CHARLOTTE – Now is the time that some first-year NFL players hit the "rookie wall."
But in the case of rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson of the New York Jets and the Panthers' own Star Lotulelei, it's opponents that feel like they're hitting a wall when they tangle with the rugged rookies.
"My body is beat up and tired, but there's no mental wall that I'm hitting," Lotulelei said. "It's a long season, but it actually feels like the season is going by fast."
Lotulelei and Richardson certainly aren't playing like rookies, with both considered defensive rookie of the year candidates entering their meeting Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. The pair likely will always be compared given that the Jets made Richardson the first defensive tackle drafted in 2013 with the No. 13 overall pick, then the Panthers scooped up Lotulelei at No. 14.
"I tell you what, both those guys were sitting there and we were excited to have either one of them. But for us, Sheldon fit us a little better," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said. "We already have two nose tackles, big-body guys like Star, that we felt really good about, so I was looking for the real athletic, disruptive three-technique if you will.
"We immediately took to Sheldon, and he's been absolutely tremendous for us. I don't know if there's a rookie playing better than him. I don't believe it; I'd have to see it."
If there is one, it's Lotulelei, whom Ryan compared favorably to four-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata. Ryan coached Ngata when he was the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator before taking over as Jets head coach in 2009.
While Lotulelei has moved mountains near the line of scrimmage to help the Panthers lead the NFL in rushing defense and rank fourth in sacks, Richardson has put up some individual numbers rarely attained by defensive tackles. His 66 tackles lead all NFL defensive tackles and rank third among all defensive linemen.
"I just do what I can. As long as we're winning ball games, that's enough for me," Richardson said. "I'm pretty sure it goes the same for Star. He's been balling. He's been having a rookie-of-the-year campaign, too."
Richardson and Lotulelei got to know each other at the NFL Combine in February.
"I talked to him a little bit. He's a cool guy, a really confident guy, a funny guy," Lotulelei said. "From what I've seen, he's doing a real good job. He showed real talent in college, so it doesn't surprise me that he's having success now."
Richardson is the more outgoing of the two ("I'm not going to lie, I brought the conversation to him," he said), but they, along with fellow defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, hit it off at the combine.
Now, after all being taken over the course of the first two-dozen draft picks (Floyd went No. 23 to Minnesota), they've hit the ground running.
"When you're watching film and you're seeing teams playing other teams, I just happen to notice the players I came out of the draft with," Richardson said. "It's competition. Coming into the draft, it was me, Star and Sharrif, and we're still competing. I'm liking that nobody fell off."