Carolina Panthers

NFL draft: With a weak tackle class, timing will be everything for Carolina Panthers

To get one of the NFL draft’s top tackles, such as Alabama’s Cam Robinson (74), the Carolina Panthers would likely have to trade back – and expose their nervousness about Michael Oher’s situation.
To get one of the NFL draft’s top tackles, such as Alabama’s Cam Robinson (74), the Carolina Panthers would likely have to trade back – and expose their nervousness about Michael Oher’s situation. AP

The Carolina Panthers have done everything right in free agency, and with four top-100 picks they’re in a great position in the draft.

Except part of that draft might hinge on one little question, regarding one large man.

The status of Carolina’s former starting left tackle, Michael Oher, remains unknown, although both head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman have expressed optimism that Oher will be ready for the 2017 season.

But if last year’s Rivera-described “position catastrophe” of offensive line injuries taught the franchise anything, it’s to prepare for the worst. Or at least, to keep stocking the line for the long term.

That leaves the fair assumption that the Panthers will draft a tackle this week, from a very weak class of offensive linemen. There isn’t a consensus top-10 or even top-15 tackle – and Gettleman has largely agreed with that sentiment.

He also was adamant at February’s Senior Bowl that he would not overdraft a tackle.

“I’ll tell you right now, if you overdraft a guy, you’re going to be upset,” he said. “The coaches are going to be upset. The team is going to be upset. Everybody’s going to be mad at the guy, and it’s not his fault. … No, he was a sixth round pick, and you took him the fourth round. That’s not his fault. ...

“I just will not reach. No matter how bad the perceived need is, I’m not going to reach.”

If the team does pull the trigger on top-of-the-class prospects such as Cam Robinson (whose off-the-field history would traditionally make the Panthers wary) or 25-year-old Garrett Bolles as early as No. 8, it would mean they are desperate about the Oher situation and uncomfortable with the replacements.

Squandering the opportunity for any of the game changers projected to go in the top-15 picks to trade back and snag a mediocre tackle would show they are in a panic about the depth, too.

But if they wait too long to pick up their tackle – through rich and tempting rounds of running backs, receivers and edge rushers – they might miss a steady backup altogether. Tackles such as Julie’n Davenport (Bucknell) and Antonio Garcia (Troy) may be available later but are definitely project pickups. Would the team need too much from them, too soon?

Michael Oher of the Carolina Panthers was a surprise player at practice on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. He talked with center Ryan Kalil, #67, who attended but only rode a stationery bike under the watchful eye of head trainer Ryan Vermillion. John D. Simmons

We know next to nothing concrete (read: from Oher himself) about Oher’s recovery from an over-six-month stint in the concussion protocol, which forced him to finish the season on injured reserve. Gettleman said in March that Oher had been working out in the Panthers’ weight room five times a week (while still in the protocol), but balked when asked last week whether Oher was present during optional team workouts.

“We’re in OTAs right now and it’s voluntary and I don’t take attendance, so I’m not going to reply to that,” said Gettleman, who added that his optimism level regarding Oher has not changed. Oher and sources close to the situation have not responded to requests for comment.

But the Panthers have made contingency plans. They signed former Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil to a $55.5 million deal in free agency – meaning Oher should shift to the right when healthy.

Daryl Williams, who was serviceable on the right when former backup right tackle Mike Remmers had to move left in Oher’s absence, would start if Oher is unable to play. But behind him there is only really one player with with game experience, Chris Scott, who seemingly backs up everyone.

Gettleman has implied he will not let a depth crisis like last season’s repeat itself.

But however things shake out, it’s a bad time to be recovering from a “position catastrophe,” and the Panthers must tread very carefully with their draft timing for whichever tackle they ultimately choose.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue