Fridge II? Panthers' Dontari Poe can field punts and be 'beast' at DT

The Panthers signed Dontari Poe to a three-year, $27 million deal as a free agent from Atlanta during the offseason. Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cedric Miller was headed to football practice the summer of 2004 when he noticed this unusually big kid marching in the high school band. He immediately asked the director for permission to speak to the freshman bass drum player, who at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds made his instrument seem more like a tambourine.

"The first thing I asked was, 'Have you ever played football?'" recalled Miller, the former (Memphis, Tennessee) Wooddale High coach. "He said, 'No, sir.' I replied, 'Well, now you do. I'll see you tomorrow.'

"He turned out to be one of those special players you are lucky to have come into your program."

Miller was reminded of that on Monday when he saw a social media post of the same big kid fielding a punt for the Carolina Panthers as part of a last-day-of-camp-fun moment at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

It was defensive tackle Dontari Poe, now still standing 6-foot-3, but weighing 346 pounds.

"He always was able to do things most guys his size couldn't do," Miller said of Poe. "He could do things skill guys do. He could run, jump, turn flips, things you don't see from a guy his size. He could dunk a basketball. Catching punts and throwing passes and doing all that stuff doesn't surprise me at all."

Carolina signed Poe to a three-year, $27 million deal as a free agent from Atlanta during the offseason to replace space-eater Star Lotulelei, who went to Buffalo.


Poe, who will turn 28 on Aug. 18, was so impressive during training camp that there was little to no mention of how much Carolina would miss Lotulelei playing beside Pro Bowler Kawann Short. Teammates have called Poe everything from a "beast" to a "monster."

Coach Ron Rivera compared Poe to William "The Refrigerator" Perry, one of Rivera's teammates with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, after watching him field a punt almost as smoothly as star running back Christian McCaffrey.

"Just athletic, explosive, dynamic," Rivera said when comparing Poe to Perry, the 6-foot-2, 350-pound defensive tackle best known for scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XX.

Poe actually has as many career rushing touchdowns as McCaffrey, scoring twice from the 1-yard line on designed runs for Kansas City in 2015 and '16.

He has more touchdown passes than Carolina backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert, taking the snap in the shotgun and completing a 2-yard throw to Chiefs tight end Demetrius Harris that coach Andy Reid dubbed a "Bloated [Tim] Tebow Pass."

Asked if new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has plans to take advantage of Poe's special skill, Rivera laughed and said, "He has a plan."

But Poe wasn't signed to be a touchdown-maker. He was signed to be a touchdown-stopper, a disruptive force in the middle of Carolina's 4-3 defense.

Because of his ability to pressure the quarterback in addition to eat up space, the Panthers have what could be the league's best defensive tackle tandem.

Statistics back that up. Since 2013, Short and Poe are two of only 12 defensive tackles with at least 200 tackles each, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Short is tied for sixth during that span with 228. Poe is 11th at 201.

Short and Poe also have combined for 45 sacks -- 29.5 for Short and 15.5 for Poe -- during that span. They rank fourth among current defensive tackle combinations in sacks.

Throw in future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers, who ranks fourth on the NFL's all-time sack list with 154.5, and end Mario Addison, who has 20.5 sacks the past two seasons, and Carolina has one of the best defensive fronts in the league.

"It's going to be crazy to see what we all do together," Short said.

Blind Side II

Poe's story is similar to that of Michael Oher, the former Carolina left tackle who was the subject of the 2009 hit film "The Blind Side." They both grew up in a rough neighborhood in Memphis. They both were unusually athletic for their size -- Oher is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds and was a standout before a concussion ended his NFL career in 2016.

Poe was so big that he could practice only on Mondays as a ninth-grader when the junior varsity played, because Wooddale didn't have a helmet big enough to fit him. He had to share a helmet with a senior varsity player.

But there was no Sandra Bullock character in Poe's life, and he didn't dominate as a high school player like Oher did.

Poe went to the University of Memphis, where he redshirted as a freshman and didn't become well known until what ESPN analyst Todd McShay called an "epic workout" at the 2012 NFL combine, with 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and a 40-yard time of 4.98 seconds.

The Chiefs selected Poe with the 11th overall pick.

