The defensive line proved to be one of the Carolina Panthers‘ greatest strengths last year but also one of its greatest weaknesses. While Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy wreaked havoc with 22 sacks, following the legacy of great Carolina sack duos like Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker as well as Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon, the middle of the line was repeatedly gashed for big runs. For every sack that Johnson and Hardy got, there was one they missed because the quarterback was able to step up in the pocket. Dwan Edwards did generate some inside rush with six sacks, but outside of Edwards the Panthers’ interior rush was non-existent.
The Panthers upgraded the defensive tackle position greatly in the offseason, drafting Star Lotulelei of Utah and Kawann Short of Purdue. Both have been sensational in the preseason, with Lotulelei receiving some early Defensive Rookie of the Year hype. So, with an interior presence now established, can the Panthers have the best defensive line in the league? Here’s a breakdown:
Johnson and Hardy were sensational last year, bringing the pass-rushing presence that Carolina has sorely needed. Johnson had already established himself as premier pass rusher over the past few years, but Hardy failed to produce until last year. In his second year starting Hardy broke out with 11.5 sacks, the most since Julius Peppers was wearing black and blue. Behind Johnson and Hardy are Frank Alexander, Wes Horton and Mario Addison. Alexander has proven himself useful with his ability to play inside and outside, while Horton revealed his pass-rushing ability during the preseason. Addison could be a solid contributor, but he has failed to make a name for himself yet.
With Sione Fua gone, the only familiar face in the interior is Edwards, who hopes to be just as productive as last year. He should start opposite of the rookie Lotulelei, who showed flashes of dominance in the preseason. He absolutely embarrassed Kelechi Osemele in the Panthers’ game against the Ravens and was in the backfield for most of his time in the game. He has good passing rushing ability and is outstanding against the run, qualities which should start to garner double teams as the season progresses. Short will mostly be used in pass rushing situations, where he has been sensational, and may even sub for Lotulelei on third down. Behind those three is Colin Cole, a journeyman with four career sacks, who will make his way into the rotation primarily on first and second down.