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2015 NFL DRAFT

Top NFL Rookie of Week One: Panthers' DT Star Lotulelei

By Rob Rang | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

Each Tuesday of the NFL season NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang will identify his Rookie of the Week. To qualify, the first-year professional player must have played a significant role in a competitive NFL game, demonstrating not just flashes of talent but the potential to emerge as a legitimate long-term standout. The player's draft status - whether as a former first round pick or undrafted free agent - does not apply.

NFL Rookie of Week One: Carolina DT Star Lotulelei

For a draft class that many characterized as average there sure were some impressive performances from rookies in Week One. Quarterbacks Geno Smith (Jets) and E.J. Manuel (Bills) put their respective teams in position to score big upsets. Safety Eric Reid looked like a potential upgrade over Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson for the 49ers. By converting all three of his field goal attempts as well as two extra points, Dolphins' kicker Caleb Sturgis nearly provided the difference in Miami's win over Cleveland.

Considering his matchup, however, Lotulelei was the most impressive rookie in Week One of the 2013 season, giving the Seattle Seahawks, including their reigning Pro Bowl center Max Unger, all they could handle in a 12-7 loss.

Lotulelei, whom the Panthers selected 14th overall out of Utah, earned the start alongside veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and underrated defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. The rookie hardly relied upon his help, however, frequently absorbing double-teams and yet still recording four tackles in his debut, including a three-yard tackle for loss of Seahawks' star running back Marshawn Lynch and nearly recording a sack for a safety of quarterback Russell Wilson.
Lotulelei was part of a unit that held Lynch to just 43 yards on 17 carries, less than half of his 99.38 yard-per-game average of a season ago.

Lotulelei beat Unger and left guard Paul McQuistan repeatedly with a combination of quickness, power and determination. Among the rookie's most impressive plays was his first regular season NFL tackle, a thundering collision with Lynch for one-yard gain in which Lotulelei initially split an Unger-McQuistan double-team to threaten Wilson in the end zone. Rather than pursue the mobile Wilson, however, Lotulelei showed the instincts and hustle that some scouts questioned during his career at Utah, recognizing a developing screen to Lynch and scraping left to knock the burly Pro Bowl runner to the ground to force a punt on the Seahawks opening possession.

Lotulelei was widely viewed as a blue chip prospect entering his senior season with the Utes. Despite dominating opponents in some high profile games (USC, for example), Lotulelei was knocked by some for inconsistency. A test at the 2013 Scouting Combine seemed to indicate a heart condition that briefly led to his stock tumbling before Lotulelei reassured teams of his health by passing the gold standard of cardiac examinations prior to the draft.

No one was questioning Lotulelei's heart in the first regular season game of his NFL career.

The Panthers travel to Buffalo this week to play Manuel and the Bills.

Curious about which other first-year players have caught my eye? Click here for Rang's Rookie Report archives.

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