How Panthers might replace DT Star Lotulelei if they have to

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It took former Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman less than two minutes to use the 14th pick of the 2014 draft on Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

He said that “Star set the bar" for the draft class. He insisted Lotulelei was a premier interior pass-rusher

Instead, Lotulelei became a space-eater and second-round pick Kawann Short became the premier pass-rusher. Short got the big second contract (five years, $80.5 million) a year ago, and Lotulelei appears headed for free agency barring a last-minute deal with the Panthers.

Ideally, Carolina would like to keep Lotulelei and keep its four-man rotation intact. Financially, they probably can’t, which brings us to the next in a position-by-position analysis.

Next up: Defensive tackle

2017 grade: B

Short didn’t play to his 2015 Pro Bowl level, when he tied for the most sacks (11) by a tackle in the NFL. But his 7.5 sacks were third on the team behind ends Julius Peppers and Mario Addison with 11 each. Short was strong against the run. The Panthers finished third in the NFL against the run, allowing 88.1 yards a game. The interior line and play of Short and Lotulelei was key.

Under contract (2018 salary cap number): Kawann Short $17,000,000; Vernon Butler $2,289,959; Kyle Love $1,200,000. Total: $20,489,959.

Key free agents: Star Lotulelei.

The good: Gettleman prepared to lose Lotulelei when he used his 2016 first-round pick on tackle Vernon Butler. The former Louisiana Tech star hasn’t reached Lotulelei’s level of play, but with him and Kyle Love the Panther still have three-fourths of one of the best tackle rotations in the league. And one of those is Short, who is one of the best tackles in the NFL.

The bad: There has to be some concern whether Butler will play as well as Lotulelei. He didn’t have a sack and had only 13 tackles in his second season. Love is 31 and has proved to be a solid space-eater, but he’s at an age where production could fall off quickly. There are some big names in free agency -- Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson -- but the price tag would be too high to add them to the mix. If you sign one of them, you might as well spend to keep Lotulelei.

The draft: It’s not a great year for defensive tackles in terms of premier pass-rushers. However, there are solid options such as Alabama’s Da'Ron Payne, Washington’s Vita Vea, Michigan’s Maurice Hurst and Florida’s Taven Bryan in the first two rounds. Gettleman certainly didn’t hesitate to draft an end in 2016 when he had two solid ones on his roster from the 2013 draft. Carolina has bigger needs, but you don’t pass on quality tackles if they are available.

Final thought: I still believe the Panthers will make a run at re-signing Lotulelei even if it means waiting to see what other teams are offering. There are some good, young tackles who could be signed at a lower price. Among them are Dominique Easley (Rams), DaQuan Jones (Titans), Justin Ellis (Chiefs), Dontari Poe (Falcons) and Bennie Logan (Chiefs). I wouldn’t rule out using the 24th pick on Payne or Vea if they fell that far and Lotulelei is on another roster. As general manager Marty Hurney once said when asked about his philosophy: Make your strengths stronger. Tackle has been a strength.