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Free agent focus 2018: DT Star Lotulelei fits the Rod Marinelli “magic” mold

There just aren’t a lot of guys with Lotulelei’s measureables, could he work in Dallas?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year again as March is just around the corner. Sure, other teams are working their way through the playoffs but it’s offseason time around here. The Dallas Cowboys have work to do in order to make a return to the playoffs next season.

[In this series, come along as we peruse the long list of free agents and focus on players that could be of interest for the Cowboys. Some of these players may, of course, price themselves out of range. However, any time you feel like your team is close like Dallas most definitely does, why not be a little aggressive in the acquisitions department?]

DT Star Lotulelei (6’2, 315 lbs, 28 years-old) - Carolina Panthers

2017 stats: 16 games played, 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks

This should be a familiar name to folks around here as he piqued the Cowboys’ interest back in the 2013 NFL Draft.

He was a standout at Utah after transferring there in 2010, playing 13 games that season and recording 21 tackles and half a sack. The very next season he won the Morris Trophy which goes to the PAC-12’s best defensive lineman while also being named to the All-PAC-12 Conference team. Lotulelei started all 13 games, registering 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a pass breakup, forced fumble, and recovery. His nine tackles for loss tied him for second on the team. In the Sun Bowl, he had six tackles and a fumble which earned him the Jimmy Rogers Jr. Trophy for Most Valuable Lineman.

Returning to the Utes for his senior year, he started all 12 games that year, with 42 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, four pass breakups, four fumble recoveries, and three forced fumbles. During his time at Utah, he had memorable moments such as a blocking a field goal attempt with one second left against his former commitment Brigham Young. He even stepped in as an offensive guard when needed.

Entering the 2013 Draft, he received favorable comparisons to Haloti Ngata due to his power, snap recognition, instincts and quickness off the snap. He was declared ineligible to enter the Scouting Combine after a concerning heart defect was found that was later determined to only come from an infection, allowing his heart to return to normal. Instead, he waited a month and worked out in front of everyone at his Pro Day.

He was extremely strong putting up 38 reps on the bench press but the false reports of a heart condition already did their damage to Lotulelei, who was considered a Top-5 pick by many draftniks. He was drafted 14th overall by the Panthers, being the second defensive tackle drafted behind Sheldon Richardson. Lotulelei was definitely a draft consideration for the Cowboys as the “Great Board Reveal of 2013” shows his first-round status, but he was taken four picks ahead of them.

He started all 16 games as a rookie and recorded three sacks with 42 tackles. He was rated the sixth-best run stopping defensive tackle, he was second among run stopping percentages according to PFF (12.9%). The Panthers’ run defense also improved from 14th in 2012 (110 yards per game) to second (86.9) in his rookie year, while leading the league in sacks at 60. Lotulelei finished fourth in the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.

Though he only started 13 games in 2014, he still had a strong season with two sacks, 26 tackles, and a pass deflection. His two sacks came in a win-or-go home game against the Falcons, where his performance helped secure the NFC South division title for Carolina. Just in his first two seasons, Star Lotulelei recorded 46 run-stops and 40 pressures.

Unfortunately, Lotulelei suffered a stress reaction in his surgically repaired foot and missed the first two games of 2015. He started the remaining 14 games of the Panthers’ Super Bowl run but wasn’t nearly as effective having only 22 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. Since then, he’s been credited as starting every game in the past two seasons despite being dinged up and he just hasn’t been the disruptive force he was in his first couple of seasons. He’s got 51 tackles and only 5.5 sacks in the past two seasons. Though sacks aren’t really his M.O., he hasn’t been the same guy in run defense either. PFF graded him a very poor 49.1 on the season following the end of the Panthers’ season last week. He’s sort of taken a backseat to counterpart Kawann Short as of late.

As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The Panthers exercised his fifth-year option in 2017 but they never worked on a long-term deal. Following their Wildcard loss to the Saints, Lotulelei seemed like a guy who’s ready for all outcomes:

“A little bit, just because you’d like that sense of security,” Lotulelei said when asked if he was disappointed Gettleman didn’t lock him up. “I love it here, would love to stay, but you know how the business works and I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Though he’s had a couple of lackluster years, Lotulelei is not short on confidence heading into free agency:

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of people that can do what I can do,” Lotulelei said. “The physicality and intelligence that I bring, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of people that have that combination. Like I said, I’m not worried about it. I know I’ll find a job, if it’s here or somewhere else.”

Could Star be wearing the “star” next season? The Cowboys and Rod Marinelli love to go after guys that may be a little forgotten. With the need to find another defensive tackle at the one-technique, a guy like Lotulelei may allow Dallas to move Maliek Collins back to his preferred under-tackle position. It also may free up David Irving to work on the outside some, instead of being tethered to the middle.

Here is a short description of Star’s game from a Panther’s writer:

Be interesting to see what they do with unrestricted free-agent defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. He doesn’t rush passers like fellow tackle Kawann Short, but he demands attention from the offensive line. He takes up space. If Lotulelei played basketball, he’d be a zone defense. He helps put Carolina’s fast and instinctive linebackers in position to run free….

What do you think, a little “Marinelli-Magic” perhaps?