Kawann Short's Extension Keeps the Panthers' Defense Solid in the Middle
As offseason camps open for many NFL teams this week, there will be a flurry of players on franchise or restricted tenders who sign deals -- either the tenders themselves or new extensions -- in order to get on the field. Players aren't eligible to participate without a signed contract, so the pressure is on to get some kind of deal finalized.
The first massive one for this period is a five-year, $80 million extension for Kawann Short with the Carolina Panthers. It’s a significant deal -- as any with $80 million included would be -- to keep the best part of the Panthers' defense the strongest. After all, Carolina's success in recent years has been due to defense.
Even during Cam Newton’s MVP season in 2015, the Panthers ranked better in our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play on defense (second) than offense (seventh). Last year, their defense kept a disappointing season from being any worse than it already was. They ranked ninth in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play while the offense struggled.
We all know what happened with the Panthers and the franchise tag last year, but this was clearly not the same situation.
When the tag was rescinded from Josh Norman, it was due to the organization not wanting to pay market price for a top cornerback. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman does not have the same feelings about the big hog mollies on defense this year, though. He knows the success of the Panthers’ defense runs through the front seven, and plugging the middle of it is one of the most important pieces.
Putting on the Pressure
All teams are looking for interior pressure. It’s a rare skill to have on a consistent basis, which is why that's where the big money for defensive tackles continues to go.
Some teams are paying up for the big run-stopping defenders like the New York Giants did with Damon Harrison, but that works best because he’s flanked by Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul on the outside. When teams shell out big contracts on the inside these days, it’s for players who can both defend the run and get to the quarterback. It’s why Fletcher Cox got $36 million guaranteed earlier this offseason and it’s why Aaron Donald is going to eventually sign an otherworldly extension.
Short might not be exactly on that level -- though his $16 million average annual salary is just below Cox and Ndamukong Suh for 4-3 defensive tackles -- but his presence on the line is very much an asset for the Panthers. He was second on the team last season with six sacks, but put more overall pressure on opposing quarterbacks than in 2015 when he led Carolina with 11 sacks, per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. His 22.5 pressures led the team in 2016.
Now in the fold for the foreseeable future, Short will again add to a pass rush that finished tied for third in sack rate last season and includes Charles Johnson and Mario Addison, along with the recently returned Julius Peppers. That pass rush helped a young, developing secondary and allowed Carolina to rank eighth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play last season.
Clogging the Middle
This shouldn’t discount Short’s ability as a run defender, though.
With Star Lotulelei, Vernon Butler and Short, the Panthers allowed the fifth-lowest Rushing NEP per play on runs up the middle in 2016. The Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, and Seattle Seahawks ranked better, but Seattle was the only team of this group to face a higher number of runs than Carolina. The Panthers and Lions were the only two of that group to also rank in the top five of rushing Success Rate on attempts up the middle. Just 34.53 percent of opposing runs up the middle gained positive NEP for an offense against the Panthers last year.
Carolina's success up the middle is not only reliant on the defensive tackles. It helps to have a linebacker like Luke Kuechly behind them, but Short did lead the team with 19 stops on these plays, besting Kuechly’s 13. It's not easy to block Short once he gets into the backfield, and there's not much opposing offenses can do.
Video Courtesy NFL Game Pass
Keeping Short is also a likely sign this will be Lotulelei’s last season with the organization.
They were both taken with in the first two rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, and since Lotulelei was a first-round pick, he had a fifth-year option on his contract -- one the Panthers picked up, and he will be a free agent after this season. With Short receiving the franchise tag and this extension, it's possible Lotulelei could split time with Vernon Butler, who was a first-round selection by the Panthers in 2016.
The Panthers have seemingly made their choice for the future at defensive tackle. With that middle position so important to the defense, it’s not hard to blame them for picking Short was the one to lock up for the future. Keeping him ensures that Carolina's tackle rotation will be solid in 2017 while also keeping the position a strength moving forward.