A Season in Review: The Rookies of 2013

Kevin C. Cox

This rookie class has been outstanding. With only five draft picks and a crop of bright young UDFA's, we've managed to find two starters and five key role players who have stepped in and played well due to injury, as well as contribute on rotations and special teams. Dave Gettleman took this year's draft and heavily upgraded a long-time weakness on the defensive line. And it really paid off as the Panthers boast an elite defense and one of the best front seven's in all of football. Let's examine the draft picks and signings.

Star Lotulelei-1st round draft choice

How did we get Star? Seriously. How?

Star Lotulelei wasn't supposed to be a Carolina Panther. He was supposed to be taken as a top pick in the draft, and we fans could only dream about landing him. Or so it seemed. One by one, player after player was taken. But not Star. I remember I was watching the draft at a buddies house, and as Star reached the 10th pick still unclaimed, I said to him "please, please let it be Star. I'll do anything." Then came the 11th. The 12th. The 13th. Then the Jets selected Sheldon Richardson. I jumped for joy as I watched Twitter explode with Panthers fans speculating that it would be Star. It just made too much sense. And, finally, it happened. As we watched Star become the newest addition to the Carolina family, I looked to my friend and said "Watch out for the Carolina defense. Cause having him on our team is just scary."

Star Lotulelei has been everything we expected for us and more. He's manned the middle of this defense, allowing players like Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly to really thrive. He's been an excellent run stopper himself. He's been a pretty good pass rusher for a nose tackle, He's done everything asked of him. He shored up a long time problem, as the Panthers rush defense hasn't been respectable in years (though it came on pretty strong last year). Gone are the days where we hype up another team's castoff in the hopes that he is the answer. Gone are the days where we see an undrafted free agent or practice squad member and overblow his potential. Now we have Star, making it the third year in a row where Carolina hit a home run on it's draft pick.

Draft Grade: A+

Kawann Short-2nd round draft choice

Kawann Short was another example of double dipping at a weakness. The last time Carolina double dipped at defensive tackle, we got two third round players in Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, neither of whom is with the team anymore. Luckily, this time around our new GM made much better use of our draft picks.

Kawann Short was hailed as the best pass rushing defensive tackle in the draft (while Star was hailed as the best run stopper). Short's stats don't really jump out at you for his rookie season however. He's logged 30 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. Not much to be astounded by, Dwan Edwards and Star both have 3 sacks from the defensive tackle position. However, there's a deeper story. Per ProFootbalFocus, Kawann Short was actually ranked as the 17th best pass rushing defensive tackle in the league. He hasn't started a single game this year, but he's played 529 total snaps, and ranks as the 14th best overall defensive tackle in the league. Obviously, PFF is not the end all be all for statistics, but they do account for total pressures (24, good for 16th in the league) and hits (10, good for 7th in the league). Short's definitely been a good pass rushing weapon, even if his stats don't necessarily show it. Having that interior pressure forces sacks by other players, and the additions of Star and Short have been great for this 60 sack season. One could argue that there were positions of need on the board, but I don't see the Star/Short tandem going anywhere any time soon.

Draft Grade: B+

Edmund Kugbila-4th round selection

It's really kind of tough to grade a player who hasn't seen the field at all his rookie season, but I'm not a fan of this pick right now. I think it was a reach and that there were better players on the board. Though Kugbila is a player at a position of need, he's contributed next to nothing this season. Hopefully he heals up and finds his way back onto the field, because guard is still a position of need for us going into next season.

Draft Grade: D-

AJ Klein-5th round draft selection

Klein was rated as a mid level draft pick by Mike Mayock, with the potential to be a starter in this league at Strongside or Middle Linebacker. However, the Carolina Panthers chose him instead. At the time, we had the MIKE (middle) and SAM (strong) linebacker spots completely locked up by Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. In addition, the WILL (weakside) spot was up for grabs, but Chase Blackburn and the once great Jon Beason were both fighting for it. It just didn't seem feasible for Klein to see the field other than for special teams his rookie year. At least, until a few things happened for him.

Klein benefited from Jon Beason being traded to New York and Chase Blackburn suffering an injury. And it couldn't have been at a worse time, as Carolina was set to face San Francisco and New England in consecutive weeks. But, the next man philosophy holds true, he needed to step up. And that he did, delivering a sack against Colin Kaepernick (should have been two were it not for a penalty).

Klein's been good depth this season. He's still in the developing stages as an NFL player, but he's contributed on special teams, and he's done his best to NOT suck when called on to start. Klein should be sticking around for a few years as a depth/rotational linebacker, as the third linebacker spot isn't locked in right now.