Poe went on to become a Pro Bowl selection in 2013 and '14, but then his production dropped and his weight became an issue. The Chiefs opted to focus on re-signing safety Eric Berry following the 2016 season, and Poe moved on to Atlanta with a one-year deal.

When the Falcons put their offseason energy into locking up quarterback Matt Ryan to a long-term deal, Poe again became expendable. The Panthers snatched him up, strengthening their defensive front and in essence weakening the front of their NFC South rival.

Like the Falcons, the Panthers included a weight clause in Poe's contract. It will reward him with $500,000 each year if he meets a certain weight in four weigh-ins.

So far, Poe reports no issues.

"I'm good," said Poe, a soft-spoken man of few words.

'Going to be scary'

Poe's teammates and coaches insist he is more than good.

"This guy's a beast out there," Short said. "He's athletic, big and he's got speed. It's going to be crazy just to see him when that game time comes, putting the pads on and going against somebody different. It's going to be scary."

Poe's get-off speed and quickness separate him from Lotulelei, known more for taking up double-teams so Short could pressure the quarterback. That combination was at its best during Carolina's run to the Super Bowl in 2015, when Short's 11 sacks tied for the most by a defensive tackle.

Poe's ability to rush and eat up space could help Short get back to that level after he combined for 13.5 sacks the past two seasons.

"Dontari is not a one-trick pony," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "When you think about him complementing, working with KK Short to provide that pocket push to complement the edge rushers we have, that's exciting to envision."

Asked if they could be the best tackle combination in the NFL, Washington smiled and said, "You won't hear me saying they aren't."

Poe also helps make the Carolina offensive line better. Center Ryan Kalil compared him to former Panthers tackle Kris Jenkins, who at 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds was a wrecking ball inside.

Kalil recalled a counter move Poe made when he came off the ball fast, then clubbed back the other way to make the five-time Pro Bowl center feel ordinary.

"Big guys are a dime a dozen, but Poe is one of the more athletic big guys that I've played against," Kalil said. "Very few big guys have a counter move, and he's got a ton.

"He's got a counter off his bull rush. He's got a counter right off the line of scrimmage. More inexperienced guys, they have a move and they use it until it doesn't. ... There's a handful of guys around the league [that can do what Poe does] and I'm glad we've got one of them on our team."

The Carolina linebackers, who depend on the front four to eat up blocks so they can roam free and make plays, are equally thankful.

"You add a guy like Dontari Poe to the front seven we already have ... it just makes our job so much easier as linebackers," Pro Bowler Thomas Davis said. "So it should be really fun."

Fridge II?

Rivera already has compared middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to Chicago Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher and outside linebacker Shaq Thompson to Wilber Marshall, a star on the '85 Bears.

So it came as no surprise when he compared Poe to Perry, who beyond his ability to play fullback was a key player next to Steve McMichael on a Chicago defense that led the league in seven categories in 1985.

Comparing Poe and Short to Perry and McMichael actually is fair when you look at the stats. Chicago's duo combined for 75 tackles and 13 sacks in '85. Based on the season averages of Poe and Short, they would project to finish this season with a combined 85.4 tackles and 7.5 sacks.

Playing beside Short, Poe has a chance to increase his sack total -- a combined 5.0 the past three seasons -- closer to the combined 10.5 he had in 2013-14.

He also should benefit in terms of staying fresh with a tackle rotation that includes 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler and Kyle Love.

"He's just going to demand more respect inside," Love said of Poe. "A beast in the middle. You've got to have a guy like that. That opens up a lot more things for our defense."

Bills center Ryan Groy got a small sample of what Poe brings to Carolina in the preseason opener at Buffalo.

"He's a monster," Groy said. "Not every guy has that dynamic as far as having the quickness like he does, being that big. He's a special player."

Monster, beast ... Poe doesn't care what people call him. He just wants to contribute and get back to his early form.

He believes there will be no better pair of tackles than him and Short, but he admits "that's just my ego."

And if the Panthers want Poe to return punts or play fullback, which will evoke more "Refrigerator" memories for Rivera, he'll do that, too.

"He might be a little more athletic than 'The Fridge,'" Miller said with a laugh. "He's just a big kid blessed with a special talent."