Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Offensive line again home to biggest roster question of Panthers’ offseason

Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell has gone from undrafted free agent to one of the best at his position in the NFL – and possibly out of Carolina’s price range.
Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell has gone from undrafted free agent to one of the best at his position in the NFL – and possibly out of Carolina’s price range. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Analyzing the Carolina Panthers, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Up first: Offensive linemen.

Three things to know

▪  What to do about Andrew Norwell: Carolina has big decisions to make regarding its offensive line. After signing right guard Trai Turner to a four-year, $45 million extension and left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million deal last spring, the Panthers will likely be unable to give Norwell, an All-Pro left guard, the contract he deserves in free agency.

▪  Is there an heir? Carolina has two options at guard if Norwell walks: Tackle/guard Taylor Moton (who hardly played as a rookie in 2017 and only did so at tackle), and versatile backup center/guard Tyler Larsen.

▪  Retirement tour: Veteran Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil told the Observer last month that the 2018 season will be his last, after he missed most of 2017 with a serious neck injury.

On the roster

▪  Matt Kalil: Kalil had a rocky start to the 2017 season, his first year back after missing a year while healing a surgically-repaired hip. Kalil’s athleticism and potential are touted by coaches who are excited to see him continue to develop.

▪  Daryl Williams: Williams, the starting right tackle, had the best year of his career in 2017, earning second-team All-Pro honors.

▪  Norwell: Carolina will likely have to choose between doling out big money to either Norwell or defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Because they already spent on Turner and Kalil and likely will need to spend on more help at receiver for quarterback Cam Newton, it’s probable that Norwell will be the odd man out – a point of anguish for a fan base who has seen Norwell develop from an undrafted free agent to one of the best guards in the NFL.

▪  Also: Larsen would be a solid 2019 replacement for Kalil. But in 2018, he could make the switch from backup center to guard (he did so in practices near the end of the season when Turner and backup Amini Silatolu were banged up), should Kalil stay healthy. Carolina also signed third-string center Greg Van Roten in free agency last month as a part of the backup plan behind Kalil.

Free agent possibilities

▪  Nick Easton (Minnesota): Easton can play both guard and center. He isn’t one of the top-ranked free agents at either position but has potential and can provide valuable depth, so could be the affordable option the Panthers might prefer. Easton is a restricted free agent.

▪  Justin Pugh (New York Giants): Pugh can be great when he plays in his natural position on the interior. The cost of signing him might be too high.

▪  Jahri Evans (Green Bay): A veteran guard most recently with Green Bay, Evans is 35 years old. The upside to a short deal with Evans is that he’s an experienced option who won’t break the bank while Carolina develops a draft pick or younger player for the long term. Evans missed the final two games of 2017 with a knee injury and USA Today reported he is considering retirement.

Draft possibilities

▪  Will Hernandez: Hernandez, a UTEP product, is one of the top guard prospects in this draft class. At 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds, Hernandez could start as a rookie in the NFL.

▪  Quenton Nelson: Nelson, a Notre Dame product who is in the conversation with Hernandez as the best guard in the class, may not fall to Carolina at No. 24. If he does, the Panthers should draft him. He could be NFL-ready by the preseason.

▪  Billy Price: Carolina could find its next center with Price, a former Buckeye who can also play guard. Versatility is a quality the Panthers value in their linemen.

The bottom line

Carolina needs to shore up its line and may need a new starting left guard. The Panthers must also decide upon their next long-term center while Newton is in his prime. Expect this to happen both in free agency and the draft.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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