Draft Grade- B

Kenjon Barner-6th round draft choice

Barner was an interesting draft pick, to say the least. He's come to a team whose running back position is VERY crowded, as the Panthers are still set to retain DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Jonathan Stewart for at least another year or two. Barner might have been able to contribute as a returner, but Ted Ginn has the spot locked down. Still, Barner is a quick and speedy back who put up tremendous numbers at Oregon, and he definitely has some potential. Typically in the 6th round you aren't looking as much for positions of need as simply the best player available. You wanna know who else came from the 6th round? Greg Hardy.

Obviously I'm not saying that Barner will be an elite player, or that he's going to stick. But he's definitely got some potential to contribute, it will be interesting to see how he is used in the future. And he's certainly got three good mentors and a former Oregon Duck to help him hone his game.

Draft Grade: C (this grade is based on what they've contributed, not the future)

Melvin White-Undrafted Free Agent

I remember reading CanadianPanther's article about Melvin White and being a bit intrigued, mainly because of two things he pointed out;

Here are my film notes on White:

- Tall cornerback. Lanky frame with long arms.

- Mostly played in a zone scheme on the outside. Gave up big cushions to receivers due to slow recovery speed and stiff hips.

- Great instincts and awareness – frequently blew up run plays and screen passes.

- Doesn’t bite on play action. Shows excellent patience and discipline.

- Very capable blitzer.

- Impressive range and excellent closing speed – ideal for a cornerback in a zone scheme, but also for a free safety.

The two bullet-points in bold are what intrigued me. Things like technique can be easily taught, but intangibles like awareness, instinct, and patience are tougher to be taught. White's excellent size and intangibles are great to have in a cornerback. And after reading CP's article, I checked out White's draft profile on NFL.com. And the big thing that jumped out at me was his Pro Comparison: Richard Sherman.

I'm not going to lie, I was pretty upset when Drayton Florence was cut. He played well in the preseason and was a great veteran presence. I couldn't quite figure out why we kept Melvin White but not Drayton Florence. Well, now we see why, as Melvin White has assumed the number two corner position across from Captain Munnerlyn. White is now starting over Florence, Josh Thomas, and Josh Norman.

White's been an outstanding starter for a UDFA. He's been the target of some team's gameplans, and he's been beaten a few times, but he hasn't had any of the game changing miscues that caused players like Josh Thomas and Josh Norman to hit the bench. On top of that, I've been EXTREMELY impressed with White's pass coverage. On both of his interceptions (one against New York and a pick six against Atlanta), he made a phenomenal read and broke on the ball before it was thrown, making an interception based on film study and his understanding of what routes teams favor in certain situations. His interception against Atlanta came from him sitting down on a quick out, knowing that without Julio Jones the Falcons liked using quick outs. The fact that White has been able to pick up on things like this as an undrafted rookie is quite remarkable, and I expect him to stick around as depth or a starter if the Panthers choose not to address cornerback.

Signing Grade: A+ (for an undrafted rookie, I'd call this a home run)

Robert Lester-Undrafted Free Agent

I'll be the first to admit that I didn't like Robert Lester very much coming out of college. Based on the tape I had watched on him, I noticed he wasn't always the best at getting to the ball, and I didn't like his tackling skills. However, I've been wrong about him since. Lester has stepped in well when called upon to start, and has been a nice rotational option with Quintin Mikell being a strong run support safety. Lester's logged 3 interceptions on the season, including a one on one pick where he actually out jumped Larry Fitzgerald (!!!!!) for a pass. He's been a great option for someone who wasn't even drafted. Lester likely has a bright future with this team, as the safety position is made up mostly of stop gaps and lacks depth. He will likely get an opportunity to start, though Mike Mitchell may find himself going back to Strong Safety next season.

Signing Grade: A

Wes Horton-Undrafted Free Agent

Horton is yet another victim of being part of a crowded group. He has to contend with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, along with two other young talents in Frank Alexander and Mario Addison. Horton shined during the preseason, but he hasn't done much during the regular season as PFF has him ranked as the worst defender on the team. Horton's logged two sacks and has been decent pressuring the quarterback, but he's likely only ever going to be a pass rusher. But hey, you can never have too many pass rushers!

Signing Grade: C

Most of these rookies will need to step up to the plate in the playoffs. They've helped an effort that's taken Carolina to its first playoff berth since 2008, and now we know the mantra. "Why Not Us?" This team has a great defense, an outstanding quarterback, and great leadership throughout the ranks. We've seen them slug it out with the league's best teams, we've seen them battle adversity, and we've seen one of the most important traits to a winning team; BELIEF. A winning culture that comes from stepping to the best teams in the league and punching them right in the mouth. The BELIEF that we deserve to be here, that we BELONG. We've suffered through a losing culture as our team came back from the abyss. But this is the second coming of the Cardiac Cats. These rookies are the start of a winning culture in Carolina, and now is the time to make history. Keep Pounding everybody.

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