Two perennial Pro Bowlers who ended last season on the sideline are back on the field for organized team activities.
Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were limited during the OTA practices, but getting them back in any capacity is a good start to rinsing the bad taste of 2016 from everyone’s mouth.
Both missed the final stretch of the Panthers’ miserable post-Super Bowl season after getting injured in a Thursday night loss to New Orleans in November. Kalil went down with a season-ending shoulder injury, and Kuechly sat the final six games after his second concussion in as many seasons.
And while their presence wouldn’t have necessarily pulled the Panthers from their playoff death spiral, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. In addition to being able to block and tackle, Kalil and Kuechly both know how to lead.
“Obviously we know what kind of player he is. But the evolution of him being a leader has been incredible the last few years,” Kalil said of Kuechly. “So his presence makes a huge difference, especially for that defense.”
Kuechly is the game’s best middle linebacker and calls the shots for the Panthers’ defense.
Kalil is – according to quarterback Cam Newton – the middle linebacker of the Panthers’ offense who identifies the defensive fronts and makes the line calls to set the blocking schemes.
You really can judge a team by the bottom half of the roster. And the year we went to the Super Bowl I thought our depth was incredible.
Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil
When Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked about Kalil following Thursday’s OTA session, the first thing he mentioned was his leadership.
“Even though he’s not practicing full right now, just his presence and his awareness around what we’re doing has been really good for that (offensive line) group,” Rivera said.
Brother from another mother
Before his actual brother joined the team in the offseason, Kalil had kind of adopted Kuechly as a younger sibling. Kalil and his wife, Natalie, would invite Kuechly over for dinner and holidays, and Kuechly would entertain their children by doing things like going trick-or-treating with them on Halloween.
Kalil and Kuechly, who turned 26 in April, remain close but as Kalil pointed out: “He’s not the young guy anymore.”
“He’s become an old man on the block,” Kalil said. “And these younger players are coming in looking up to him and he’s done a great job in really embracing that role.”
Center Ryan Kalil and linebacker Luke Kuechly like the moves the Panthers made in free agency – from the big splashes such as Julius Peppers and the $55.5 million deal they gave Kalil’s brother Matt to under-the-radar signings such as slot receiver Russell Shepard and safety Mike Adams.
It’s perhaps telling that neither Kalil nor Kuechly was involved much on that December night in Seattle where the Panthers’ season reached its nadir.
Kalil watched at home in Charlotte as Newton was benched for a dress code violation and the Panthers were shellacked 40-7 in a prime-time embarrassment. Unless he had an extra dress shirt and tie, Kalil couldn’t have done anything to come to Newton’s aid.
But he would have served as the stitching to hold a patchwork offensive line together. The Panthers trotted out a starting offensive line at Seattle that included just one player in his customary spot – left guard Andrew Norwell.
It was the kind of position catastrophe the Panthers had avoided on the way to a 15-1 regular-season finish in 2015. Kalil says that wasn’t just luck.
“You really can judge a team by the bottom half of the roster. And the year we went to the Super Bowl I thought our depth was incredible,” Kalil said. “I don’t think our depth was as good last season. And unfortunately injuries happen.”
Addressing the needs
Kalil and Kuechly like the moves the Panthers made in free agency – from the big splashes such as Julius Peppers and the $55.5 million deal they gave Kalil’s brother Matt to under-the-radar signings such as slot receiver Russell Shepard and safety Mike Adams.
Like Ryan Kalil, Kuechly thinks the Panthers did more to address the team’s depth, which took a hit after the Super Bowl when Jared Allen and Charles Tillman retired and others such as Roman Harper and Cortland Finnegan were not re-signed.
By adding proven veterans Peppers, Adams and nickel back Captain Munnerlyn, the defense has a better mix of old and young.
“I think there’s something to be said for older guys on the team that understand what it takes to win and what it takes to study, especially when you have guys like (second-year corners) Daryl (Worley) and James (Bradberry),” Kuechly said. “You get some older guys in that room and it really helps those guys out.”
Ryan Kalil says he’s gotten past the “weird, awkward moments” of having his brother in the offensive huddle with him – a huddle that won’t include Newton until training camp.
Kalil compared this year to the 2011 lockout year when the then-rookie Newton didn’t have the benefit of OTAs, yet managed to break Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record.
Kalil should be full speed by the time camp rolls around, as will Kuechly, who’s been dealing with tightness in his lower back. The more concerning question involves Kuechly’s head, but he says he’s not going to be preoccupied by his previous concussions.
“Hopefully I don’t have to worry about that this year,” he said.
Kalil believes great teams are able to have “some of their star guys go out and new guys come in and keep it running.”
The key word there is “some.”
But every team has other guys they can’t afford to lose for any length of time.
Kuechly and Kalil are near the top of the Panthers’ list – for reasons related to tackling, blocking and leading.