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Panthers thrilled to land Lotulelei

CHARLOTTE – As Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington departed Bank of America Stadium on the eve of the NFL Draft, he was already counting the minutes until he would leave the stadium following the draft's first round.

"I'm ready for us to get somebody in here," Washington said, almost beaming. "I'm ready to start practice."

When the Panthers take to the practice fields for their rookie minicamp in two weeks, Washington will work closely with the team's latest addition. Carolina selected Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the No. 14 overall choice, a prospect some believed might be long gone by the time the Panthers picked.

"There's a lot to like," Washington said Thursday night, sitting in his office moments after the selection. "It's always exciting to be a part of a young man realizing his dream, and for it to be a guy of his caliber, football character and personal character, that's really exciting."

Washington, who traveled to Utah to spend time with Lotulelei prior to the draft, was the second person to speak to him on the phone after head coach Ron Rivera called him to tell him the Panthers were about to pick him.

In the moments leading up to the Panthers' selection, general manager Dave Gettleman didn't pay the phone any mind. Given the way the draft developed, Gettleman had no intention of listening to any teams that might want to trade up to Carolina's spot.

"I just told the guys, 'If they call, no, we're not interested,' " Gettleman said, adding that Lotulelei was one of three players with similar grades still sitting there as the Panthers' pick approached. "From my view, Star was too good to pass up. Why talk yourself out of somebody trying to be clever? The guy is a player."

It wasn't that long ago that many viewed Lotulelei as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The momentum he carried into the NFL Scouting Combine in February faded when reports surfaced that doctors had discovered a possible heart problem. But it wasn't a problem by the time the draft rolled around.

"He had a virus that affected his ticker," Gettleman said. "Our doctors felt very comfortable that he's fine. He has been completely cleared. He is fine."

Speaking of heart, that's one of the very few things that some draft observers questioned about Lotulelei heading into the draft. As seems to be a popular knock against defensive linemen come draft time, some asked whether Lotulelei gave maximum effort on every play in college.

"He appears to be a lot more mature than the average wide-eyed rookie coming into the National Football League," Washington said. "He's married, has two children. He's focused on his family and understands that this is his profession now. I think his approach will reflect us.

"Defensive linemen have to work through and fight through guys on every single snap, so you won't see those guys out on the perimeter every single snap. From an effort standpoint and a technique standpoint, we're comfortable that he'll play at the level we need him to play at."

The Panthers believe that will be at a very high level. Paired with Dwan Edwards in the middle of the line with double-digit sack artists Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy on the outside, a defensive line that came a long ways in 2012 could take the Panthers a long ways in 2013.

"He's a great fit," Gettleman said. "We feel that he's going to really thrive in this scheme."

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