SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei isn't fretting about his uncertain future with the Carolina Panthers.
The team's 2013 first-round draft pick said he'd love to return to the Panthers when his contract expires after this season but isn't dwelling on the unknown as he enters his ''contract year.''
''I try to not think about it too much,'' said Lotulelei, the team's 315-pound space eater in the middle of the line. ''At the end of the day, that is a part of what we do - the business side of things - but I'm not really thinking about it too much. It's so early in the season. Right now I'm just trying to focus on getting better, improving and helping this defense get to where we need to be, get us to our goals this season.''
Lotulelei's future with the Panthers beyond this season is cloudy because of other moves made by the team.
Carolina has already signed defensive tackle Kawann Short, drafted one round behind Lotulelei in the 2013 draft, to a five-year, $80 million contract extension this offseason. And, last year Carolina invested a late first-round draft pick in Vernon Butler, another defensive tackle with huge potential who is turning heads at training camp.
Complicating matters is Lotulelei is still recovering from cleanup surgery on his shoulder this offseason. He has been limited at times during practice as the Panthers are gradually working him back into top playing form.
So whether the Panthers will choose to invest more money at the defensive tackle position or let Lotulelei walk in free agency is unclear.
The Panthers have not commented on Lotulelei's contract status.
''Money is a big part of what we do, but at the same time you've got to go out there and earn it,'' Lotulelei said.
Short has earned his money.
He put up impressive numbers with the Panthers, registering 110 tackles and 17 sacks in the past two seasons as a starter. Lotulelei's numbers pale in comparison, but he has a distinctly different role than Short, working as the big man who takes up double teams in the middle of the interior defensive line.
''KK fills up the stat sheets, makes a lot of great plays,'' Lotulelei said of Short. ''I just try to play my role on this defense and help us be the best I can be. Whatever our defense needs, whatever they need me to do, I can go out there and do anything they ask of me. If they want me to go out there and rush the passer or collapse the pocket or collapse the run, whatever they need, that's what I'll do.''
Lotulelei has had his moments of high production. Last year against the Arizona Cardinals he was NFC Defensive Player of the Week after getting a career-high three sacks, the first of which resulted in a fumble and a Thomas Davis touchdown return.
Lotulelei says he ''loves playing with this defense'' and he's particularly excited about this season following the addition of DE Julius Peppers.
''We expect a lot,'' Lotulelei said of the defensive front. ''We have some great guys in our room.''
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