The interior of the Carolina Panthers‘ defensive line has been a weakness for the team ever since Kris Jenkins left, with rush defense and the pass rush suffering as a result.
The team attempted to mend the situation 2011 by selecting Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round of the draft, but both players were utter failures, with McClain no longer on the team and Fua on the third string after being cut in the preseason. The team finally made a move in a positive direction in the 2013 NFL Draft by selecting Star Lutulelei of Utah, a player who was once being considered for the No. 1 overall pick.
Lutulelei has been dominant so far this season, and the front seven has played at an unreal level as a result. His performance so far this season has given him a strong case to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, and is considered the front-runner for the award according to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com. I am inclined to agree with Rosenthal, because Lutulelei’s presence goes beyond his quantifiable impact. He may have only one sack, but the inside pressure he consistently provides allows the whole defense to play better, and that talent has been clearly evident during games.
While other rookies like Kiko Alonso and Tyrann Matheiu may have flashier stats, but Lutulelei’s play has had the greatest impact in terms of team performance. The push he creates inside forces double teams and allows an already capable linebacking corps to sniff out ballcarriers and also allows the beast duo of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson to get more sacks. By drawing double teams and collapsing the interior of the pocket, Lutulelei allows Hardy and Johnson to get one-on-one matchups on the outside, and also allows no room for the quarterback to step and throw or avoid pressure from the edge.
While Lutulelei’s impact may not be as quantifiably illustrious as others, it will provide the most in terms of helping the defense perform as a whole.