The interior of the defensive line again set a winning tone in 2016, helping the Panthers rank sixth in the league against the run, but the Panthers didn't consistently win. Opponents picked up first downs on 23.9 percent of their rushing attempts – ranking the run defense in the bottom quarter of the league – and collectively the defensive tackles didn't close the deal on pass rushes as effectively as the year before.
1. What does the future hold for the Panthers' top two 2013 draft picks?
Former second-rounder Kawann Short was truly dominant in 2015 and appeared to mostly recapture that form late last season, after which the Panthers signed the potential free agent to a five-year deal. Former first-rounder Star Lotulelei did his usual run-stopping thing and will play under the fifth-year option on his rookie contract; it will be interesting to see if a long-term deal materializes for him as well.
In 2017 at least - as in recent years - those two will anchor the line. With better pieces to support them on the edge and in the secondary, they figure to be a force.
2. What about the Panthers' top 2016 draft pick?
Vernon Butler endured some typical growing pains last season, but what he learned during his rooke year combined with a strong offseason suggests he could take a sizable step forward in 2017. Butler has always been amazingly explosive for his stature, but he's still trying to figure out how to finish at the quarterback. This could be the year it all comes together or at least the year that proves whether a Short-like third season is in the realm of possibility.
3. Who else figures into the equation?
A reliable four-man rotation has been key to the group's recent successes. Last year, the fourth man was supposed to be veteran Paul Soliai, but that didn't pan out as hoped. Carolina re-signed Kyle Love early in the season and provided an immediate spark. The Panthers have to hope Love can keep it up, someone like Eric Crume can step up, or maybe even a veteran defensive end like Charles Johnson or Julius Peppers can contribute inside on passing downs. Then again, if Butler bursts onto the scene, the fourth guy might need to only be serviceable.