Panthers select DT Lotulelei with 14th overall pick

Searching for the heart of their defensive line, the Carolina Panthers turned to a Star to fill the void.

The team selected Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick during Thursday night’s NFL Draft.

Lotulelei — the only defensive tackle ever selected in the first round in Panther history — fills a void on the defensive line left when Carolina cut veteran tackle Ron Edwards on March 1.

"It feels great," Lotulelei said during a conference call following his selection on Thursday night. "Definitely, I'm stoked to come up there and get to work ... I was real happy and very emotional because of how much it took to get to this point. It was just a lot of emotions, and I'm real happy to be in this position."

Panthers first-year general manager Dave Gettleman was pleased with Lotulelei's selection.

"We're very excited," he said. "What Star does is he impacts the game on every snap. Obviously in terms of the run game and pass game, he is a legitimate three-down defensive tackle. He is not someone you are going to replace in your sub-package defense. The other huge thing he does is he is going to occupy two quite often, which is going to keep Luke free. It gives Luke protection, which makes our defense better."

The Panthers drafted the Tongo native despite some major medical concerns.

At this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, doctors discovered an irregularity with Lotulelei’s heart. They found that his left ventricle wasn’t performing at the normal efficiency, which scared off many potential suitors for his talents.

Lotulelei, who was originally listed as a top-five draft pick by many expects, saw his stock drop significantly after the health issues.

The 6-foot-2, 311-pound defensive tackle's health is back to normal following a re-check with a specialist at the University of Utah and another check up after that.

Following his entire ordeal, Lotulelei had no comprehension of who he'd be picked by or when.

"I had seen the projections and what they were saying from (pick) two to four and all the way down to 18," he said. "I really had no idea. I was just patiently waiting. I'm just happy to be a Carolina Panther."

Gettleman isn't concerned with Lotulelei's physical condition.

"I'm not a doctor, but he had a virus that affected his ticker," Gettleman said. "He was thoroughly checked out. He an EKG and an MRI of his heart. That was done league wide. Our doctors felt very comfortable that he was fine. He was completely cleared."

During the draft process, Lotulelei said he worked out privately for two teams — Carolina and the Philadelphia Eagles.

However, he was immediately impressed with the Panthers organization.

"(The Panthers) were one of the only two teams that came out here for a private work out," he said. "We did about an hour with the 'chalk talk,' and we did about a 30- or 45-minute work out on the field. It was good. I love the way they play defense and the way they want to play defense. I definitely think I can come in and help them out."

During his senior season, Lotulelei tallied 42 tackles (11 for loss) and five sacks. He ended his college football career with 159 tackles (37 for loss) and 9.5 sacks.

There are a few areas of his game that Lotulelei credits as positives entering his NFL rookie season, but also a few that need some attention.

"My strength is definitely on the run," he said. "My strength and my explosiveness. Being able to hold the point. I think I definitely have to continue to work with (Panthers defensive line) coach (Eric) Washington on my pass rush and definitely getting better at that and getting up the field more. I think that is what I'm looking forward to the most to improve on."

Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Lotulelei will help his team immediately.

"We think he is going to be an impact player for us as far as our front is concerned," Rivera said. "He is a guy that is going to command the double teams and can split the double teams, as well as hold them, which will give our linebackers an opportunity to run."

Lotulelei will be the third Carolina Panthers player who attended the University of Utah — a list that includes offensive tackle Jordan Gross and wide receiver Steve Smith.

"I don't know them personally," Lotulelei said of Gross and Smith. "Gross came by to a (University of Utah) practice I think my junior year. He talked to the team. Steve Smith, I think I talked him once. I talked to him once when Carolina came and worked me out."

The past two first-round draft picks by the Panthers — quarterback Cam Newton in 2011 and linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2012 — went on to win rookie of the year honors on offense and defense, respectively.

The Panthers finished 10th in total defense last season, including 13th in passing yards per game and 14th in rushing yards per game.

Carolina's defense was guided by Kuechly, who led the NFL in tackles last season (163).

"Their defense has a lot of really good players with their front seven and linebackers like (Jon) Beason and (Luke) Kuechly, the defensive rookie from last year," Lotulelei said. "Their defensive line, I don't think they need me, but I'm ready to go out there and just work, do my part and do whatever the team needs me."