Secret Superstars 2014: Panthers
Since the departures of first Kris Jenkins and then Ma’ake Kemoeatu (who would miss his final year on injured reserve), the Carolina Panthers’ defensive tackle position hasn’t been what you would describe as stout.
Minimal free agent investments failed to fix a problem as teams bulldozed through their week interior, while the 2011 decision to spend draft picks on both Terrell McClain and Sione Fua backfired spectacularly as both started, flopped and were ditched after just over two years with the team.
But to Dave Gettleman that was the old regime, and while it was a problem he inherited it was a problem he wasn’t going to waste time fixing. So with his first selection as a General Manager he capitalized on a mini-draft day slide for Star Lotulelei by selecting him with the 14th overall pick. Lotulelei would have a fine rookie year and garner plenty of positive attention as his work in the run game (earning the sixth-highest grade of all defensive tackles) helped transform the defense and the team into a far different beast.
Only Lotulelei wasn’t the only defensive tackle drafted and helped turn a once laughably bad position into a strength. No, the team also used a second round pick on Kawann Short, a man who could develop into an even more valuable piece of the Panthers’ puzzle and a man who is our Carolina Panthers Secret Superstar.
A product of Purdue University, Short wasn’t exactly regarded as a can’t miss product. You don’t need to spend long looking at him to know that Purdue was the only FBS school to offer him a scholarship. While he may have lacked admirers out of high school he didn’t lack ability and his selection in the second round was anything but a surprise. Viewed as a second- or third-round prospect, the Panthers made him the 44th overall pick with big things expected out of him.
He didn’t disappoint.
The team opted to ease him into things in a backup and situational role with Lotulelei and Colin Cole starting for most of the year, but still Short would feature on 528 defensive snaps (second most of any defensive tackle on the team). This was after an impressive preseason where he turned 108 snaps into a +3.4 pass rush grade that caught the eye and left you wondering about what he could do in the regular season.
Still, displaying dominance over backups and camp fodder isn’t the same as doing it over seasoned pros. And after Week 1 we were wondering if maybe the step up was going to be too much for him initially. His performance against Seattle was not what the team was hoping for, as despite playing 38 snaps, he didn’t pressure the quarterback once while drawing a complete blank on the stat sheet. His -2.3 grade was that of a boy against men.
Yet one performance does not define a player, especially when you’re a rookie thrown in at the deep end. Whether because the team was short on talent at the defensive tackle spot or just convinced their second-round pick would come good sooner rather than later, Short played nearly 50% of snaps in Week 2 against Buffalo and responded with a fine pass-rushing effort that saw him pick up a hit and two hurries.
It was a low key break out, but reinforced with a string of good performances the following two weeks before a five-week spell during which he earned a collective -1.7 grade halted his momentum. I say halted because it was after this lull that the real Short emerged and why this Secret Superstar piece is about him.
A Big Finish
Finishing the season with real gusto and getting better with each passing week, he turned in eight positively-graded performances on the trot with the lowest being a +0.9. It meant that by the end of the season his grade stood at +16.5 and was the 16th-best of all defensive tackles.
What made Short so impressive was just how many impact plays he made. Sure his sack numbers weren’t eye-catching and it’s true that they are part of what makes this DT still a secret. But look at his Pass Rushing Productivity score was 10th best of all his peers while his Run Stop Percentage was 16th. For those who don’t believe in our grading you can’t argue those numbers aren’t those of a player able to contribute on every down.
An Apt Comparison?
Look at it this way. Back in 2010 Geno Atkins earned a grade that was +0.8 better than what Short did in 2013. That’s not to say Short will become Atkins version 2.0, but that his rookie season compares well with a man I’d say is the greatest defensive tackle in football today. Like the Bengal, Short was eased into the NFL as backup and situational player, and the Panthers will be hoping that, like Atkins, he is able to handle the extra responsibilities that more playing time will bring.
Therein lies the challenge for Short and will likely be the determining factor as to whether he goes down as a Secret Superstar Hit, or a Secret Superstar miss. Can he earn a fraction of the success of Atkins, maintaining his grade in all phases of the game while carrying a higher workload? Or will he never be trusted with an every-down role like a Karl Klug, or even just never live up to the demands like a Pernell McPhee?
For now all we can say is the future for Short is bright and that’s why he’s a Secret Superstar.
Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled