At long last, Panthers plug the middle

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
11:33
PM ET
 Star LotuleleiRuss Isabella/USA TODAY SportsCarolina drafted a defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei, in the first round for the first time in team history.

In the first draft of his tenure, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman did something predecessor Marty Hurney never did.

Heck, Gettleman did something Bill Polian never did. He did something Dom Capers and George Seifert did in the brief windows when coaches held general-manager powers in Carolina.

Gettleman drafted a defensive tackle in the first round for the first time in franchise history. He drafted Utah’s Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick.

It’s not a fancy move, but I think this is a great start for Gettleman, who wasn’t bluffing when he said at his pre-draft news conference that he believes the game starts up front and that he likes big defensive and offensive linemen.

In Lotulelei, Gettleman and the Panthers are getting a huge defensive tackle that once was being talked about as the potential No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Lotulelei had a bit of a health scare around the scouting combine, but reportedly later received a clean bill of health.

I don’t know Gettleman well yet, but I know enough about him and his scouting staff that I’m sure the Panthers wouldn’t have taken Lotulelei if they had any doubts about his health.

If they’re right, the Panthers got a steal. If they’re right, Carolina suddenly has a heck of a defense.

Think about it? Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, suddenly has someone to jam up the middle. That’s going to allow Kuechly to roam freely. Same for outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.

And picture Lotulelei taking a little blocking attention away from defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who each had double-digit sacks last season? Carolina’s secondary still isn’t loaded with talent, but the front seven might be able to compensate more for that now that Lotulelei is on the roster.

Carolina’s defense suddenly is looking like a major strength. It might even be the best in the NFC South.

That’s a pretty major statement for a defense that was horrible two years ago. Coach Ron Rivera’s tenure got off to a rough start because of the defense in 2011 and coordinator Sean McDermott took a beating from fans.

Things started to improve last season, but there still was a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. The sad part is Hurney, who was promoted to general manager in 2002, might still have the job if he had used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle sometime after 2007.

It was after that season that Kris Jenkins, who had a brief stint as the best defensive tackle in the NFL, left the team. Jenkins (a second-round pick in 2001) had to go because there were chemistry issues between him and the coaching staff at the time.

But Hurney never devoted the resources to fully replace Jenkins. He did overspend for veteran Ron Edwards coming out of the 2011 lockout. Edwards promptly got hurt in that training camp and never really got healthy. Edwards never really contributed in Carolina and the Panthers released him in one of Gettleman’s first personnel moves.

Hurney also tried to address the defensive tackle position by taking Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round of the 2011 draft. But you don’t get stud defensive tackles in the third round. You’re rolling the dice and Hurney didn’t get lucky with McClain and Fua. McClain no longer is with the team and Fua is best suited to be a backup.

There’s only one way to get a dominant defensive tackle (and we’re only going to briefly mention how Capers once gave up the farm to get Sean Gilbert in a trade that went wildly bad back in 1998). If you want success in the middle of the defensive line, you need to draft a defensive tackle in the first round.

The Panthers never had done that before. That means it’s time to review the overall history of this franchise. Since coming into the league in 1995, the Panthers have had only four winning seasons.

Maybe that’s largely because the people who ran the show in the past never saw the importance of plugging the middle of the defense with a big-time talent.

Maybe Gettleman just made a move that can help put this franchise on a path to consistent success.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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