Next up: Defensive tackle.
2016 grade: B. Short didn’t play to his Pro Bowl level of 2015, when he led the team with 11 sacks, but the combination of Short, Star Lotulelei, Vernon Butler, Paul Soliai and Kyle Love fared well. Short and Lotulelei combined for 10 sacks, only two fewer than they had in ’15, because Lotulelei upped his total. That Short took almost half a season to reach the form he had the previous year defines the kind of year this was for Carolina in general.
Under contract (2017 salary cap number): Star Lotulelei ($6,757,000), Paul Soliai ($3,500,000), Vernon Butler ($1,908,299).
Key free agents: Kawann Short, UFA; Kyle Love, UFA; Chas Alecxih, UFA.
The good: Being sound defensively starts up front in the middle. Even if Short doesn’t re-sign, the Panthers are solid there with Lotulelei and Butler, the team’s 2013 and 2016 first-round picks. Lotulelei stepped up as a pass rusher and had a career-best four sacks, three more than the previous year. Butler’s season was hampered by a high ankle sprain, but he showed he can be disruptive when healthy. He should be that in 2017. Re-signing Short would make this arguably the best group of tackles in the NFL and give new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks plenty of flexibility with a rotation that was a big part of Sean McDermott’s defense. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Panthers have the nucleus for a solid rotation with veteran Soliai locked up.
The bad: Lotulelei will become an unrestricted free agent in 2018 if he doesn’t sign a long-term deal before this season. If Short gets the $16 million to $19 million a year he’s likely to demand, the Panthers will have to spend a huge amount on two players at the same position. Both could be ranked among the top 10 highest-paid tackles in the NFL. Only the Buffalo Bills were close to that this season, with Marcell Dareus ($16,095,686) No. 3 and Kyle Williams ($7,433,333) No. 11. The Bills ranked 14th in total defense and missed the playoffs, raising the argument that maybe they should have spent more elsewhere.
The draft: If the Panthers don’t re-sign, Short the draft is deep enough that general manager Dave Gettleman could wait until the third through fifth rounds to add a quality tackle to develop as the fourth player in the rotation. That player could be a local -- Larry Ogunjobi (6-3, 294), a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, who played college football at UNC Charlotte. There are plenty of other options like him.
Final thought: If Short doesn’t drop his price, I can see the Panthers either using the franchise tag on him or moving on and building around Lotueleli and Butler. The franchise tag is a definite possibility, in that it gives the Panthers one more year to give Short and Butler time to develop. If Butler emerges, Short becomes expendable in 2018 and Gettleman will have more money to spend on other positions.