Here, you see the raw, less talented players being selected, and they are obviously not ready to see the field yet. I didn't look at the third round and beyond, but I predict that this is also the case as you move further back in the draft.
What should Panthers fans expect?
I think Star Lotulelei immediately starts, and has a very productive and successful rookie year. On the other hand, I think Kawann Short will need more time to adjust before he can work his way into the rotation. Although I think he'll be a very productive player for the Panthers, I don't think that'll happen in his rookie year. Either way, expect significant improvement from both the run and pass defense due to the addition of the talent up front.
So, how much production do you expect to see from Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in 2013? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? I'd love to hear your thoughts - feel free to comment below.