The top player in the 2013 NFL draft is quickly becoming one of the top players in the NFL. It’s only been four weeks, but defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has been a force along the Carolina Panthers’ front seven.
After sliding to the No. 14 overall pick because of a heart condition, Lotulelei has done nothing but prove he should have been taken higher. He’s been versatile, aligning across the Panthers’ front, including at the one and three techniques, and he’s been a tough matchup because of his gap control, quickness, and power.
A big reason for his outstanding gap control is his intelligence. He picks the game up quickly, making it easier to defend the run.
“Very sharp kid,” coach Ron Rivera told the Miami Herald when asked about the rookie. “Very serious about what he does. Pays attention. Does the extra things. He’s a young guy who’s learning how to be a pro and he’s learning very quickly. That’s the beautiful nature of who he is.”
Most defensive linemen, regardless of their draft standing, struggle with ball location coming out of college because they’re taught to shoot gaps and simply cause havoc, but not Lotulelei. He showed this in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills, when he played a career-high 43 snaps and put on a run defense clinic.
Midway through the third quarter, Lotulelei was lined up at the three technique outside the guard’s right shoulder, in a three-point stance. His back was flat and his butt was up. His eyes were on the ball. He was ready to bottle running back Fred Jackson, who was lined up to the right of quarterback E.J. Manuel.
When the ball as was snapped, Lotulelei raised up and quickly made contact with right tackle Erik Pears. He sunk his hands into the chest of Pears and popped him back. He kept sliding his feet laterally, mimicking Jackson’s movement while staying square. He managed to fight off the blocker and play down the line of scrimmage, closing Jackson’s cutback lane and helping his teammates force him into the back of his blockers before being brought down.
In the same game, his aforementioned quickness posed a problem for left guard Colin Brown.
It was 3rd-and-4 and Lotulelei was lined up at the three technique outside of Brown’s left shoulder. The run was set to come his way with another stretch play by Jackson. It was the same design as last time, but the outcome would be different. The Tonga native wasn’t going to simply sit back and read the game. No, he was coming downhill to stuff Jackson.
The play began and Lotuelei came forward in a hurry. He reached across the line of scrimmage to engage with the reach blocking Brown and put his left hand on his right shoulder. Then he knocked him aside and raised his right arm over Brown’s head to complete an arm-over ( or “swim”) move. Finally, he planted his left foot and redirected right, soon after bear-hugging Jackson and swinging him to the ground for a two-yard loss.
What makes a defensive tackle worthy of an early first-round selection, like Lotulelei was, is their ability to not only stymie the run, but rush the passer as well. It’s something that he’s admittedly still learning. He’s relying on his power and quickness until he adds techniques to his repertoire, but he shows promise while collapsing the pocket.
Against the New York Giants in Week 3, he recorded his first sack and assisted in getting another. The latter was more impressive as it didn’t come solely because of effort. There was power, too.
The Giants were buried in 1st-and-20 when one of the Panthers’ team record-tying seven sacks came. Expecting pass, Lotulelei was geared up at the three technique. At the snap, he attacked forward with his arms extended to keep the left guard at bay. By doing this, he didn’t allowed the guard to grab his breast pads, while also enabling himself to push the pocket with leverage and his heavy hands.
Constant jabs by Loutulelei saw him pressure the pocket from the inside-out, restricting the room Eli Manning had to work with. Because the guard was walked back, so was Manning, leading to an easy sack for teammate and defensive end Greg Hardy.
After the game, Hardy marveled at the rookie’s performance.
“You don’t even understand how awesome it is to have a middle that can just push the pocket, and the quarterback is just right there once you beat your man,” he told the Miami Herald.
The talent to rush the passer and defend the run is not as easy to come by as many think. There are many one dimensional players in the pros, hence why there are so many rotations along the defensive line. Players are cycled in and out for a reason, although not solely that reason — stamina plays a factor, too.
As Lotulelei continues to hone his craft and get a greater feel for the game, he has the chance to blossom into a dominant lineman like he was in college. If not for a heart condition that risk-averse scouts deemed too scary to deal with, he might have been a top five pick. Instead, he slid to the Panthers at the midpoint of the first round.
They’re not complaining, but soon other teams will be.