CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has been to six Super Bowls during his 25-plus years in the NFL and is convinced the only way to reach that summit is to assemble a great defensive line rotation.
So it came as no surprise that Gettleman got one of the “hog mollies” — his term of endearment for big linemen — he so coveted entering the NFL draft.
The Panthers selected Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick Thursday night in Gettleman’s first NFL draft with his new team.
“If you look historically at the Super Bowl champions show me one that has had a bad defensive front — it doesn’t happen,” said Gettleman, who has been to Super Bowls with Denver, Buffalo and most recently the New York Giants. “I’m telling you, it doesn’t happen.”
It marks the first time ever the Panthers have selected a defensive tackle in the first round.
Defensive tackle was considered a position of need after the Panthers released starter Ron Edwards in a salary cap move earlier this offseason. Carolina was 14th in the league against the run last season.
Lotulelei, 6-foot-2 and 311 pounds, is expected to step in and start right away alongside veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who re-signed in the offseason.
Gettleman called Lotulelei a three-down lineman.
“What Star does is he impacts the game on every snap in terms of the run game and the pass game,” Gettleman said. “He’s not someone you are going to replace in your sub package defense.”
Gettleman likes the idea that Lotulelei can occupy two players at the point of attack, which he hopes will free up middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to make even more plays. Kuechly, the 2012 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, led the NFL in tackles last season.
“It gives Luke more protection, which makes our whole defense better,” Gettleman said.
In his last two seasons at Utah, Lotulelei had 20 of his 86 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and posted 6.5 sacks.
He also forced four fumbles.
“We think he’s going to be an impact player for us as far as our front is concerned,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s a guy that will command the double teams and can split the double teams as well as hold them point, which will give our linebackers an opportunity to run.
“It will affect the way we play pass coverage when you’ve got two guys up front in him and Dwan that will be able to push the pocket for us.”
It’s been a strange two months for Lotulelei.
Medical tests at the Scouting Combine in February revealed his left ventricle was pumping at only 44 percent efficiency raising red flags about his future in the NFL.
But following a variety of tests, including those by a cardiologist specialist in Utah, it was revealed that a virus was causing the abnormal heartbeat.
Medication cured the problem fairly quickly.
“He was thoroughly checked out,” Gettleman said. “Our doctors felt very comfortable that he’s fine. He’s been completely cleared.”
Lotulelei said it was a scary situation at the time.
“It was definitely a big blow,” the soft-spoken Lotulelei said. “But it ended up just being a virus I had from a cold. But everything has been cleared and I’m ready to go. I’m ready to get down there and get to work.”
A native of Tonga, the 23-year-old Lotulelei is already married and has two daughters.
Lotulelei hails from the same school as two current Panthers stars — wide receiver Steve Smith and offensive tackle Jordan Gross.