CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers bulked up their defensive front by selecting Utah’s Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick in general manager Dave Gettleman’s first NFL draft.
It marks the first time the Panthers have selected a defensive tackle in the first round since joining the league in 1995.
Defensive tackle was considered a position of need for the Panthers, who released starter Ron Edwards in a salary cap move earlier this offseason.
Lotulelei, 6-foot-2 and 311 pounds, is expected to step in and start right away alongside veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who re-signed in the offseason.
Gettleman called Lotulelei a three-down lineman.
“What Star does is he impacts the game on every snap in terms of the run game and the pass game,” Gettleman said. “He’s not someone you are going to replace in your sub package defense.”
Gettleman likes the idea that Lotulelei can occupy two players at the point of attack, which he hopes will free up middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to make even more plays. Kuechly, the 2012 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, led the NFL in tackles last season.
“It gives Luke more protection, which makes our whole defense better,” Gettleman said.
In his last two seasons at Utah, Lotulelei had 20 of his 86 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and posted 6.5 sacks. He also forced four tackles.
“We think he’s going to be an impact player for us as far as our front is concerned,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s a guy that will command the double teams and can split the double teams as well as hold them point, which will give our linebackers an opportunity to run.
“It will affect the way we play pass coverage when you’ve got two guys up front in he and Dwan that will be able to push the pocket for us.”
The Panthers finished 10th in the league on defense last season and 14th against the run.
At the Scouting Combine in February a heart test revealed his left ventricle was pumping at only 44 percent efficiency, thus clouding his future in the NFL. But following a variety of tests, including those by a cardiologist specialist in Utah, it was revealed that a virus was causing the abnormal heartbeat. Medication cured the problem.
“He was thoroughly checked out,” Gettleman said. “Our doctors felt very comfortable that he’s fine. He’s been completely cleared.”
Lotulelei said it was a scary situation at the time.
“It was definitely a big blow,” the soft-spoken Lotulelei said. “But it ended up just being a virus I had from a cold. But everything has been cleared and I’m ready to go. I’m ready to get down there and get to work.”
A native of Tonga, the 23-year-old Lotulelei is already married and has two daughters. Lotulelei hails from the same school as two current Panthers stars – Steve Smith and Jordan Gross.
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