PHILADELPHIA » When the college season concluded and draft prospects entered the lexicon of NFL fans, Star Lotulelei was near the top of all lists. The Utah defensive tackle had the size and college resume worthy of potentially becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Then a physical at the scouting combine detected a heart condition that sent Lotulelei home prematurely and prompted concern about his draft status. Lotulelei has since been medically cleared — Eagles general manager Howie Roseman confirmed that the team found no issue with Lotulelei’s heart condition — and Lotulelei is back near the top of many draft boards.
“For us, we rely on (the medical staff) for our judgments,” Roseman said. “We’re not doctors; we try not to give our opinions on the medical issues. They tell us what they think, and then we rely on them to place it on the draft board in proper perspective.”
Lotulelei, who measured 6-foot-2 and 311 pounds at the combine and will play bigger, is a possibility for the Eagles at the fourth overall pick because of his versatility and production as an interior linemen. He could go to a team such as Cleveland at No. 6, with several potential teams after the Browns. But he won’t slip too far, and the heart condition is unlikely to be the problem in evaluations.
“The stock doesn’t go down and up as much as most people think,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “We in the media talk about it and create excitement. But everybody knew where Star was, and it was just a matter of whether he was going to be cleared or not, and he did get cleared. There are apparently no issues.”
Through a representative at his agency, Lotulelei politely declined to comment for this article. He did not speak with reporters at the combine, and he declined the league’s invitation to attend the draft in New York, instead choosing to watch with family in Utah.
The reason for the commotion about his heart started when an echocardiogram detected a condition that showed Lotulelei’s left ventricle pumping at 44 percent efficiency, falling below the normal range of 55 to 70 percent, according to an ESPN report at the combine. The problem apparently was a virus that caused Lotulelei to lose weight.
Lotulelei has since undergone five tests on his heart, according to a league source with knowledge of the player’s health. He has passed each one.
The Eagles are expected to play a hybrid defense that includes 3-4 principles. They have Fletcher Cox and Isaac Sopoaga and are intrigued by third-year player Cedric Thornton.
But Sopoaga, who signed a three-year deal in March, will be 32 when the season begins. Thornton remains unproven. Lotulelei can fill in anywhere on the three-man front, and would be a front-runner for the starting job as a five-technique end, lining up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.
“I see a guy that can play multiple places along a front,” Mayock said. “And in today’s NFL you’re not really a 3-4 team or a 4-3 team. Everybody’s playing multiple fronts. That’s part of the appeal of Star. Star can play nose tackle. He can play the three-technique in a 4-3. He can play the five-technique in a 3-4. He can pressure the quarterback on third down, which is unique: Most big players can’t. They have to come off the field. So I think the appeal to him is versatility and the ability to stay on the field for three downs.”
Lotulelei, 23, is married with two children, and he’s free from questions about his character. Any question for the Eagles is how he compares with the other top players on the board, specifically how he projects in a few seasons, which Roseman said is the criteria the Eagles apply. Lotulelei is not considered to have the upside of pass rushers such as Dion Jordan or Ziggy Ansah, although he is considered a safer pick.
In addition, the five-technique spot on the defensive line is not often viewed as a premium position, and that could be where he’s most needed in Philadelphia.
Still, Lotulelei has the chance to be one of the best linemen in the NFL. That’s also a position the Eagles must upgrade. Come Thursday, Eagles fans might need to learn how to pronounce “Lotulelei” — or at least hope that the team’s next star can live up to his first name.
“If Philadelphia pulled the plug on him at four, I have no argument with that,” Mayock said. “You’re going to get a guy that’s going to start this year, play really well, and still has upside and can affect the quarterback.”