DEFENSIVE TACKLE PREVIEW: The Panthers still seemed to be in good shape at one of the most undervalued positions on the field even after parting ways with veterans Kyle Love and Dwan Edwards in March. Then they signed veteran Paul Soliai, re-signed Love and drafted Vernon Butler in the first round. The position is again stocked with a quantity of quality.
1. What is the contract situation of the Panthers' two starters, and should it create any concern for the upcoming season?
The depth added after the start of free agency will be a part of the rotation behind a pair of players who set the tone in Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. Both were drafted early in the 2013 NFL Draft and are preparing for the final year of their rookie contracts, and despite always being mentioned in the same breath, they're in different contract situations. The Panthers have exercised Lotulelei's fifth-year option that is afforded teams for first-round picks and now have him under contract through 2017, but there's no such option for second-round picks like Short. It's up in the air whether the Panthers and Short will strike a long-term deal before his current contract expires, but that shouldn't impact the upcoming season.
2. Is Lotulelei potentially poised for a Short-like season?
Short broke out in a big way in 2015. His 11 sacks shattered the team record by a defensive tackle and tied for the NFL lead among tackles. That represents more sacks than Lotulelei has totaled in three seasons but shouldn't discount what Lotulelei has done and what he can do. Lotulelei is a run stopper first who commands double teams and frees up Short, who didn't have a sack the first two games last season when Lotulelei was sidelined by a foot injury. A similar injury also slowed him at the end of the 2014 season, so a healthy Lotulelei paired with a player who now has the full attention of opposing offenses could be quite a force.
"It's going to be crazy what we do these next couple of years," Short said before last year's NFC Championship.
3. How does the race for roster spots look?
The limitations of a 53-man roster mean that realistically Carolina will keep five defensive tackles at the absolute most and quite possibly just four. Lotulelei, Short and Butler are givens. If the Panthers can keep just four, the competition between a veteran with experience in the system (Love) and a former Pro Bowler new to the team (Soliai) is one to watch. And don't forget about Chas Alecxih, a practice squad player last year that coaches have raved about but who has exhausted his practice squad eligibility. That kind of depth is, as they say, a good problem to have.
View photos of Carolina's defensive tackles in action.