CHARLOTTE - Losing defensive tackle Kawann Short to a second consecutive season-ending shoulder injury has created a significant void along the Panthers' defensive line. It affects the group both on and off the field.
It's a tough thing for teammates to witness, especially knowing how hard Short worked to come back from last year's injury to his left shoulder.
"It's really unfortunate that we lose a guy of KK's caliber this early in the season. And it's really unfortunate for him, just because of the person he is," defensive tackle Zach Kerr said. "I've never had a season-ending injury, so I can't act like I know what KK is going through. But it's just really, really unfortunate, and our room took a huge blow."
Kerr started two games when Short was out with a foot injury earlier this season. But Kerr knows it's near impossible to replace the eight-year pro, even as Kerr slides into a bigger role.
"You don't just plug-and-play with a guy that's been as good as he's been over his NFL career," Kerr said. "It's going to be by committee."
Then there's what Short's status as a captain and longest-tenured defender brought to the meeting room. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow called it a "huge deal," but "KK will be around, so he'll help with that."
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On the field, Short's absence might be felt the most in known-passing situations.
"When you're in a four-man rush, you have pass-rush games, and it's based on where the back is and where the center's going," Snow said. "You love a vet that really understands all that and gets you in the right games. So there's a lot of things KK has done and can do for you, but that's just an example."
As for the next man up, Snow likes the way the 6-foot-2, 335-pound Kerr moves, noting he also has plenty of experience since entering the league in 2014.
"He's got that savvy," Snow said. "He's been around, he works, and he's a pro. He does have some wiggle inside for a big man. He'll get more reps, and I'm anxious to see how he does."
While Kerr feels for Short, he recognizes this as an opportunity for him and his teammates. Kerr had started only 12 games entering this season.
"I think it's going to be cool to see some of the guys that haven't gotten the opportunities that they should've or that they could get, based on the guys that are in front of them," Kerr said. "I'm excited for everybody in the room, not just myself."
Kerr will initially line up next to first-round pick Derrick Brown, who has totaled five tackles for loss and a pair of passes defensed in his rookie season. The 6-foot-5, 318-pound Brown faced significant double teams even with Short on the field and doesn't expect that to change. But where he does have an advantage is his physical talent.
"(Brown) has a lot of ability that a lot of people don't have, that I wasn't given, that 'KK' wasn't given - he can do some really, really good things," Kerr said. "It's almost like when you watch really good football players on film, and coaches put on teach tape, it's like, OK that looks good, but that guy can do that. I don't know if I'll be able to do that.
"It's just cool to watch him and watch him grow and learn the game of football."
Sixth-round defensive tackle Bravvion Roy should also see his playing time increase with Short out for the year. Snow has extensive knowledge of Roy, having coached him at Baylor.
"You can see him progressing, and he just needs more reps. I think the more reps he gets, the better he's going to get," Snow said. "He's doing a nice job. He's real bright, understands the game."
The Panthers have also touted Efe Obada's ability to play both end and tackle along the D-line. And on the practice squad, defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton acquitted himself well in 13 snaps against the Buccaneers in Week 2, while Bruce Hector has appeared in 11 games since 2018.
But no matter who is on the field, head coach Matt Rhule doesn't want players trying to do too much.
"I'm not looking to replace KK. I'm just looking for someone to come in and play to our standard," Rhule said. "Everybody has to raise their level of play, and that's what I expect them to do."