Carolina Panthers

Handicapping Carolina Panthers’ big need: Offensive tackles

Miami offensive lineman Ereck Flowers is an excellent run blocker, had a combine-best 37 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press, and could be available when the Carolina Panthers pick at No. 25.
Miami offensive lineman Ereck Flowers is an excellent run blocker, had a combine-best 37 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press, and could be available when the Carolina Panthers pick at No. 25. AP

With Byron Bell not returning to Carolina next season, the Panthers are in the market for offensive tackles.

General manager Dave Gettleman could secure a free agent when the market opens on March 10, but he might not stop there. With this year’s draft class loaded at tackle, Gettleman and the Panthers will have options when they select at No. 25 in April.

If the Panthers draft a tackle in the first round, they’ll do so with the belief that he can be a long-time starter on the left side of the line rather than just a right tackle.

“Can a left tackle come in and play? Sure they can,” Gettleman told the Observer last month at the Senior Bowl. “Just like quarterbacks or receivers. But it takes a mentally tough kid to come in and play now. And obviously having the skills.”

Here’s a look at who the Panthers could land at 25, who shouldn’t be there, and who the team should spend more time evaluating.

Likely gone by the 25th pick

▪  Stanford’s Andrus Peat: At 6-foot-7 he’d be one of the tallest tackles in the league, and the bulk of his 317-pound frame is in his lower body. He could be a top-10 pick.

▪  LSU’s La’el Collins: Has great upper-body strength that he used on some of the best pass rushers in the SEC. His relatively short, 331/4 inch arms will make teams want to move him inside to guard, but he’s a tackle.

▪  Iowa’s Brandon Scherff: A strong run blocker whose shorter arms, like Zach Martin last year, will have a team taking him early as a guard rather than later as a tackle.

Could be there at 25

▪  Miami’s Ereck Flowers: An excellent run blocker with the Hurricanes, Flowers is perhaps one of the most intriguing tackle prospects in the draft. He blew combine-goers away with 37 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, the most among all participants regardless of position.

Flowers had a bad game near the end of the season at Virginia. He said last week it was because he had trouble with the silent count at an away stadium, but he added later he believed he impressed the Panthers during their combine meeting with his football acumen.

Perhaps Flowers’ best tape came against Florida State in a close loss that saw the Hurricanes give up a big lead in the second half. He didn’t allow a sack or quarterback pressure in the game.

“That was a game coming down the season where we’re still fighting, so it’s always great playing Florida State,” Flowers said last week. “My favorite games are the big games, so I’m pretty excited and I enjoyed my years playing against Florida State. I wish we would’ve won, but those are the best games to play if you’re going to play in them.”

It’s always a good sign when players play up to their competition.

▪  Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi: Poised to be the top tackle taken in the draft in December, Ogbuehi tore his ACL in the Aggies’ bowl game and didn’t participate in any combine drills.

He’s the latest in a list of solid Texas A&M tackles, and he has plenty of great tape. But how well can a 306-pound man rebound from tearing a significant ligament in his knee? NFL teams are always cautious about that.

“I’m convinced I’ll be back by training camp,” said Ogbuehi, who’s not a man of many words. “ACL isn’t a life-or-death injury. You can come back next year; you’re full go again.”

Gettleman was aware of Ogbuehi before he did a deep dive into draft prospects. In January at his postseason press conference, Gettleman lamented Ogbuehi’s injury, which had just recently been revealed.

Yes, he’s banged up. And no, he won’t have much time to get his conditioning back before the start of the season. But here’s a guy who played a half gameof football with a torn ACL, who was a top-10 pick before the injury and who might be sitting there – injury and all – for the taking at 25.

▪  Florida State’s Cam Erving: Erving was robbed of 2014 tape at tackle because Florida State was in need of a center, but that’s not entirely bad.

Erving is the rare prospect who can play both tackle and center. Most linemen can either play guard and tackle or guard and center, but rarely can an outside guy go inside to center.

“Honestly, when I made the switch a lot of people asked me how I felt about it in terms of the NFL,” Erving said. “That wasn’t on my mind. I mean, I’ve always been the type of person that does what’s best for the team. When I moved from defense (after freshman season) that was what was best for the team. And that’s how I did. As far as moving from tackle to center it’s what the team needed at the time. So I did it.”

At 6-foot-5 with 341/4 inch arms, Erving has the length to be on the outside. He also has strength with his 30 bench reps.

If a team doesn’t scoop him up early as a center, he should stick around until the latter part of the first round as a tackle.

More evaluation needed

▪  Florida’s D.J. Humphries: A Charlotte native, Humphries shot up the draft boards after performing well at the combine at 307 pounds. But all of his game tape is with him around 280, and teams will have to take a closer look during private workouts and his pro day before deciding if he’s worth a first-round selection.

▪  Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings: He has the aggression of a guy who flipped over from defensive end two years ago, but does he have the talent to be an effective tackle at the next level? Clemmings played well for Pitt last season, but he struggled mightily at the Senior Bowl at both left and right tackle.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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