CHARLOTTE – General manager Dave Gettleman was beaming when he talked about the performances of rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in 2013, both of whom earned PFWA All-Rookie honors.
Perhaps part of the reason Gettleman is so excited is because neither player beamed when asked to evaluate themselves.
"It was good, it was alright," said Lotulelei, Carolina's 2013 first-round draft choice. "I definitely improved a lot of my skill sets from the beginning of the season to the end. For the most part, I think it was OK."
Short, Carolina's second-round draft choice, said, "I was inconsistent. There were ups and downs. I could have been a more standout player. From my standpoint, I have things to improve on if I want to be around for a long time."
Lotulelei started all 16 regular season games and recorded 47 tackles, three sacks and 11 quarterback pressures. He made his biggest impact against the run, helping the Panthers soar from 14th in the NFL in run defense in 2012 (110.1 yards per game) to second (86.9) in 2013.
Short played in all 16 regular season games as a member of Carolina's four-man defensive tackle rotation. After selecting Short, Gettleman lauded him as the best interior pass rusher available, and although Short recorded just 1.5 sacks, he finished second on the team with 21 quarterback pressures.
"They worked hard in practice and they were able to handle coaches being on them," said veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. "I'm extremely proud of how hard those guys worked, how they prepared and how they grew as players.
"I can't wait to see how they improve in the offseason and how much further ahead we'll be as a unit. It'll be scary how good we can be."
Veterans like Edwards helped Lotulelei and Short adjust to the NFL. As Short said, "We needed to learn the ropes."
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy often led extra film sessions, and Edwards was a model for the young defensive tackles to emulate in practice.
"As a rookie you have that thought – who are the guys that are going to be hard on you? Who is the guy that you aren't going to like, the guy that is going to talk about you," Short said. "But when I got here all the guys welcomed us (rookies) in as brothers.
"Talking to other rookies from other teams… this organization is very different."
Said Lotulelei: "I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys, couldn't have asked to be a part of a better organization. I couldn't have asked for a better rookie season – other than going to the Super Bowl."
Drafting Lotulelei and Short were two key acquisitions in the Panthers' plan to build a championship-caliber defense. If their rookie seasons were any indication, it appears the interior of Carolina's defensive line is built for success.
Considering Lotulelei was on the field for 60 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps in 2013 and Short was on the field for 51 percent, the expectation is that both defensive tackles will contribute even more in year two and beyond.
"We feel like we can take this thing to a whole 'nother level in these next few years," Short said. "We can be that D-tackle duo and make a lot of noise."