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Kawann Short is league's top-graded defensive tackle

Carolina Panthers' Kawann Short (99) celebrates his sack of Cleveland Browns' quarterback Brian Hoyer, with teammates Charles Johnson (95) and Wes Horton (96) during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. The Panthers won 17-13. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

The Carolina Panthers double-dipped at defensive tackle in the 2013 draft, selecting Star Lotulelei with the 14th overall pick, and then coming back to grab Kawann Short with their second round selection.

So far, this has proven more successful than the last time they tried that tactic—selecting Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round of the 2011 draft—but it is Short who is starting to dominate like a first-round stud.

Star Lotulelei was supposed to be a do-it-all player at the position. He could stuff the run and rush the passer, and reminded many of Haloti Ngata when he was coming out of the draft. Short, though, is the player who has transformed into that image this season; he may not have Ngata’s 340-pound frame, but he has been a force against the run and pass this season, and was a destructive monster against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night.

Short notched a pair of sacks, but also had seven additional hurries and a batted pass. The Philadelphia offensive line, which had been righting its season up until this game, was torn apart by Short, who split his time between the left and right side of the line (44 snaps at DRT, 25 at DLT), and contributed to the negative pass-protecting grade from each of the interior starters.

When Jason Peters went down for the Eagles and forced a re-shuffle along the line with Dennis Kelly coming in, things got even worse, and Short ramped up the pressure.

The drops (a ridiculous eight in total) won’t help reflect it, but this was arguably Bradford’s best performance of the season, despite the pressure applied up front and the struggles of those around him. He put several good passes where they needed to go, despite heavy pressure for much of the game (24 of his 54 dropbacks). However, he was not rewarded by his receivers making plays.

While Short tore up the Eagles, oddly enough it is Star Lotulelei, the player that was supposed to become the next All-Pro interior defender, who is struggling to live up to his teammate as he works his way back from a foot injury. He has yet to knock the quarterback down, much less notch a sack, and has just three total hurries on the season from 97 pass-rushing snaps. His run defense has also been below his better play, and the Panthers are waiting to really see the player they expected when they drafted him.

Whichever way you look at it, Carolina’s second attempt at upgrading their defensive interior was a far more successful one than their first, and the combination of Lotulelei and Short looks to have netted the team one star player and one capable starter—just like they expected. The only difference is that it is Short who has emerged as the star, while Lotulelei plays in his shadow.

Short has now moved ahead of Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt in our interior defenders rankings, and has done so with excellent grades as a pass-rusher and defending the run. He gives the Panthers defensive stars at every level, with Josh Norman in the secondary, and linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly also playing at an extremely high level. The team is now 6-0, one of five undefeated teams in the NFL, and has the kind of defense in place to compete come January.

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