Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said on Jan.3 that the staff would spend two weeks analyzing the team, looking to avoid hasty, emotional decisions. The Observer will do the same, position by position. Up next: Offensive linemen.
Three things to know
▪ Position catastrophe: Season-ending injuries to left tackle Michael Oher (concussion), Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil (shoulder) and backup center Gino Gradkowski (knee) and a high ankle sprain for right tackle Daryl Williams forced the Panthers into less-than-ideal contingency plans. Gettleman didn’t do enough last offseason to address the tackle depth, and it cost the entire team. He can’t make the same mistake again.
▪ Remmers’ free agency: Mike Remmers was forced to shift to left tackle after Oher was sidelined, and speed rushers continued to give him problems. But Remmers is a more-than-serviceable right tackle and might price himself out of the Panthers’ plans this winter if a couple of teams are willing to pay him. Gettleman sounded pleased with the job Williams did on the right side before his injury.
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▪ Coach ‘em up: You’ve read and heard a lot the past week or so about other teams’ interest in Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and secondary coach Steve Wilks. Two members of Ron Rivera’s staff who don’t get enough credit are offensive line coach John Matsko and assistant Ray Brown, who kept this group from becoming a complete disaster in 2016. Any linemen the Panthers add in the draft or free agency will be in capable hands.
On the roster
▪ Michael Oher: Rivera indicated last week Oher would be back in 2017 after missing the final 13 games last season. Gettleman wouldn’t address the topic of Oher, saying he hadn’t spoken to him lately. The bigger question might not be whether Oher plays again, but how effective he’ll be after missing nearly an entire season. The Panthers need resolution on Oher’s situation, and soon.
▪ Ryan Kalil: The mainstay of the Panthers’ line turns 32 in March, and – given his outside interests – it’s fair to wonder how much longer Kalil will play. He’s under contract for two more seasons, although NBC last month put into development a sitcom pitched by Kalil’s production company. The hunch here is Kalil, who’s coming off shoulder surgery, will play at least one more season.
▪ Trai Turner: Turner is one of the best young guards in the NFL, and probably would be headed back to the Pro Bowl had the Panthers not finished 6-10. Turner showed his versatility by sliding to right tackle for three games when Williams was hurt. Turner will be one of the key pieces when the Panthers begin transitioning past the Kalil era.
▪ Also: Left guard Andrew Norwell, the team’s most underrated linemen, is a restricted free agent who will be back. Gino Gradkowski is under contract for two more seasons, so keeping him healthy will be critical to the interior line depth. First-year center Tyler Larsen held up OK after being thrust into a tough spot.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Matt Kalil: There should be buyer beware when it comes to Ryan Kalil’s younger brother. The Vikings left tackle is coming off season-ending hip surgery and has also dealt with knee and back issues since going to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2012. But a change of scenery could be good for Kalil and the Panthers, especially on an incentive-laden deal. That sitcom from Kalil’s production company? It’s about two brothers who work together while in completely different life stages. Just sayin’.
▪ Andrew Whitworth: Another left tackle – seeing a trend here? – Whitworth says he wants to stay with the Bengals, the only team he’s ever played for. But Whitworth, 35, also is nearing the end of his career and might see the Panthers as better equipped than Cincy to get back to the playoffs and make a run. Gettleman has shown a willingness to sign proven veterans to 1- or 2-year deals.
▪ Luke Joeckel: The second overall pick from 2013 has been a disappointment in Jacksonville, which declined last spring to pick up Joeckel’s fifth-year option. The Jags moved Joeckel from left tackle to guard in 2016, but he played in only four games before a season-ending knee injury. He’s told reporters he prefers tackle and – like Kalil – could benefit from a fresh start elsewhere.
▪ Cam Robinson: Alabama’s 6-6, 326-pound left tackle at this point looks like the star of a weak tackle class. Some scouts have Robinson going in the middle of the first round, and the Panthers could have their eyes on a running back at No. 8. Robinson will have to prove to teams he can handle speed rushers at the next level.
▪ Ryan Ramcyzk: The 6-6, 297-pounder from Wisconsin was one of the best left tackles in the country last season. He’s expected to declare for the draft, although pending hip surgery could affect the first-round grade he received from the NFL advisory board. Ramcyzk has made a big leap after playing two seasons at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
▪ Garrett Bolles: The last time the Panthers drafted an offensive tackle from Utah it worked out pretty well. But there are some potential red flags around Bolles that make him more of a risk than Jordan Gross, not the least of which is the fact he’ll be 25 as a rookie. Bolles also has had some off-field issues, although he dominated during his lone season for the Utes.
The bottom line
The Panthers are in a bit of a tough spot – potentially needing a long-term answer at left tackle in a draft that doesn’t appear to have many of them. In an ideal scenario, Oher comes back close to his 2015 form and the Panthers get someone such as Kalil or Joeckel on a prove-it deal to compete with him. Gettleman won’t reach at No. 8, so the scouting department’s evaluations of Robinson, et. al., take on greater importance.