Considered one of the best prospects in the 2013 draft class by most, Star Lotulelei fell on draft day unexpectedly. And despite being the seventh defensive player draft, the Carolina Panthers couldn’t have been happier with the fact that they were able to land a “star” with the 14th pick in the draft.
Anchoring one of the most talented front sevens in the NFL, Star Lotulelei is the catalyst for this defense’s success. And they’ll continue to rely on him to keep this defense among the most difficult to defend in the NFL.
Here’s part of our scouting report on Lotulelei pre-draft, where he was one of our Top 5 players in the 2013 class:
“Lotulelei is an athletic freak with his size and solid build. He is not blubbery, which is rare for true 3-4 tackles. His ability to occupy multiple gaps and take on double and sometimes even triple teams is rare and highly coveted. Few teams have an answer for Lotulelei's size, speed, strength combination and he brings tenacity and aggressiveness. He was smart to stay in school for his senior year to work on refining his game, learning to maximize his physical gifts and improving his consistency and playmaking ability. He will be a consistent playmaker in all situations.”
With just 2 sacks this year, those looking to grade success on statistics won’t find reason to be excited by the play of the rookie Lotulelei. However, his value to this defense goes much further than the sacks he’s able to finish or the run stuffs he’s able to get to.
Last season before Lotulelei, according to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers finished with the 2nd worst run defense in the NFL. This season, they’re currently up to 14th. Last season, they finished with 38 sacks. With two games to play, they’re already at 44.
So, how has Lotulelei made such a big impact on this defense without simply producing himself? He’s done it in three key ways: Driving upfield with strength in one-on-ones, adjusting off his block to collapse a rushing lane, and eating up two blockers to give his fellow defensive linemen a chance to attack the quarterback.
Playing with ideal positioning off the snap and possessing ample NFL strength, Lotulelei is able to consistently insert his hands under his blocker’s chest-plate, extend, and drive immediately into the backfield. With his ability to instantly take advantage of a single blocker, he can force runners to adjust off their initial running late, cut laterally, slow a bit, and not capitalize as easily on the blocking downfield. You can see that below as Lotulelei drives initially and forces the runner to move right quicker than he wants (Lotuleleu is #98)
While Lotulelei’s impact in the run game is more tied to forcing runners to his teammates, he also shows the ability to time his release from his blocker as he disengages in an effort to make a play on the ball carrier. Able to adjust from a nose tackle or a 3-technique starting position, Lotulelei’s plus hand positioning allows him to utilize his short area body control to get off his block, find the runner, and make a play to bring him down. His tackling numbers aren’t elite, but his threat of finishing tackles himself forces runners to consider running wider when they start in Lotulelei’s direction.
Finally, Lotulelei’s impact on the Panthers pass rush has been phenomenal and done wonders for the versatility this defense can have in its blitz packages. With Lotulelei’s consistent ability to take on two blockers and force them to focus on him, he’s allowed for rotational 3-techniques, his talented defensive end duo, and even linebackers/cornerbacks to get in on pass rushing success. Thanks to his strong lower half to collapse the pocket and active hands to constantly disengage laterally, he forces offenses to double him, leaving his other three rushers in one-on-one match-ups and generally with an additional blitzer free. While this doesn’t show up in the stat book, it’s no secret why this team has had more versatility and success in its pass rush.
As voters choose their rookie of the year candidates, Star Lotulelei likely won’t be at the top of their list. Despite his impact on the Panthers defense and his work in transforming them into a complete unit, his lack of personal production will keep him from gaining consistent national headlines.
But that’s okay for Star Lotulelei. He may have been under-appreciated on draft day, and may be under-appreciated now, but he’ll get the last laugh if this defense leads the Panthers into a deep playoff run.