CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ron Rivera didn’t anticipate the Carolina Panthers would use their first two draft picks on defensive tackles.
Then again, he didn’t expect Purdue’s Kawann Short would be there in the middle of the second round.
Rivera says the Panthers had a first-round grade on Short, so when he fell to the 44th spot overall they wasted no time turning in their pick — even after taking fellow defensive tackle Star Lotulelei from Utah in round one.
Rivera called Short a “value pick.”
After watching Short perform the first two days at rookie minicamp, Rivera is more convinced than ever that Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman made the right choice doubling down on tackles last month.
He said Short and Lotulelei can be difference makers when it comes to providing an inside pass rush.
“Very much so,” Rivera said. “The things they’re doing are what we need from that position. I’m pretty excited about that. Star has been what we thought he was. There is some stuff I really like about (Short), especially his first step movement and how quickly he gets into his pass rush mode. That’s really big for us.”
Rivera can only hope drafting defensive tackles with back-to-back picks works out better than it did two years ago when he first came on board as coach.
Carolina selected Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 before adding defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua with a pair of third round selections.
The results weren’t good.
McClain started 12 games as a rookie but fizzled out and was cut after just one season.
Likewise, Fua started 11 games as a rookie but his production has tailed off. He started one game last season and has just 22 tackles in two years. With Lotulelei and Short expected to battle for the starting spot at defensive tackle alongside veteran Dwan Edwards, Fua now finds himself fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster.
“It just happened to fall that way,” Rivera said. “There was Short right there in the second round and you’re sitting there going, wow, now that’s a real value pick.”
Short said he and Lotulelei have already talked about working together and becoming the cornerstones of the team’s defensive line for years to come.
“We are kind of the future here and it’s time to live up to those expectations,” said the 6-foot-3, 310-pound Short.
Getting selected 44th overall might be a good omen for Short.
Rivera was drafted 44th overall by the Chicago Bears in 1984 and went on to play nine seasons in the league and won a Super Bowl under Mike Ditka.
“I didn’t know that,” Short said with a laugh. “Coach Rivera told me we had something in common, but didn’t say what. Now I know.”
Short also knows that to be a factor in Carolina he must prove to his new coaches that he doesn’t take plays off.
He said that’s why he fell to the second round, saying that playing more than 80 plays per game at Purdue actually may have hurt his draft stock.
“It was motor,” he said. “But it’s up to me to improve my conditioning.”
He’s viewing this weekend’s rookie minicamp as an opportunity to dispel that notion.
“When I stepped on the field the first time, the first thing I thought about is this is my job now,” Short said. “This is where I wanted to be in my life. Now it’s time to start making the most of it. And that’s something I have to work at. You have to keep that mindset that nothing is guaranteed.”
For Short, that means working more on stopping the run.
The 6-2, 310-pound Lotulelei is viewed as a by Rivera as a “space-eater,” a big man who takes up blockers and allows the team’s linebackers to roam freely to the ball. But he’s eager to prove he’s not a one-dimensional player.
Lotulelei said his immediate goal is to improve his pass rush skills moves and become an every down player.
“I know I have the explosiveness and I know I can get up field,” Lotulelei said after he was drafted. “Just getting those moves that I know I’m excited to learn from, that’s why I’m so excited to get going, to try to improve on my skills and definitely become a better football player.
“Getting a bigger, a greater variety of pass rush moves I think would help me tremendously.”
Rivera believes both Lotulelei and Short will take some of the pressure off defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who both finished with double-digit sack totals last season.
”Our rookies are capable of playing either of the defensive tackle positions,” Rivera said. “We’re expecting big things from them.”