Louisiana State offensive tackle La’el Collins had some inside information on the Carolina Panthers before he came to Alabama for the Senior Bowl.
Collins, widely considered one of the best tackles in the 2015 NFL draft, is good friends with former LSU offensive lineman and Panthers’ 2014 third-round pick Trai Turner. They communicate about every other day either by text or phone, and Turner let Collins know there’s interest in him in Carolina.
“I haven’t (spoken to the Panthers), but Trai has told me that their offensive line coach has asked a lot about me,” Collins said Tuesday. “It’s another great opportunity.”
In his first day of practice with the South squad Tuesday, Collins showed he’s the top tackle at the Senior Bowl. Most of the top tackles in this year’s draft are, like last year, underclassmen. But Collins is certain to go in the first round.
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The Panthers, who are 25th in the draft order, need an offensive tackle after Byron Bell didn’t pan out. He’s an unrestricted free agent, and it’s unlikely he’ll compete for the spot if he does re-sign with Carolina.
Right tackle Mike Remmers did enough in the last half of the season to earn a chance to compete for the position in training camp, but he faltered in January and doesn’t have that position on lock.
That means Carolina will go into free agency and the draft with question marks on either side of the line. There aren’t many free-agent left tackles projected to be available come March 10 when the league year starts, and having a starting rookie to protect Cam Newton’s blindside isn’t in the team’s best interest.
But if the Panthers are looking for help in the draft, Collins should be at the top of their list.
“I feel like I can be a left tackle at the next level and I want to show teams that,” said Collins, who handled speed and power rushers better than any other tackle in Tuesday’s practice.
When healthy, Turner was one of the most consistent linemen for the Panthers. His late-season play at right guard elevated him into many all-rookie team discussions.
Collins referenced his LSU pedigree as proof of his future. The Tigers have churned out 18 draft picks the past two seasons and 35 in the past five years.
“It’s just the culture of where we come from,” Collins said. “You cut on any game in the NFL you see LSU guys all over the field. It just speaks for our program, the coaches, the strength coaches and everybody that helps us become the players that we are today. I think that speaks volumes.”
Colorado State’s Ty Sambrailo, who could be a second-round pick, worked exclusively at right tackle in Tuesday’s practice with the South team and struggled against speed rushers. Penn State’s Donovan Smith held up well at left tackle for the North.
Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings has come a long way from not even playing for Pitt as a defensive end two years ago to being an All-ACC selection at right tackle this year. But his experience at defensive end, a position where he was top-ranked in the country coming out of high school, has helped him on the other side of the line.
“I would think about some of the things I used to do as a defensive end,” Clemmings said. “I’d go through my thought process and how I’d try to beat a tackle or get into this gap or that gap. When I saw defensive ends and played against them, it took me back and that helped me a great deal.”
While Clemmings hoped to play on the left side of the line this week, he was exclusively at right tackle Tuesday and struggled against several rushers. He could see work on at left tackle on Wednesday.
As for Collins, there’s talk that he would play inside at guard in his first season, but his arm length of 33 1/4 inches suggests he should be outside. He weighed in at 308 pounds, which would make him one of the lightest left tackles in the league. He wants to keep his weight down in the pre-draft process so his numbers at the combine are better, but it’s likely the team that picks him will want him to add at least 10 pounds.
Could that team be the Panthers? Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman recently lamented the torn ACL of Texas A&M tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. The potential first-rounder’s injury means he slides down the draft board and the other top tackles move up a peg, meaning someone like Collins might not be around when the Panthers pick.
“Whoever gives me an opportunity first, I’ll roll with it,” Collins said. “I’d love to go play with Trai again. That’s my guy.
“You never know though. You don’t want to (fall down in the draft) but you never know after these workouts. I look forward to whoever gives me an opportunity.”