Star Lotulelei makes #NFLRank at No. 63

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera mentioned early in training camp that second-year defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was ready to take the step.

He better explain that to Lotulelei.

"I don't know what that means," the defensive tackle said.

The easy answer would be sacks. Lotulelei, who came in at No. 63 in ESPN's ranking of the top 100 defensive players, has already proven to be one of the best run-stoppers in the league and a disruptive force in the middle of the league's second-ranked defense.

Carolina allowed an average of 3.7 yards per carry on 240 carries when the No. 14 pick of the 2013 draft was on the field last season. The number rose to 4.5 yards on 112 rushes when the former Utah star was on the sidelines.

At 6-foot-2, 320 pounds, Lotulelei forced teams to pay more attention to him, which freed defensive ends Greg Hardy (15) and Charles Johnson (11) to combine for 26 sacks. There's no doubt Lotulelei's presence in the middle was a big reason Carolina led the league with 60 sacks.

But while Lotulelei has his share of quarterback hurries, he recorded only three sacks.

The Panthers feel lucky to have him. Before doctors at the NFL combine diagnosed him with a heart issue -- which was later cleared, with speculation that the diagnosis was connected to a viral infection -- some had him ranked among the top five in the draft. The diagnosis allowed Carolina to grab him in the middle of the round.

After Lotulelei had his first sack last season, Hardy proclaimed: "He's not a star. He's a superstar. And this superstar is a beast. I see some crazy things for his future. When and if he does keep developing, he's going to be unstoppable."

Lotulelei has shown glimpses of that in training camp. While he can't sack Cam Newton, Lotulelei has been more disruptive than ever. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith got a taste of that on Sunday night, when Lotulelei threw him for a 9-yard loss in the second quarter.

Lotulelei doesn't expect to lead the league in sacks, but with teams having to pay more attention to Hardy after a Pro Bowl season -- and with the development of 2013 second-round pick Kawann Short at tackle -- there should be more opportunities.

His greatest value will remain disruption, though. The pressure Lotulelei brings in the middle allows the Panthers to pressure the quarterback from a base defense without a lot of exotic blitzes.

The value of that doesn't have to be explained to anybody.