Panthers Hope Lotulelei Lives Up To Star Potential
By Blake Baxter
Few things are as big of a crapshoot as the NFL Draft. Yes, there is the state lottery. And sure, it is remarkably difficult to make the right picks during the NCAA Tournament, but those things are givens. The NFL Draft is similar to both, except the results are a little more significant. The purchase of a lotto ticket is a small risk for a largely unrealistic, albeit giant reward. Filling out a correct bracket is nearly impossible, but there generally is not much at stake. With the NFL Draft, however, choosing the right players can make a big difference and choosing the wrong ones can come at a big cost. The caveat is that it is nearly impossible to predict who is going to pan out and who is going to flame out.
Every April, teams, fans and the media alike get all riled up over a new batch of NFL hopefuls, even though deep down they all know there is a good chance a significant amount of them will never amount to much. Sometimes, even the most acclaimed college players amount to little in the pros. For instance, QB Ryan Leaf, WR Charles Rodgers and RB Curtis Enis were all once thought to be "can't miss" prospects. But on the other hand, there are draft folk heroes like three-time Super Bowl Champion and two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady who was drafted in the sixth round and Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, drafted in the seventh round.
Every year, football enthusiasts tune in for much-hyped players like Chiefs OT Eric Fisher and Colts QB Andrew Luck, but they keep watching after all of the blue chippers are gone in hopes of witnessing their team select the next hidden gem. Those are the two most dominant and generic NFL Draft narratives - the search for "The Next Great One" and "The Next Great Overlooked One". However, in reality, it is a lot simpler than that. Most teams are just trying to do the same thing: improve by filling their needs.
One such team is the Carolina Panthers. Carolina came into the offseason with the clear objective of improving a defense that struggled mightily during a rough 2012 season. With little cap space, the team was prevented from bringing in a big player via free agency and was thus forced to lean on the fickle fortunes of the NFL Draft. Carolina's defense finished fourteenth in passing yards allowed and thirteenth in rushing yards allowed. Additionally, it gave up an average of 23.3 points per game. The defense did appear to be improving towards the end of the season when the Panthers got on a little hot streak until the unit gave up 38 points in a win over the Saints in the last game of the season.
The Panthers looked to address this need early on by selecting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the first round. Lotulelei is basically a hybrid of all of the possible draft stories. The Tongan-born Utah native was a coveted recruit, expected to do big things when he signed with Brigham Young University coming out of high school. But unfortunately, his academic struggles derailed his collegiate career before he ever played a single game as a Cougar. Instead, he enrolled and played at Snow Junior College, where he put up stellar numbers despite being overweight. However, in a twist that could have been lifted from a sports movie, he only played one season before he started questioning his own commitment to the game and decided to take a year off.
The year away from the gridiron allowed Lotulelei to both recharge his batteries and get into better shape. In 2010, he finally made his Division I debut for the University of Utah. In his first season with the Utes, Lotulelei played in every game and managed to earn a starting spot by the end of the year. In 2011, he started all 13 games and recorded 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Lotulelei was awarded for his outstanding play with The Morris Trophy - the Pac 12's award for best defensive lineman. Lotulelei was also named an All-Pac 12 performer. In his senior season, he recorded 42 tackles, 5.0 sacks, four pass breakups, four fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles.
Leading up to the draft, Lotulelei seemed to be a lock to be drafted in the Top 5 but concerns arose after he was sidelined during the NFL Combine due to a potential heart problem and his draft stock fell. However, by the time the Panthers selected him, it had been revealed that the heart issue was the result of a viral infection. Thirteen teams took a pass on Lotulelei's talent, but the Panthers snagged him in the middle of the first round with the fourteenth pick in the draft.
So, what exactly are the Panthers getting out of this pick? Well, Lotulelei is known for his brute strength, foot speed and agility - all welcome attributes for the Carolina defensive line. He put up impressive numbers and improved every season in college. Oh, and do not forget that he does not have a heart problem, does not have a weight problem and will not have to worry about academics anymore. With his skill set and story of perseverance, Lotulelei could be a defensive force and a fan favorite in Carolina for many years to come.
But keeping history in mind, do not be surprised if it does not work out exactly that way either. That is not a knock on Lotulelei - that is just the maddeningly uncertain nature of the NFL Draft.