The Panther’s have an embarrassment of riches in several areas of their defense, the defensive line being no exception. Our starting defensive lineman can stack up to almost any group in the league; however, it’s our depth that sets us apart. Though there is enough talent to make this list nearly twenty deep, I’ll keep it short enough to include the starters and key reserves.
#1: Charles Johnson
The top three on this list are neck and neck for the top spot, but I’ll put “Big Money” as the top dog this time. Johnson enters this season coming off a solid 8.5 sack campaign, a bit disappointing based on his usual sack numbers. As the only defensive end entrenched as a starter, look for him to coach up the young guys and post bigger numbers with a more cohesive line this season.
#2: Kawann Short
The second round choice leaps his first round counterpart in these rankings. It is hard to compare Short and Lotulelei as players, but Kawann clearly had a better season last year. Short’s Pro Football Focus grade was second only to Charles Johnson on the defensive line, and fourth on the entire defense, with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly being the other two. Short is an ascending talent, one that is on the fast track to stardom sooner than later
#3: Star Lotulelei
My previous comments on Star were no slight, rather an expression of how good Short will be. Lotulelei is a great run stuffer, and the perfect fit at nose tackle. Injuries and the shifting around the line hampered his play last season, but he was still a very good player. Look for Short and Star to form one of the most potent defensive duos in the entire league. Let’s just cross our fingers we can resign both when their contracts are up.
#4: Dwan Edwards
This was probably the hardest spot to fill on this list. After the top three, there is a more than slight talent gap. I decided to go with Edwards because of his solid production from a limited role. A lot of teams would like their starters to post 40 tackles, 4 sacks, and an interception; let alone a guy who barely played 50% of the team’s defensive snaps. Expect Edward's snap count to take a big hit this year, but his activity to remain close to the same.
#5: Kony Ealy
The Panther’s currently don’t know who will start opposite of Charles Johnson week one, but Ealy has a good of chance as any to nab that role. Though Ealy didn’t have a particularly great rookie season, he showed some immense promise in the final few weeks. Three sacks in the last four games helped get the monkey off his back, and I expect him to trot out on the field unencumbered next season. His run defense needs a lot of work, more than he’ll be able to fix by next season. With this aside, I expect him to lockdown the defensive end position for years to come.
#6: Frank Alexander
Another guy who is vying for the starting defensive end spot, it would be no surprise to see him starting week one over Kony Ealy. Though it seems like Frank has been on the team forever, does anyone even know a thing about this guy? He has a ton of talent, that’s for sure, but will he ever breakthrough? These questions will be partially answered throughout the preseason and regular season. It’s truly a make or break year for Mr. Alexander.
#7: Mario Addison
A situational pass rusher, Addison was second on the team with 6.5 sacks last year. Addison is too small to be a competent run stuffer, so we pretty much know his ceiling at this point. He is a nice piece to our defensive line depth, and a solid player as a whole. If you don’t believe me, ask Matthew Stafford.
#8: Wes Horton
This a pretty precipitous drop for someone who started 15 games last year, but a well deserved one. The former UDFA earned a -10.4 pass rush grade according to PFF. He was the only half decent run stuffing option at right defensive end last season, that’s why he got all that playing time. With the re-addition of Frank Alexander back into the fold, look for Horton’s amount of snaps to take a serious decline. I would like to see UDFA Arthur Miley push Horton for his spot in the upcoming months, keep an eye out for Southern University's Miley.
#9: Colin Cole
Even with myself being one of the bigger Cole supporters, I was still slightly disappointed when we resigned him this offseason. Never much of a pass rush threat, Cole happened to be pretty poor in run defense last season as well. I do wonder if he will make the final roster; he is a good locker room guy after all.
#10: Kyle Love
Love is the fifth defensive tackle to make the list, and one of the more likely options to still be on the roster a few years from now. Love played three years for the New England Patriots, and even posted three sacks in 2011. After floating around three teams in two years from 2012-13, Love has found his way onto the Panther’s roster. The resigning of Edwards and Cole wasn’t a good sign for Love, it should be interesting to see if he can beat either of the two out.
By Grant Hughes
Follow Grant on Twitter @KenjonVander