Big body after big body fell for the Carolina Panthers in 2016, in what head coach Ron Rivera ultimately coined a “position catastrophe” for the offensive line.
Among the guys between the tackles, no position was more affected than center. Veteran Pro-Bowler Ryan Kalil, whom quarterback Cam Newton called “the middle linebacker of the offense,” tried to rehab a shoulder injury suffered halfway through the year but ended up on injured reserve and required surgery. Backup Gino Gradkowski hurt his knee shortly afterward, and joined Kalil on IR, and third-string center Tyler Larsen was pulled up to start in his place.
For a quarterback, getting accustomed to snaps from three different centers over the course of about three weeks was not easy.
But with Kalil back to set the line and snap to Newton, the rest of the line will have a much easier job than they did last season – and if everyone around Kalil can stay healthy, the spotlight will be off the injuries and on two truly talented guards.
Trai Turner, the former third-round pick out of LSU, is the best guard on the Panthers’ roster, and he might cash in big time after this season.
After 2016, Turner was listed as the starting right guard on USA Today’s “25 under 25” list, and, at 24 years old he has started every game the past two seasons, earning a pay bump under the NFL’s proven performance escalator clause.
Turner more than doubled his salary according to an earlier Observer report, from $690,000 to nearly $1.797 million, because the escalator rewards players drafted between the third and seventh rounds.
Still on his rookie deal, Turner has been quite a bargain for Carolina – especially in an inflated guard market. Turner is entering his contract year this fall, and according to an earlier Observer report, Turner’s representation has begun preliminary talks with the Panthers’ front office. The upcoming season is important for Turner, but he’s already earned a nice payday.
To be decided in camp ...
Kalil was still limited in organized team activities and during mandatory minicamp, so it will be interesting to watch how he handles being back in full contact at training camp. Newton is also rehabbing after spring surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and, if he stays on schedule, will be back to full participation by training camp. The quarterback and his veteran center need to get their rhythm back quickly, and Carolina’s defensive line will test them as they do so.
Underdog to watch
When Larsen had to come in at center for Gradkowski mid-Raiders game last season, expectations weren’t high. At that point, the Panthers were smack in the middle of their two-game, two-loss West-coast road trip and the “position catastrophe” was at its peak.
Larsen’s first full start came against the imposing Seattle Seahawks in front of a loud, hostile home crowd - and he went largely unnoticed, which is a good thing for a center. Newton was also not sacked for the first time that season.
Larsen finished the season well in spite of the circumstances on the line and could use that momentum to challenge Gradkowski in training camp for the No. 2 spot.
Also keep an eye on ...
Left guard Andrew Norwell has quietly become one of the best pulling guards in the NFL and finished the season ranked No. 4 overall in run-blocking by Pro Football Focus (No. 14 overall). His consistency was a bright spot for Carolina last season and will continue in 2017.
Three bold predictions
▪ Turner was a back-to-back Pro Bowl selection in the past two years, and another strong campaign gets him to three in a row.
▪ Rookie tackle Taylor Moton also played some right guard during spring workouts and minicamp. The Panthers will be confident enough in his ability by September to rotate him in for Turner should the latter need a breather.
▪ With the addition of running back Christian McCaffrey and the return to health of power back Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ talented, athletic guards should have no trouble helping Carolina get back among the top teams in the league in rushing yards in 2017.